Over the last year, The Diplomat has been a true resource for those asking questions about American Grand Strategy — specifically, America's role in the world after its withdrawal from Iraq and soon Afghanistan.
Is America really pivoting to Asia or is Washington addicted to the Middle East? Can the United States forge a strong relationship with China devoid of conflict? Can a compromise be reached with Iran regarding its nuclear program?
While such questions are important, grand strategy is not just for the world's remaining superpower. Regional powers —especially those whose power and influence are on the rise— must also have some sort of overarching set of principles to guide their foreign policies over the long term.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
It is with this in mind that scholars should begin to pay serious attention to China's long term foreign policy goals or grand strategy —not only for the Asia-Pacific, but, increasingly, on a global level as well.
China certainly has a tremendous amount of flexibility and potential when it comes to shaping a grant strategy that could serve it well. There is however one simple goal that must be at the center of any Chinese grand strategy — the reduction of tensions between China and its neighbors.
Over the last several years, various tensions have arisen between Beijing and its neighbors. The list is long and familiar to readers of this publication, from tensions with Japan in the East China Sea, to standoffs in the South China Sea. Often times, these disputes mix with nationalism and history to create an especially toxic brew. The end result: nations across the region are developing advanced conventional military capabilities to defend their interests. And let's not forget America's pivot — while supposedly not aimed at Beijing — nations of the Asia-Pacific and the wider Indo-Pacific understand America's hedging strategy all too well.
I would argue China has a clear path towards a grand strategy that would allow its leaders to transition to a consumption-based economy, allowing it to pull millions more out of poverty and develop a sustainable future. This grand strategy would prioritize deemphasizing overlapping territorial claims in its relations with its neighbors in words and deeds.
Now, no one is saying China would need to relinquish its claims in the South China or East China Seas. However, Beijing must follow a two-pronged strategy in order to reduce tensions and refocus the conversation from China attempting to become a regional hegemon to one of it striving to be a true "responsible stakeholder."
First, China's media strategy must change. Beijing must demonstrate a slow and subtle shift away from grandiose statements or wishful claims to more "win-win" statements. For example, instead of making declarations to the press that this or that territory is a "core interest," Beijing could make statements saying something to the effect that it recognizes there are various claims to places like the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and that both parties must work together to find common ground. Removing the needless banter and well-worn nationalistic catch phrases could go a long way to forging stronger ties. An alternative or complimentary media strategy could also see Beijing declare an "economics first" strategy. China would promote in the press and across diplomatic channels the forging of deeper economic ties, and lessen talk of areas where tensions like territorial claims damage relations. Beijing's new thinking could be promoted as a way to develop confidence building measures in the hope that in the future, compromises could be reached.
But a change in tone is only a first step. An adjustment in actions is also needed. Sending non-naval maritime assets or troops near disputed territory is only counterproductive. Little can be gained by such moves especially compared to what could go wrong — an such as an accident like the 2001 Hainan Island incident that would massively inflame tensions and make matters far worse. China would do far better to wind down such actions across the Asia-Pacific and Indo-Pacific. This could be done quietly without fanfare. Sending assets to peruse territorial claims that could potential draw in the United States at a time when China's military is still developing is of dubious strategic value. There is no piece of disputed territory that is worth an accidental great power war. Period.
Simply stated, Chinese grand strategy at its core needs to change the conversation. Considering that Beijing is at the center of most territorial spats in the region, it must chart a new course and look to strategies that deemphasize such squabbles. Tensions in the region guided by overlapping claims absorb far more time and energy than they need to. The nations of the Asia-Pacific and wider Indo-Pacific have far too many pressing matters to address over the coming decades. Whether its climate change, economic development, natural resource challenges or issues concerning human rights, the docket the regions players must consider is quite full. Allowing domestic point scoring thanks to cheap nationalistic rhetoric on all sides can only make matters worse over the long term, and is counter to the region's long term interests — especially China’s.
Bearing in mind the geostrategic position Beijing finds itself in today, considerations of grand strategy are paramount to its role in global affairs, now and in the decades to come. China's new leadership must begin to chart a course that will create a more conducive climate for its continued economic growth, the survival of its leadership, and the promotion of viable "core interests."
To be clear, China must pursue its interests, but its interests are much greater than nationalistic claims over islands and territory of little strategic value. A change in tone as well as action is needed for China to pursue its larger goals. If Beijing is to become a global player and eventually a superpower, it must help foster a security environment in its home region that does not have the potential to explode into chaos. Anything less will constrain China's freedom of action and create a weak foundation for its rise to global prominence.