To Intervene or Not to Intervene?

China recently announced a defence budget of over US$100 billion as part of its continuing military modernization. Many observers outside China, including those from India, have concluded that this massive buildup indicates that China is intent on making war with its neighbours.

China’s intentions, however, are seldom as clear-cut as they are made out be. If anything, there is more debate than certainty in Beijing on how best to maximize Chinese influence and interests abroad.

This debate – confusion, even – about China’s optimum international role is probably best reflected in its policy on intervention in other countries. Respect for national sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries are strongly-held official principles of Chinese foreign policy. During the Maoist era, however, the Chinese actively supported insurgencies and revolutionary movements in different parts of the world, including in India, either in the interests of the communist revolution or in support of their national interests.

In the post-Mao era though, Chinese leaders largely stepped back from such provocations in obedience to Deng Xiaoping’s 24-character dictum that among other things, called for China to keep a low profile and to never seek leadership. This strategy which prioritized China’s economic growth was intended to help the country to first develop the national capacity required for it to be able to decisively influence international politics.

The 2008 economic crisis however, appeared to mark a change in the Chinese approach. Western economies were in doldrums and the United States did not appear to be doing too well in the management of the conflicts it had initiated in Iraq and in Afghanistan. Very soon, China with its enormous dollar reserves began to be seen as a saviour capable of bailing out Western economies. What is more, before long, this economic clout began to translate into Chinese political and military assertiveness globally.

Thus, in 2010, the Chinese upped the ante in maritime territorial disputes with Japan and several Southeast Asian neighbours. And in February 2011, China’s departed from its usual script of non-intervention and respect for national sovereignty at the UN by supporting the Security Council resolution against the Muammar Gaddafi regime in Libya.

But in February this year, China vetoed a proposal at the UN Security Council calling for intervention against the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, suggesting yet another shift in its positions.

There are several reasons that might explain the latest change in the Chinese government’s attitude. For one, Beijing seems to have misread Western intentions and capabilities in the wake of the economic crisis. Chinese aggressiveness in East Asia, for example, resulted in the United States’ ‘pivot’ back to Asia with support from China’s worried neighbours. Note therefore, that the Chinese are just as capable of making mistakes and miscalculations as the Americans or Indians are.

Related to this, are the debates within China on whether the country is truly ready to take up a more active political role internationally and whether in the rush to get involved, it might not end up damaging its long-term interests. Two debates in particular, stand out.

One relates to the Chinese government’s plans to bail out a few European governments in the current economic crisis. Chinese citizens have wondered why China, which is still a poor and developing country with enough problems of its own, must spend its hard-earned resources to support the better-off, more developed countries of Europe.

The other debate has been on China’s vote on Syria. In its desire to highlight its differences with the West on intervention and its independent role in global politics, Beijing has, at least some Chinese citizens have argued, ignored the Syrian government’s killing of its own people and disregarded universal values. In effect, ordinary Chinese have raised questions about the applicability of such rights and values within China. Foreign policy is thus, being shown up for its intimate linkages to domestic policies.

Notably, the Chinese government has sought to engage with debates on its global role in the form of editorials in official mouthpieces making the case for supporting European bailouts while opposing Western interventionism. This would also suggest that there is a greater degree of comfort in Beijing with active participation or intervention in regional and global economic affairs than on political issues for now.  This reflects also Beijing’s judgment on where it perceives its relative strengths in the international system to lie.

In an ‘election’ year in China, one can expect the debates to continue.

Originally published: Jabin T. Jacob,China’s policy dilemma: To intervene or not to intervene?,” DNA (Mumbai), 13 March 2012.

Published by Jabin T. Jacob

China analysis from an Indian perspective

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