Popular opinion believes that as economic growth continues, confidence driven by nationalism also rises in emerging powers. China is no exception. Analysts had observed a more confident China not only from its foreign policy but also from its comprehensive involvement in various international institutions, not to mention China’s firm position in its territorial disputes with neighboring countries. However, that does not mean that China has become a truly powerful and extraordinarily confident state that can always act according to its will. The truth is that China has been carefully walking the line among contemporary great powers in the world, particularly in its relations with the United States. China’s confidence has remained relatively limited and cautious.
Although economic growth may have provided China a certain degree of confidence in its international behaviors, rational self-perception has always played a role in Beijing’s domestic and foreign policies. For each of China’s great achievements in recent years, there seems to be a counterargument: political unity and stability vs. central-local and factional divergences; social harmony vs. social unrest; economic achievements vs. widening income disparity; and rising status in the international community vs. intensifying disputes (especially territorial ones) with neighboring countries. This list of domestic issues may partially explain China’s negative reaction toward the proposal of “G-2” a few years ago when China became the world’s second largest economy.
In international and regional affairs, China prefers a path of cautious confidence. For example, it abstained from the Crimea referendum in the UN, which was taken as a victory by the West. Although Beijing has many domestic concerns to consider, a rough comparison of recent foreign behaviors by Moscow and Beijing indicates that China has been far more cautious than Russia regarding its relations with the West and especially the United States. On a grand strategic level, Beijing’s reaction to Washington’s Asia policy, which has inevitably been regarded by Beijing more or less as a policy of containment, has interestingly been to suggest a “new type of great power relations” rather than a more hardline or hawkish reaction.
Could Chinese President Xi Jinping act more like his Russian counterpart regarding issues that are critically important to China’s so-called “core interests?” In general, the world’s second largest economy has been acting quite cautiously, even though its confidence has been growing in recent years. The announcement of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea showed China’s increasing dissatisfaction with the long-standing regional order under U.S. leadership. Yet even the ADIZ was still a sort of reactive assertiveness, coming primarily in response to Japan’s previous nationalization of the disputed islands. For China, a peaceful solution is still its top priority.
What’s more, Beijing has to face a more complicated regional situation in the “Rimland” (the East Asian coast) than Moscow has to cope with to defend its strategic interests in the “Heartland” (including Ukraine/Crimea). By getting the upper hand in the Crimea crisis, Russia not only secured its energy route from the North to the South, but also further secured a port for its Black Sea Fleet. China inevitably finds its security situation more complex in the “Rimland,” where the United States obviously has the upper hand, particularly through its alliance building and the maintenance of island chains in East Asia. Thus China’s response has necessarily been more cautious.