What Does China Want?7 min read

Mike Cormack reviews China’s World by Kerry Brown


With Xi Jinping making a bid for global preeminence and the effects of China’s foreign policies seen everywhere from Australia to Iran, the question “What Does China Want?” – the subtitle of Professor Kerry Brown’s new book, China’s World – has never been so pertinent. (The echo of Mark Leonard’s 2008 book What Does China Think? is instructive. The subject has changed from Chinese opinion and feeling to Chinese action and desires).

The very fact that this question is being asked in global capitals might give us pause. A highly-regarded China watcher, Professor Brown reminds us that just forty years ago, China had almost no interaction with the outside world, with very few foreign embassies and even less foreign travel. To go from that to becoming the biggest trading partner of almost every country in the world, with the largest proportion of foreign students in many countries, active in ASEAN and G20 not to mention its own Belt and Road strategy, is a remarkable journey. But the point, which Brown steadily keeps his eye on, is “Where does it go from here?”

Contemplating future actions is best done through assessing previous actions and current behaviors. As gauging China’s governing mindset and administrative methodologies is hard, if not impossible, in China’s highly opaque system, Brown wisely sticks to what China’s leadership does, rather than how it behaves internally. In China’s World, he discusses China’s foreign strategies through a series of zones of decreasing importance. The US is Zone 1; Asia is Zone 2; the European Union is Zone 3; and the rest of the world – divided here into Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and even the polar caps – is Zone 4.

First, however, he discusses the principles of Chinese foreign policy. To the West’s mild – even naïve – surprise, the Chinese government has been disinclined to follow the path laid out for it at the time of its membership of the World Trade Order in 1999. At the time, common wisdom held that engagement and economic development in China would lead to middle class ownership property, demand for say in its disposal and thus voice in government. Globally, too, China was encouraged to become a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system.

However, economic development and President Xi’s anti-corruption campaign have solidified popular support for the Communist Party. It’s thus Chinese citizens who have become “responsible stakeholders” in their own system of government, by which they have become ever wealthier as long as Party control goes unquestioned. China’s responsible role in the international system has not materialized, quite deliberately. That system remains stuck in the post-1945 settlement which saw the US controlling the IMF, NATO and the World Bank. China is unwilling to prop up a system which is now, under President Trump, visibly deteriorating, and in which China’s economic might and huge population share are poorly represented. Hence China’s moves to launch offsetting institutions and policies to rival existing institutions, from the Asian Investment Bank to the Belt and Road Initiative.

In each chapter on China’s foreign policy zones, Brown discusses the various areas important to China. For Zones 1 and 3 (the US and the EU), chapters are organized by theme, such as US insecurity, or mutual dependency and battles over values, markets and knowledge. For Zones 2 and 4 (Asia and the wider world), chapters are organized geographically. Brown shows how territorially, China is hemmed in on every side by US allies; diplomatically, it has few friends and none that reflect well on it (North Korea, of all countries, being closest); economically, its largesse is welcomed, but always with a lurking ambivalence about China’s motives. (China’s tin-eared insistence on using its own workers abroad and the onerous financial demands it places makes this a rational reaction).

Brown shows how the difficulty for China is that even though it talks the language of mutual benefits and “win-win” actions, and even though its efforts to build infrastructure and develop trade benefit many, few regard its motives as altruistic. There are good reasons for this. China likes to portray itself as benevolent despite having been victimized by rapacious foreigners, nonetheless extending the hand of friendship to all. Leadership, or hegemony, develops when there’s a sense of a shared future – of mutual interests being served by common policy. With China, its claim (and probable control) of the entirety of the South China Sea and its saber-rattling rhetoric towards India, Japan, Vietnam and even Australia and the US make it seem aggressively expansionist, a country whose talk of a new world order seems in order satisfy its own desires. Little wonder that few neighbors are enthused.

Yet China cannot be ignored, as its international presence becomes ever stronger. Its Belt and Road strategy is building infrastructure from Laos to Kazakhstan. Its students form the plurality of foreign students in many counties. Its imports fuel the economies of resource exporters from Australia to Venezuela. But more importantly, China has an urgent desire to ascend the technological chain, from manufacturing hub to expertise exporter. The involvement of the state-owned company China General Nuclear in constructing the British Hinkley Point nuclear power station may well be a turning point, where economic realities first overturned security anxieties.

But China isn’t randomly thrusting itself wherever it can. As Brown points out, China has smartly avoided unprofitable areas, such as the internecine Middle East, and it has little policy for Latin America beyond boilerplate formulations. The increase in Chinese influence is thus well chosen, picking up the slack where it can; there is never any sense of over-reach. This incrementalist expansion of reach and stature thus feels constantly backed by genuine hard power.

In its rise, China sees itself as merely returning to preeminence rather than overturning the natural order. This inevitably will lead to conflict with the leaders of the current order. Xi Jinping’s calls for “mutual respect” during Donald Trump’s visit to Beijing belie the truth that China’s assertions of equivalence and complementarity mask Beijing’s efforts to run the US out of what it considers its sphere of influence. But this isn’t uniquely Chinese perfidy. It is what great powers do, or try to do.

As an overview into the binds and struggles of Chinese foreign policy, China’s World is excellent. It is clear, well organized if perhaps slightly too schematic, detailed without being onerous, and sports an impressively broad understanding of a remarkably complex field. There might be quibbles about the zoning: Australia should get far more attention, as the leading Western-aligned nation drawn into China’s diplomatic and economic orbit. More could also be said about China’s shambolic soft power efforts, and a number of countries will disagree with China’s designation of some issues as being purely domestic, such as the status of Hong Kong and Taiwan.

This last point is crucial. When concluding the book, Brown suggests that if China becomes “a key shaper” of this century in ways that are “harmonious, consensual and supported by the rest of the world”, this would be a true victory for humanity. Perhaps so. But as China’s power surge suggests, in the current window afforded by Western foolishness and decline, it is less inclined to consider niceties. China’s 1985 treaty with the UK on Hong Kong has been contemptuously downgraded with Britain powerless to countermand Chinese actions, giving a clear indication of how Zhongnanhai behaves when unimpeded. The reality is that strength and power will continue to dictate international relations, as it always has. The rest of the world is on notice that China cannot, and will not, be ignored. ∎

Kerry Brown, China’s World: What Does China Want? (I.B. Tauris, November 2017)

Mike Cormack

Mike Cormack is a writer and editor most focusing on China, where he lived for seven years and edited the magazine Agenda Beijing. He lives in Aberdeen and is still happiest with his nose in a book. You can tweet him at @bucketoftongues.