The Platform


What kind of foreign power does China want to be? Much of the world just doesn’t know yet.

Following the 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in late October, President Xi Jinping was re-elected for an unprecedented third term as General Secretary. Institutionally, Xi managed to fully consolidate power by removing all “non-loyalists.”

In the composition of the Politburo Standing Committee, which consists of 6 seats, Xi included all his trusted sycophants and removed any individual who had links with his predecessors, Hu Jintao, and Jiang Zemin. This further indicates that Xi does not tolerate factionalism in his government.

One of the most interesting points in the gathering was the mention of the word “security” 91 times. Xi’s word for security is not only limited to the meaning of defense but includes the economic sector.

Regarding Xi Jinping’s foreign policy, he seems to be maintaining his big ambitions through an “assertive” attitude towards the South China Sea and Taiwan. Xi even publicly stated that China would be more assertive militarily if necessary.

Graham Allison considers the situation that has occurred between China and the U.S. a repetition of history as in the days of Athens and Sparta. China, with its ambition to become an economic and military superpower, brings it into inevitable competition with the U.S., which wants to maintain the status quo. In other words, a Thucydides Trap. Allison explains that in the last 500 years, there were 16 powers that have risen and 12 of them were ended through war.

In Allison’s words: “[Thucydides] Trap refers to the natural, inevitable discombobulation that occurs when a rising power threatens to displace a ruling power…[and] when a rising power threatens to displace a ruling power, the resulting structural stress makes a violent clash the rule, not the exception.”

China has changed its defense strategy, from initially being solely defensive to being both defensive and offensive.

Changes in defense strategy greatly affect China’s defense budget. According to a report by the China Power Project, in the past 20 years, China has spent $3.1 billion on its defense sector. China’s defense budget is on par with Australia, Taiwan, India, Japan, South Korea, and a number of other countries in the Indo-Pacific region. However, these figures are debatable given China’s tendency to be less than transparent. The U.S. Department of Defense reports that China’s military is twice as large as official figures.

China’s military was strengthened by the announcement of a military modernization program in 2017. Xi Jinping announced that this program was aimed at “fighting and winning wars against powerful enemies” through reforms and purchasing and arming one million active troops. The program goes hand in hand with Xi’s desire to expand China’s military reach through the opening of its first military base in Djibouti. Xi plans to expand to Bangladesh, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Kenya, Seychelles, Tanzania, Tajikistan, and Myanmar. And since 2013, China has successfully built numerous outposts on manmade islands in the South China Sea.

The direction of China’s foreign policy is actually easy to understand. Since the reign of Mao Zedong, China’s foreign policy principles have undergone significant changes. Entering the Deng Xiaoping era, China tried to position itself with the narrative of “peaceful awakening,” that is, China’s rise is not a threat to the world. This principle was maintained until Hu Jintao.

Some China watchers believe that China does not yet want to become a hegemonic superpower that wants to replace the U.S. Oriana Skylar Mastro, Assistant Professor of Security Studies at Georgetown University, stated that “I don’t think China, the party, currently has a global ambition in the military sense.”

Although this statement implies that China will not carry out aggressive maneuvers, China’s activities in the region, especially in the South China Sea, show the exact opposite. China regularly and systematically exerts pressure through military exercises in Taiwanese territory. At the beginning of this year, China flew dozens of aircraft into Taiwanese airspace. China wants to demonstrate that Taiwan’s position is tenuous at best and if China chose to, it could successfully invade and occupy Taiwan.

China’s most pragmatic actions have been in the South China Sea, particularly with Southeast Asian countries. China is trying to embrace the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) by providing large amounts of investment and carrying out economic integration by joining the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). However, at the same time, China continues to defend its claims in the South China Sea by building military bases and conducting patrols with its warships.

The rise of China cannot be equated with the Cold War context. Kurt Campbell and Jake Sullivan, in an article in Foreign Affairs, argue: “China today is a peer competitor that is more formidable economically, more diplomatically sophisticated, and more flexible ideologically than the Soviet Union ever was.”

China seems to be trying to make the South China Sea its backyard, trying to spread its socialist ideology, and declaring that the world will be better off if it works together with China.

Gufron Gozali is a junior research assistant from the Islamic University of Indonesia, whose research focuses on the United States and the Middle East.