External balancing or alliance formation has been one of the pillars of realpolitik in interstate politics going back to Thucydides’ declaration that alliance formation was a leading indicator for the forthcoming war between Athens and Sparta in Classical Greece.
Recently the United States has intensified its external balancing behavior by reengaging with old friends in Asia-Pacific (Philippines, Japan, Korea) and looking to make new ones (Myanmar, India, Vietnam). The U.S. has sought to solidify its triangular alliance with Tokyo and Seoul while some strategic analysts and generals have even called for an Asiatic version of NATO as a strategic response to China’s increasing assertiveness.
Omnipotence post-WWII and post-Cold War, along with the ideological and pragmatic preeminence of the “liberal global order,” have endowed the United States with a global network of political and military alliances. It is in striking contrast with the recovering yet lonely “diva” like China.
Historically, before the concept of nations, China was an economic and military, soft and hard power center for eastern Asia. Whether seeking trade or in need of protection, countries gravitated towards China as part of the tributary system. Yet today China is a lonely power with a single ally: North Korea. After the original world revolutionary zeal of the 1950s and 60s and the alliance of necessity with Stalin’s Soviet Union, Beijing has followed a non-aligned trajectory, with strategic non-binding engagement on an ad hoc basis only, first with the U.S. against the Soviet Union and lately with Russia against the Western interventions or Pakistan against India.
However as the U.S. becomes more energetic in China’s close periphery and as China’s interests become global in nature, a heated new debate is taking place in Beijing. Yan Xuetong, an influential professor of international relations at Tsinghua University – and to some Americans a Chinese hawk – has argued strongly for a new alliance formation policy as a strategic priority for China’s foreign policy.
In a recent Global Times op-ed, Yan asserted that the non-alignment policy is seriously outdated, as the country’s strategic environment has been transformed and as China needs resources and unhindered global public goods. His argument is that China’s worldwide interests cannot be protected by rhetoric alone and thus Beijing needs to build a set of political, economic and military alliances or at least clearly rank friendly and unfriendly countries. As a big power, whether it wants to or not China impacts on its strategic environment as a star does in a planetary system, simply because of its mass. Beijing can choose to ignore the environment as it has done historically, or engage to protect its interests. The latter, Yan argues, points to the need to engage in big diplomacy and rank countries in four categories: Friendly, Cooperative, Ordinary and Conflictive. China should be exceptionally kind to weaker powers who are friendly, and also supportive of those who are cooperative. It should promote equality and mutual benefit for the “ordinary” countries and oppose the “conflictive” ones. It is not the first time Yan has called for a policy of alliances. Three years ago, Yan argued for an “all-weather strategic cooperative partnership” (quan tian hou zhan lue huo ban) as a new model of diplomatic engagement.
While such categorization might sound like common sense to the ears of international relation theorists, it remains controversial in China’s elite policy circles. The non-alignment policy has been holy writ for Chinese diplomats and strategists. To many it has been a major factor in China’s peaceful recovery.
Moreover, “alliance formations and strategizing” have not really been part of Chinese history. The Middle Kingdom never needed allies, for it was too big and honorable to accept a helping hand from a tributary state. Playing “barbarians” against each other and forming a tributary system was sufficient to enable prolonged periods of stability and allow art and civilization to flourish – at least up until the arrival of Western traders.
Yet, take a closer look and recent diplomacy does reveal a very subtle approach to alliance formations. It is self-evident that China has no military allies in the sense of “one for all and all for one,” yet it has begun to create a network of geo-economic alliances that in the era of globalization have real military and strategic implications, contributing substantially to its “latent power.”
At the spearhead of China’s “geo-economics” alliance stands not Russia but the European Union. The EU has been Beijing’s ultimate partner in technology and commerce. In 2013 China became the largest commercial partner of the EU’s eminent power – Germany – surpassing the United States. Initiatives with France, the U.K. and other EU member states attest to China’s “geo-economic” alliance with the EU.
To many analysts, such non-military alliances (one must also add China’s partnership with Africa) offer limited protection from U.S. strategic and military encirclement. In reality, though, they do protect China from Cold War-type containment and ensure a continuation of the economic growth that has been an indispensable factor in China’s rising National Comprehensive Power.
Even at the acme of the cold war, the United States could not deter the Soviet Union without the commitment of the European powers in NATO. France and Germany conformed to U.S. demands, motivated by the realization that numerous Soviet tank battalions could flood the continent. An explosive cocktail of geography and millenarian communism condemned Europe to a prolonged standoff.
Today, Europe simply does not perceive China as an existential military threat. Combine perception with a significant economic Eurasian engagement (New Silk Road), and the EU is strategically neutral between China and the United States. It is not, of course, ideological neutral. As the genitor of the “West,” Europe has certain values (democracy, free speech, individual rights) that it will not sacrifice, and given a Chinese tendency towards authoritarianism, Europe’s economic partnership and strategic neutrality is not guaranteed. This makes Chinese opening up and political liberalization (aka with Chinese characteristics) the safest strategy for a peaceful recovery and a harmonious world. That significant caveat aside, the EU today enjoys the position that the United States enjoyed when Germany balanced against the rest in WWI and WWII. Chinese strategists see this very well and thus play the game with a mature strategic elegance forged through centuries of practice. Without the EU on board, the United States lacks the resources and global outreach to fully contain China.
In a world of nuclear deterrence, where great powers play on a geo-economic chessboard, Yan’s strategic innovation of “all-weather strategic partnerships” that distinguish friends from enemies is a natural evolution of non-alignment. China can well survive on its own militarily and through nuclear MAD as long as it enjoys economic partnership with a technological and commercial giant like Europe. This surprisingly gives the EU an essential role in world peace and stability. The question is not China’s isolation but EU’s geo-economic friendship. Who could have guessed that 100 years after the Great War, it is Europe that for once more holds the stability of the world in it hands?
Vasilis Trigkas is a research assistant in Sino-EU affairs at the Chairman of Tsinghua University’s Social Sciences department. He is a Non-Resident WSD Handa fellow for the Pacific Forum CSIS. The views expressed in this piece are his own.