Beijing’s real international ambitions

China might be content with the slow decline of the US-led unipolar international system, but Beijing will continue to violently revolt against Asia’s territorial status quo.

According to Hans Morgenthau, one of the arch-realists of international relations theory, "International politics, like all politics, is a struggle for power".

Morgenthau thought that "the drives to live, to propagate, and to dominate" were inherent to human nature, and that nations were motivated by similarly elemental urges.

The often pitiless power politics of contemporary Asia seem to confirm Morgenthau’s grim prognosis.

Washington and Beijing are divided by bitter strategic distrust, China is attempting to bully its maritime neighbours with brinkmanship, and countries across the region are expanding their defence budgets and seeking security assurances from the United States.

With Beijing’s aggressive territorial claims in the East and South China Seas the driving force behind the resurgence of Realpolitik in Asia, political leaders and policy makers need to know just how far China will go.

Is speculation about Beijing turning the South and East China Seas into Chinese lakes and asserting hegemony over Asia irresponsible alarmism? Or will China’s foreign policy soon become truly "red in tooth and claw", as Morgenthau would have predicted?

First, the good news. China will not violently challenge the current US-led Asian order of free trade and freedom of navigation.

To be sure, since the time of Mao Zedong, China has railed against what it calls US ‘great-power chauvinism’ and ‘superpower hegemony’, and Beijing would still like to see the US unipolar international system replaced with a ‘multipolar world’.

But China is also careful to stress that while it would welcome the end of US pre-eminence, it does not want to become the region’s new hegemonic power. As Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi emphasised last year, China has "never had the strategic intention to … replace the United States for its position in the world".

Given Beijing’s concerted effort to rival the US navy in the Western Pacific, conciliatory remarks about China’s grand strategy could, of course, be disingenuous. However, Beijing knows that the benefits of usurping US leadership in Asia will be minimal.

China is likely to have the world’s largest nominal GDP by 2019 and largest defence budget by the 2030s. This rapid rise means that contrary to dire predictions of a clash between the United States and China over who leads Asia, it is not necessary for Beijing to directly challenge US pre-eminence to bring it to an end.

Ironically, as Beijing appreciates, the US-led Asian order secures the liberal economic conditions that will see China and other emerging nations peacefully surpass the US economically and militarily.

Now for the bad news. China might be content with the slow decline of the US-led unipolar international system, but Beijing will continue to violently revolt against Asia’s territorial status quo.

In 1982 during an address to a delegation of Indian academics, then paramount leader Deng Xiaoping famously summarised China’s approach to territorial disputes: "Even if the border question cannot be resolved for the time being, we can leave it as it is for a while. We still have many things to do in the fields of trade, the economy and culture and can still increase our exchanges so as to promote understanding and friendship between us."

Deng’s crucial caveat was that contentious territorial disputes will only be deferred for a while, meaning that eventually they will need to be resolved.

As China’s combative tactics in the East and South China Seas suggest, Beijing will reject any resolution that undermines its prospects of regaining what it considers to be lost Chinese territory. Foreign Minister Wang made this abundantly clear earlier this year: "There is no room for compromise in territorial and historical issues."

As with Beijing’s steadfast commitment to ‘reunifying’ Taiwan with the ‘motherland’, China may be willing to play a patient long game with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and with Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia over the roughly 90 per cent of the South China Sea that it claims.

But hopes of a mutually acceptable negotiated solution to these territorial disputes are illusory. As the economic and military asymmetry between the Chinese behemoth and its diminutive maritime neighbours grows, the temptation to create new ‘facts on the water’ by unilaterally seizing disputed territory will prove irresistible for Beijing.

China is a revisionist power: it wants the post-Cold War era of unipolar US leadership to end and it is intent on taking control of vast swathes of the Western Pacific.

But Beijing’s revisionism is cautious and considered. China will allow relative US decline to loosen the American grip on pre-eminence, and will only resort to foreign policy that is "red in tooth and claw" when maritime neighbours block its territorial aggrandisement.

Morgenthau was therefore half right: China will employ the traditional tactics of domineering power politics, but only when it cannot get what it wants by more enlightened means.

Dr Benjamin Herscovitch is a Beijing-based research fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies.