Tripping Over a Me-First Foreign Policy

Odd Arne Westad argues that China’s foreign policy has become counterproductively aggressive in its narrow pursuit of immediate national interests, and that a more persuasive approach would serve the country and region better in the long run.

China’s more assertive foreign policy over the last two years has played a key role in getting two arch-conservatives — Japan’s Shinzo Abe and South Korea’s Park Geun-hye — elected to lead their respective countries. Some Chinese observers believe that Abe and Park will be forced by China’s inexorable rise to come to terms with their giant neighbor. Don’t count on it. To much of its region, China’s behavior as it is coming of age as a modern superpower is eerily reminiscent of its past policy as a regional hegemon.

For a very long time, imperial China dominated its wider region. The Chinese imperial court considered itself the indispensable center of a regional order in which China had the right and the duty to set international norms and standards, and to intervene if these were broken. It was an ideological system in which Chinese principles had to be the starting point for all things.

[…] China needs to learn from its past that a good foreign policy must be more than only seeking what is best for one’s country to the detriment of others. It is rather to seek to create a region, and eventually a world, where as many as possible believe that China’s rise can also be to their own advantage.

The Council on Foreign Relations’ Scott A. Snyder, on the other hand, suggests that Park’s election might actually offer an opportunity for a fresh start in Sino-South Korean relations. At Bloomberg last October, Pankaj Mishra examined the argument that neighboring countries’ historical experience has left them well equipped to deal with a resurgent China.

At Foreign Policy, meanwhile, Stephen M. Walt summarizes his arguments from a recent Harvard-Peking University joint conference on Sino-U.S. relations, arguing that both China and the United States should exercise restraint in the pursuit of their respective strategic goals.

[…] If Chinese leaders are consistently smart, judicious, farsighted, clear-eyed, and wise, and if their American counterparts consistently exhibit similar qualities, then the two governments may be able to manage their future relations without serious trouble. But the history of both countries suggests that there is very little chance that these idyllic circumstances will prevail every year for the next several decades. Sooner or later, we are bound to get a cadre of foolish, impetuous, or incompetent leaders in one capital or the other, or maybe even both at the same time. If “wise leadership” is the prerequisite for managing Sino-American rivalry over the long haul, in short, history suggests one ought to worry. A lot.

The bottom line is that Washington and Beijing have an obvious interest in taking steps now that might make their relationship easier to manage in the future. In particular, establishing rules of the road for naval activity (similar to the earlier Incidents at Sea agreement) might reduce the danger of an unintended clash on the high seas. Reaching an understanding on the use of unmanned drones or cyberattacks would help too. Military-to-military contacts and other forms of elite exchange would be a good idea as well, so that elites in both societies know the people with whom they are dealing personally and are less likely to misread or misinterpret what they may do while in official positions. None of these steps makes rivalry disappear, but together they could help keep it from boiling over.

And that just might be the greatest contribution that these two states could make to international peace and security over the next 25 years.