Since the 1950s, China has followed five principles in its foreign policy: mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence.
In contrast to the US, China’s foreign policy has been dominated by a non-alliance principle and focusing on domestic development. Taking into account the modesty of the country’s soft and hard power before the turn of the millennium, this approach is understandable and China would probably not have been capable of more (the goals of its foreign policy have until today mostly been determined by the needs of the domestic economic situation). For this reason, China’s official position has been to emphasise the need for peaceful negotiation in various disputes and crises, showing support for avoiding the use of military force and abstaining from UN votes—whether in the case of the war in Iran and Iraq or the recent crisis in Ukraine. But China’s economic, military and soft power has reached a level that has made the country’s political leaders and analysts change their mind and demand a modernisation of its foreign policy. There are already signs of China backing out of the non-interference policy and perhaps this is the right time to ask if China’s policy of non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs is coming to an end, especially in the light of the reappearance of the Silk Road project. Ever more vocal analysts, opinion leaders and academics have begun to appear in China, calling for a change in the obsolete principles of the current foreign policy. This is mainly because China has become a great power and, with that, the country’s needs and obligations have changed. A good example is Yan Xuetong, a foreign policy expert at Tsinghua University, who has suggested that China should give up its non-alliance policy and come to terms with the fact that the growth of power also means interfering in other countries’ internal affairs (which China has already been doing for thousands of years in the natural course of events). He claims that the world is no longer centred around the US and, as a result of polarisation, a new great power has arisen that has the ability to draw other countries to it. That power is China. He does not agree that China has no friends, and mentions the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (whose members are China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) and countries like Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. China’s neighbours have been through plenty of changes since 2012, when Yan actively discussed these topics and China’s new president came to power (it is possible that contemporary events in Sri Lanka and Myanmar, which did not have a positive effect on China, supported the idea of creating alliances), but the idea that China is a great power and must act accordingly has been “bought” by government leaders.
China’s growing investments all over the world have already caused it to interfere in other countries’ internal affairs. Mediating in negotiations between the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan, peacekeeping operations in Sudan (which China requested from the UN), evacuation from Yemen and the fight against SARS are all signs of China making the protection of its people and investments in foreign countries a higher priority, and this is no longer a choice but an obligation to the people and (state-owned) companies. Chinese analysts have begun to use expressions like “constructive interference” and “creative interference” to describe the new reality and are talking of an approach which is a combination of non-interference and conditional interference. The concept of non-interference is becoming outdated and it is possible that president Xi Jiping will, in the light of the country’s growing military power, leave it behind in the 20th century. The priority of China’s army is to protect the recently defined interests of China and its citizens in foreign countries. In addition, China’s navy must raise its ability to extend its power, and not only focus on the protection of coastal areas as in the past. There are also talks about establishing a military base in Africa (which would be smaller than those of many other countries, but would have symbolic significance). The “Going Out” policy raised during the leadership of Jiang Zemin, which demanded and supported the increase of Chinese commercial investment in foreign countries in order to acquire resources, has also been fruitful. China’s outward investments have started to exceed inward and, according to a recent study, China could become the world’s largest foreign investor by the end of this decade, due to a likely tripling of China’s foreign assets.
The Communist Party set out the Silk Road project as its focus for 2015 and probably another 10–30 years, which would make China’s influence in and dependence on its surrounding countries even stronger. The Silk Road idea has been brought up in various forms before and there has been talk about its economic benefits, but the plan is being considered more seriously today than ever before, because of China’s outdated economic model, the growth of the country’s economic, military and soft power, and the changed security environment. Although details of the plan are probably not yet clear even to the people involved, the “One Belt, One Road” strategy, brought up again in 2013, should account for more than 40% of the world’s GDP, over 70% of known energy reserves and 65% of the world’s population. The goal is to develop economic cooperation with the countries included in the plan, lower trade barriers, increase China’s foreign investments, ensure energy cooperation and energy supply to China, direct domestic production capacity outside the country, and increase efficiency. As part of the initiative, which is sometimes called China’s Marshall Plan, investments will be made in infrastructure projects, the energy sector, banking services and the IT sector, and new developments will be made in free trade zones, ports and commercial centres.
The project should involve countries from Central Asia, ASEAN, Africa and Europe and regions that need investment for development. This fits perfectly with China’s cooling economy and deficient domestic demand, currency reserves that are in need of placement and the export of huge domestic production surpluses. A good example of this is Pakistan, where there are plans to invest over US$46 billion in the energy sector, transport, ports and fibre optics. Memorandums have also been signed with Kazakhstan, Russia and Hungary to combine their investments with China’s Silk Road project, and a large number of China’s state-owned companies have already included the plan in their future activities. It is expected that in the years to come China will make investments amounting to more than US$300 billion, not including private investments or “policy banks”. There are people who believe that the Silk Road project will mean huge changes in China’s international role and a final shift away from Deng Xiaoping’s policy of “hide your strength, bide your time”. Through this, the country would take a more active role in shaping the world’s economic landscape, take on more responsibilities in offering public goods, and increase the role of developing countries in international organisations. A concrete example of this is the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which many European countries joined and could be considered one of China’s recent PR victories. It also helps to dispel people’s fears about Chinese investment.
Within the framework of the Silk Road project, China will send its capital, expertise and workers into regions where countries such as Russia, Japan and the US currently have significantly greater military presence and influence, and for that reason could be considered to be regions of geopolitical power struggle. Taking into account that China has to face huge risks—different standards of living, unstable and different political systems, alternating regimes, pending investment protection agreements, cultural differences and religious preferences—which could threaten the making, protection and completion of investments, many Chinese analysts question its economic wisdom. China has already had negative experiences carrying out its long-term investment plans, since, for example, its investments in Sri Lanka and Myanmar have been negatively affected as a result of the changed political situation in those countries. Greece has also become an interesting situation, having been, in the form of the Port of Piraeus, almost a strategic model and a gateway to Europe, but the threat of a “Grexit” from the eurozone has ignited a discussion about the potential need for China’s interference.
In the context of the Silk Road project it is clear that, taking into account the threats to the success and usefulness of the investments, they defy logic at the micro level. China puts its somewhat limited resources into risky projects, while there are sectors at home in need of finance and reform, and the dependence of China’s infrastructure on investment is already too high and the rate of return low. Zhang Ming, director of the Finance and Trade Economics Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, says that directing domestic overproduction (cement, metal products) into Silk Road countries also contradicts China’s plans for restructuring the economy, allowing it to rely on the same old economic model, and is rather similar to the investment package launched after the financial crisis, which only postponed the problem. On a macro level, the investments make more economic sense, connecting China to surrounding countries, making them more dependent on China (and vice versa) over the long term and turning China into a regional economic centre. Although it is possible that China’s soft power will increase, many authors think that the biggest risk is a growing negative view towards China, which has occurred in many countries before. It is easy for China to remain passive because of the risks, and it is necessary to use both the soft power and the political power of the country in order not to let this happen. China’s political leadership is trying to manage these risks, but it is difficult to view the whole project as merely seeking investment income at the micro level, and the political and security dimension must have an important role in the Silk Road plan. That is why many Chinese analysts have recognised that diplomacy, the fight against terrorism, and ensuring open transport routes must go hand in hand with the project, and that it is a strategy (and no longer an economic initiative) to increase China’s influence on its periphery. It must be added that China is simultaneously preparing an anti-terrorism law, which is intended to enhance security mostly in those territories of China that border Central Asia and justify the fight against terrorism also outside Chinese borders.
In the light of projecting soft power, there will probably be talk in the future about the project being an economic initiative, and messages about China’s peaceful rise, harmonious society and win-win partnerships will be emphasised. Representatives of the Chinese government have announced that the current plan should bring about shared development in regions with different ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds by striving towards shared goals and benefits. Taking into account that more and more problems are occurring in parts of China bordered by Central Asia exactly for the aforementioned reasons, security should play a key role in the Silk Road plan just as much as the goal to smooth out all the differences. The US military’s refocus on Asia, combined with the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, which does not involve China, and the formation of close relations with countries surrounding China, could make the Silk Road project look like China’s response to US actions—increasing its military power while also building economic and cultural coherence with its neighbours. This is why it is not surprising that China has become closer to Russia (the latter playing along is very important in the execution of the Silk Road project, despite conflicting goals) or that more and more Central Asian security issues have arisen in the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.
Whether the Silk Road project is economic or political (or both), China’s involvement in the affairs of its surrounding countries is growing. Although it is not likely that China will give up the wording of its non-interference and non-alliance policy any time soon, its contents are increasingly being questioned. China has accepted that it must act like a great power and it is likely that “voices” calling for interference in other countries’ internal affairs will receive a greater hearing. The country is being forced to find answers to the questions of how to protect its investments, people and interests in regions where they are, or might end up being, in danger. With greater dependence, there will be fewer choices, and China’s non-interference foreign policy may no longer conform to reality.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.