Features | Politics | East Asia

China’s Dictator Complex

Chinese policymakers are often assumed to be the archetypal practitioners of realpolitik. But their coddling of dictators is counter-productive.

The conventional wisdom about China’s foreign policy in the post-Mao era is that Beijing is the world’s quintessential practitioner of realpolitik – it pursues its national interests without ideological biases.

But the portrayal of Beijing as a non-ideological pragmatist in international affairs is at odds with its policy and behaviour toward some of the world’s worst dictatorships. For example, China maintained its support for Slobodan Milosevic’s regime almost until the very end of his rule. In Africa, China stuck by Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, inviting him to visit Beijing even when he was an international pariah.  Of Latin American leaders, the mandarins in Beijing seem to have taken a particular liking to Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, a dictator in all but name.

China’s dictator complex was on full display during the Arab Spring. Around the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime in February, the official Chinese media consistently cast Egypt’s anti-Mubarak forces as mobs who would do nothing but cause chaos. The Chinese handling of the recent collapse of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime was egregiously inept. Beijing not only received a high-level representative of the doomed Gaddafi regime in June – its arms manufacturers were trying to sell $200 million worth of weapons to Gaddafi’s forces in July, in violation of a UN Security Council resolution forbidding arms sales to Libya.

What does this dictator complex tell us about Chinese foreign policy?

The most obvious answer is that, instead of being non-ideological, Chinese foreign policy actually is quite ideological.  As can be seen from recent events, even in situations where supporting dictatorships hurts Chinese interests, Beijing has chosen to side with these international outcasts. This ideological bias stems from the nature of China’s domestic political regime – a one-party state. The ruling Chinese Communist Party believes that its greatest ideological threat is posed by the liberal democracies in the West. Even as China benefits from the West-led international economic system, the Communist Party has never let down its guard against the democratic West.

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A foreign policy corollary of this belief is that China needs allies – particularly of the authoritarian variety – in the developing world to counter the West. Dictators are easier to deal with, from Beijing’s point of view, simply because China knows very well how to do business with rulers unconstrained by the rule of law, civil society, and opposition parties. The fact that such dictators are ostracized by the international community is, then, no cause for concern. On the contrary, their isolation makes them all the more dependent on China.

The trouble with such thinking is that it isn’t true because coddling dictators hasn’t actually served Chinese interests.

Isolated dictators may be weak, but they are tough customers and troublemakers. North Korea is perhaps the best example. The Kim Jong-il regime, the most isolated in the world, has given his Chinese patrons enormous grief over his nuclear programme and aggression against South Korea. Gaddafi, while in power, repeatedly blocked the Chinese state-owned oil giant, CNPC, from purchasing oil assets in Libya. Gaddafi committed the ultimate sin against China by hosting the Taiwanese president, an ardent pro-independence advocate, in 2006.  China may keep scores against its enemies, but apparently cuts its autocratic clients plenty of slack.

Dictators are also poor assets to invest in for China.  From Beijing’s perch, such dictators may seem secure in their power. However, because of endemic corruption, brutal oppression, and lack of support within their societies, dictatorships are notoriously unstable and often implode without warning, as the Arab Spring shows. Beijing’s hopes that long-term relations with dictators are possible and productive are naïve and ignore the serious downside risks should its clients fall.

From a purely realpolitik perspective, Chinese fears of new democracies in developing countries are grossly exaggerated. Most new democracies are no stooges of the West. In fact, their foreign policy has been exceptionally pragmatic. Take Brazil and Indonesia, for example. Both are success stories in making the transition from dictatorship to democracy. Both have shown strong independence in their foreign policy. Both enjoy good relations with China.

At the same time, some of the autocratic regimes surrounding China will pose the most serious threats to Chinese security. Russia is one possibility. The authoritarian Vladimir Putin regime not only distrusts China, but has taken steps to harm China’s national and energy security. It has repeatedly failed to honour its pledge to increase its energy exports to China and has sold Vietnam advanced jetfighters and submarines that can be deployed against the Chinese military in a potential conflict in the South China Sea. Vietnam, another one-party dictatorship, is most likely to get into a fire fight with China over territorial disputes in the South China Sea. As for North Korea, its Beijing-fed ruling elites, whenever possible, barely conceal their hostility to their patrons and, during the now-defunct Six Party Talks, repeatedly betrayed and embarrassed Beijing with their double-dealing and duplicity.

So China should drop its dictator complex. If allowed to continue to influence Chinese foreign policy, this complex will needlessly set China up for confrontations with the democratic West, waste its precious diplomatic and economic resources, and undermine China’s own national interests.