Enabling the Dragon: China’s Foreign Policy between Thucydides and Sun Tzu

Chinese FM Wang Yi outlined the three main foundations for China’s new age foreign policy. Behind the traditional aesthetically sophisticated formulas one can see a pure case of Thucydidian realism.

On March 8 Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi gave his first major press conference against the background of the ongoing session of the National People’s Congress. More than 500 journalists listened to the FM for 95 minutes, but it was the very last statement that deserves the most attention. Wang outlined the three main foundations for China’s new age foreign policy and behind the traditional aesthetically sophisticated formulas one can see a pure case of Thucydidian realism.

When asked about a personal vision of Chinese foreign policy, Wang Yi said the three requirements for Chinese diplomacy are “confidence,” “backbone,” and “generosity.” Each of these concepts is tied up with confidence and pride in China’s power: “Confidence comes from the strength and prosperity of our motherland … The backbone comes from our national pride … Generosity comes from the self-confidence of an old civilization.” (quoting The Diplomat here).

The statement itself is quite characteristic of Chinese official rhetoric. A sophisticated metaphoric reminder of China’s national supremacy backed by “5,000 years of uninterrupted civilizational prosperity” is supposed to serve as a basis for a relaxed and powerful international stance. Then Wang posits that Beijing pursues “major-country diplomacy with Chinese characteristic”. Now that’s when I got the itch — a feeling that something sounds very familiar. Oh, there it is — if we substitute “major-country diplomacy” with a synonymous “great-power politics” we get a classic notion from political realism. Great power — small power is something purely realistic and it seems the Chinese are well aware of that.

Now for the “generosity”. When Thucydides outlined the basics of political realism in his History of the Peloponnesian War he made international relations look like a world of cynicism, state-scale egoism and unchallenged domination of pure national interest. These circumstances seemingly leave no room for goodwill, except for one manifestation — restraint in power excercise. Essentially it means denying the “just-because-I-can” logic, often characteristic of authoritarian leaders in internal policy.

That is why Chinese political “generosity” can be seen as a form of commitment to restraint in power use over smaller states of the world and the Asia Pacific. Surprisingly, this blatantly Western concept has a lot in common with the traditional Chinese approach to regional countries. Unlike the Westphalian system where formally equal states do not enjoy real-life equality, the Chinese-centered world order assumes a formal hierarchy (with China at the top of it, naturally). Such a vertical structure though, does not mean that the hegemon exploits the “small ones” as much as he likes, but rather leaves them quite enough room for maneuver.

A classic example is the traditional Chinese regional dominance of the pre-colonial era, when Southeast Asian states paid tribute to the Emperor, but the reciprocal “thank-for-your-loyalty” gift was often larger than the tribute itself. Even Sun Tzu’s Art of War offers a tactic of warfare which includes very little actual fighting. War is expensive and modern China simply cannot afford a shock of any kind in order for the CCP to stay in power. That is why one may argue that this “powerful restraint” is something modern China needs to excercise and will probably do so.

I would even dare to assume that the best way to deal with Beijing is to indulge its feeling of “greatness” thus enabling the Dragons complacency. Making China feel secure and unchallenged is the best way to safeguard stability in the Asia Pacific and it is very reassuring that Beijing itself does not mind declaring this openly.

Anton Tsvetov is a media and government relations manager at the Russian International Affairs Council.

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