For years, the term “China’s rise” has provided a useful shorthand for conveying the arc of China’s recent history: its ascent from poor and powerless victim to wealthy, formidable, and proud global power; from bit player on the world stage to one of the more prominent lead actors.
Whatever the history and politics of the term, the fact is that it no longer captures or conveys the reality of China today. To put it bluntly, China is no longer rising – it has risen. No matter the metric – GDP, technological innovation, regional and global influence – China is at or near the top of the global league tables. It is no longer a global power-in-the-making. Instead, it is a power whose time has come.
This begs the question, now that China has arrived, how should it conduct itself on the world stage? Or, in somewhat more technical terms, what grand strategy should it adopt to advance and defend its national interests in a world order defined in large part by a risen China and a still-hegemonic United States?
During China’s rise, of course, this question was answered by Deng Xiaoping’s “24-Character Strategy”: “Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.” But this was a strategy designed to create a political space within which China could rise without triggering an adverse reaction from the United States. That time has passed. The challenge facing the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) fifth generation leadership today is how to wield China’s newfound power to secure and advance the interests of a revenant China – and to do so in a world still dominated by a United States that is, at best, a “frenemy.”
China’s Options for a Grand Strategy
Both history and theory must have suggested several possible answers to these questions to the CCP leadership. It is more than just conceivable, for example, that some among what David Shambaugh has called the “nativist” school would have considered a strategy of isolationism. The nativist school has in recent decades advocated a policy separateness and unilateral freedom of action. Based on both historical and Marxist narratives, its members have argued that China should never have opened its doors to the world in the first place, for that opening allowed unwelcome Western influences to return, and should never have enmeshed itself in an irredeemably exploitative capitalist world order, for that threatened to undo Mao’s anti-capitalist revolution. Hyper-nationalistic and staunchly anti-American, the nativist camp would certainly have pressed for an isolationist and unilateralist “China First” strategy. No strategic partnership with the United States, no entangling alliances with states or global institutions, and definitely no managing a declining American world order or launching a Chinese one in its place.
A second answer to the question of what grand strategy is appropriate to a risen China is “regional hegemony.” Such a strategy would have appealed to the “Asia First” school of Chinese international relations, a group of scholars and officials that argues that the focus of China’s diplomacy should be on its immediate periphery, and slightly more ambitiously on its East Asian neighborhood. This school believes that if China’s neighborhood is not stable, or is dominated by hostile powers, China’s economic development and national security will be threatened. Therefore, it advocates robust efforts – multilateral if possible, unilateral if necessary – to maintain the integrity of the regional map as China has drawn it and shape the Indo-Pacific regional order more broadly. It is a strategy that insists that China, like every great power, must protect its own “backyard,” even if that backyard is shaped by the United States’ new obsession with the “Indo-Pacific” concept.
Third, China’s meteoric rise, whose terminal point was not at all clear when Xi advanced his “China Dream” in 2012, created at least the possibility of pursuing a grand strategy of global empire. This has given rise to what I will call the “Middle Kingdom” school. Like the nativists, this school is deeply rooted in the belief that China is the heir to a millennium-old civilization that until the 16th century was the dominant economic, military, and diplomatic power in its world. They differ from the nativists, however, in that they see today’s China as being in a position to reclaim its natural place as the Middle Kingdom, to return China to its natural position at the center of its world order — only this time at the center of a world order that is truly planetary in scale. Members of this school believe that the American-led post-war order is in its death throes and that this is both a threat and an opportunity. It is a threat in that it carries the frightening prospect of severe political and economic turbulence that will have deleterious effects on China and the CCP. It is perceived as an opportunity in that it creates an opening for the CCP to build a new world order – one reflecting Chinese Communist Party interests, values, and norms – that will ultimately benefit China just as the old liberal order benefited the United States.
And that leaves us with the final strategic option, the one that seems to have decisively carried the day among the Chinese foreign policy establishment over the last few years: offshore balancing. The DNA of this strategy can be found in the Chinese tradition of international thought first codified by Sun Tzu in the 6th century BCE. Like Western realism, this tradition emphasizes the corruption of humanity, the conflictual nature of all human affairs, the struggle for power and security, and the imperative of military self-reliance in an imperfect and always dangerous world. Also like realism, the Sun Tzuian approach argues that the goal of grand strategy should be to create and maintain a balance of power among the great powers – a balance that is dominated by no one state and that acts to short-circuit the efforts of any aspiring hegemon to achieve predominance. In such a system, states must continually take steps to maintain the balance – that is, to resist the hegemonic moves of any of their number and to restore any power that temporarily achieves hegemony to the ranks of unexceptional or ordinary great powers.
One way to do this is to adopt a strategy in which a great power uses favored regional powers to check the rise of potentially hostile powers to regional or global predominance. While this can entail formal or informal alliances, prepositioning of equipment, and similar cooperative measures, it does not entail the permanent basing of large numbers of troops in that region. Indeed, that is its defining characteristic. Offshore balancing involves eschewing onshore deployments of military forces in favor of offshore positioning of assets that can be used to intervene as and when the regional balance is threatened. Traditionally, the strategy calls for such states to maintain a rough balance of power in the world’s three key geopolitical regions: Europe, the Middle East, and Northeast Asia. In the Chinese case today, it also entails seeking a rough balance of power in the “regions” of space, cyberspace, international institutions. Also in the Chinese case, offshore balancing is not merely about maintaining a balance of power. It is about maintaining a balance favorable to Chinese interests. Among other things, this means a balance that is not favorable to the United States.
Offshore Balancing in Action: The Middle East
What is the evidence that Beijing has adopted a grand strategy of offshore balancing with Chinese characteristics? Space limitations preclude a comprehensive survey of how China’s offshore balancing strategy has begun to manifest itself. Instead, let me offer a snapshot of this strategy as it is playing out in one of the key geographical regions offshore balancers worry about: the Middle East.
The existing balance of power in the Middle East, itself of relatively recent vintage, is one that favors the United States. On the one hand, there is the revisionist power and aspiring regional hegemon, Iran. Driven by both fear and the desire to export its revolution, Iran’s grand strategic objective is to impose a Shia-dominated, Iran-centered order on the entire region. So far, it has drawn into its orbit several factions in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon – all of which share to varying degrees either the Islamic Republic’s fears or its aspirations. Among other things, a successful Iranian bid for regional hegemony would entail Tehran’s control of the flow of Middle Eastern oil, the creation of an even larger jumping-off point for the further export of Iran’s revolution, and of course, the elimination of the Jewish state. On the other hand, there is a Saudi-led bloc comprising the Kingdom; most of the Gulf States; elements within Iraq, Syria, and Yemen; Egypt; Jordan; and, yes, Israel. Driven by various overlapping fears and aspirations, this bloc seeks to stymie Tehran, ensure the continuing free flow of oil out of the region, and secure some configuration of Israel as part of a region with settled borders. While Russia and Turkey have played bit parts in Syria, to date, the only major external power to intervene continuously and significantly in this region has been the United States. Driven by the same concerns as the Saudi bloc, Washington has consistently sided with, and provided leadership to, the anti-Iranian coalition.
Enter China. Reflecting, I believe, a crystallization of China’s version of offshore balancing, Beijing has entered into an unprecedented strategic relationship Tehran. The predicates for this new strategic approach to the region were laid over the past few years: development of China’s maritime strategic infrastructure (the “string of pearls”) linking the Chinese mainland to Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, multiple port visits to Iran by the PLA Navy, and economic investment over the past decade. However, these initiatives were artifacts more of Deng Xiaoping’s “24-Character Strategy” than Xi’s offshore balancing strategy. What has changed now is the purpose to which all these assets and investments are being put to use. For Beijing, the balance of power now trumps the balance of payments.
The terms of the new Sino-Iranian comprehensive 25-year strategic partnership agreement have not yet been fully finalized. However, early indications are that China would expand its investment in Iran’s banking and telecommunications sectors as well as railways, ports, and other infrastructure projects in exchange for heavily discounted oil. But that is just the economic dimension. On the military front, the proposal commits both parties to joint training and exercises, joint research and weapons development, and intelligence sharing. It also proposes Chinese investment in two port facilities in Iran, along the coast of the Sea of Oman, which would add to China’s ever-expanding maritime infrastructure.
This transactional dimension to the new Sino-Iranian partnership, however, is only the tip of the iceberg. At a deeper level, the new relationship constitutes a profound challenge to the regional order that has emerged over the past few decades, partly due to U.S. strategy and partly as a function of the vicissitudes of regional politics. While periodically placed under stress by Iranian initiatives, Russian mischief, and Israeli domestic politics, this order has proven not only to be stable but stable in a way broadly favorable to American interests.
China’s insertion of itself into the equation has, by design, begun to undermine all this. If handled well by Beijing and clumsily by Washington, the consummation of the Sino-Iranian partnership is likely to set in motion a chain of events that will overturn the current regional order at the expense of the Saudi-centered, Israeli-anchored, and American-backed regional coalition that partly constitutes that order. Successful or not, however, China’s attempt to create such a strategic partnership tells us all we need to know about the new strategic vision guiding its foreign policy.
Andrew Latham is a professor of political science at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota.