Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Is China a realist power?

Is China a realist power?

Eurasia's arc of instability is ablaze. Robert Kagan rails against America's impotence. A cartoon depicts Uncle Sam as a hapless fireman, impotent in eastern Europe and the Middle East; others see America itself as the arsonist. Henry Kissinger launches yet another book warning of chaos amid interdependence. Anglosphere pundits wring their hands over the West's declining influence, the rekindling of ancient feuds and the emergence of illiberal powers who would overturn the current order.

Amid the turmoil, Barack Obama jokes that he envies Xi Jinping: 'can't we be a little bit more like China? Nobody ever seems to expect them to do anything when this stuff comes up.'

Obama's quip, which lit up the Chinese state media, raises a serious point: what does Beijing think about all these troubles?

David Shambaugh's dismissal of China as 'a partial power' has drawn an impressive response. This debate over Chinese foreign policy is well worth reading. Surveying the world's various problems, China may possess abundant material and suasive power, but chooses not to intervene for one or more reasons: principle, indifference, internal preoccupation, or a grander plan to sit out events and wait for the expedient moment to present itself.

China's low profile has been described as a 'calculative' strategy. Far from being pejorative, that term is used admiringly by realists. China is said to be the 'high church of realpolitik.' [fold]

Realism, the self-interested pursuit of maximal power and security, would explain China's stand-offish positions on Ukraine and Iraq. Beijing's policy environment is hard for outsiders to read, but the opinions that are visible suggest Chinese military solidarity with Russia and suspicion of American machinations in Ukraine are possible explanations. But that may just be the hawks squawking. What is officially stated is China's objection to sanctions on Russia, loudly announced when first-ranked Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli visited Russia's Rosneft oil company. Significantly, that same day Beijing signed up for a handsome stake in Rosneft's Vankor oil gusher, a concession to foreigners Putin has never before entertained, stating, 'but of course for our Chinese friends there are no restrictions.'

China wants the oil to keep flowing. Like in Iran and South Sudan, energy security appears high on its foreign policy priorities.

That is the case in Iraq too. Outwardly Beijing appears unconcerned about ISIS edging closer to its giant southern concessions. Perhaps it is confident others will act. There certainly is a strong feeling in China that Iraq is a mess made exclusively by Washington, and a reluctance to get involved. That would be understandable, yet the 'free rider' accusations have created contortions among those defending China's inaction. A Caixin column argues that China 'must advance its influence through the area of trade and economic ties. The Chinese perspective is that the cause of instability in Iraq is fundamentally an issue of the country's economic conditions.'

This is a 'vision of global responsibility which holds economic engagement as the top priority.' At the recent CICA summit in Shanghai, Xi Jinping extolled 'economic sustainable development (as) the premise of security and peace.' China's spectacular boom, the argument goes, has been beneficial for global poverty, and arguably for stability. So, put bluntly, China best helps the world by helping itself.

It's a self-serving truth, like when Washington avows that 'the US Navy protects the world's sea lanes for free trade.'

The bigger question is what happens when China's power outgrows its calculative strategy. At some point, clever and pragmatic might start to look cynical and amoral. It is often said that China didn't create the current global order and therefore is not beholden to it. That raises the obvious question of what system Beijing would prefer instead. As a  former Bush Administration official complains about China at the G20: 'They love to show up, but we're still waiting for their first idea.' He may not have to wait long. A new Chinese G20 think tank proclaims that 'China wishes to inject its wisdom and its ability into global management, especially reform of the international financial system. (We) made the fewest number of mistakes in financial management.'

Henry Kissinger's new book says America must stick to its values while reconciling with China and other powers to create a new world order. Whatever arrangement Kissinger has in mind (I haven't read his book yet) it presumably requires greater American consideration of China's realist interests. Beijing will not be the passive bystander Shambaugh sees today.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Prachatai

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