Over the past few years, China’s foreign policy has been a catalogue of errors. As the confidence of the Communist Party leadership has grown, so has its hubris and its assertiveness against international norms.
It has defied international law in the South China Sea, ignored the international treaty on Hong Kong – known as the Joint Declaration – defied universal standards of human rights in Xinjiang province and launched aggressive cyber offensive operations against Western countries, including Australia.
When, unsurprisingly, the West has complained about these breaches of international norms, the response has been a fusillade of personal abuse and denigration which has only made the situation worse – for China.
Then there was the handling of the COVID-19 outbreak. Given 6 million people are said to have died as a result of COVID-19, you would think the Chinese authorities would be keen to collaborate with the international community to establish the cause of the outbreak and to help ensure it never happens again.
Not a bit of it. China’s reaction has been obfuscation, cover-up and Keatingesque abuse of any critics.
One of the most counter-productive of all China’s foreign policy actions has been its economic attack on Australia. By introducing boycotts of imports of Australian coal and grains, it has caused power shortages and blackouts in Chinese cities and, having switched grain imports from Australia to Ukraine, will leave its people’s food security at risk.
The result of this strategy has been to isolate China. The country has inadvertently encouraged the consolidation of formal and informal liberal democratic alliances to balance its power and constrain its assertiveness.
China’s new foreign policy has another unfortunate and counter-productive characteristic: it has judged that its best interests are served by aligning itself with governments hostile to the West and the liberal democratic system.
Xi must hope we have short memories
On February 4, China’s Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a partnership agreement which they said would have “no limits”. They denounced the enlargement of NATO, the Winter Olympics were then held and, four days after the closing ceremony, Russia invaded Ukraine.
This has created an excruciating foreign policy contradiction for China. Since I can remember, the Chinese leadership has been proclaiming the doctrine of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries and asserting its support for the sovereignty of nations. It’s been a constant theme of China’s foreign policy, and it has repeatedly denounced military conflict, calling for talks and diplomatic solutions to disputes.
Xi must hope we have short memories. But he might like to recall that at the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Ukraine agreed to give up all its nuclear weapons capability, part of the deal was that three nuclear weapons states – the United States, Russia and the UK – all guaranteed Ukraine security through an agreement called the Budapest Memorandum.
Then in 2013, Xi signed an agreement with Ukraine asserting China’s support for Ukraine, acknowledging that it had given up nuclear weapons and implying that China would provide a nuclear umbrella for Ukraine.
At the time, this agreement was not seen as remarkable given China’s doctrine of non-interference and its support for peaceful negotiated solutions to disputes. It was, however, only the second time China had made an agreement to contribute to the security of another country (it has a security treaty with North Korea).
It’s worth quoting the words of the 2013 statement: “China pledges unconditionally not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear Ukraine, and under the conditions of Ukraine suffering an invasion using nuclear weapons or suffering the threat of such kind of invasion, to provide Ukraine with corresponding security guarantees.”
Xi was reported in China’s media at that time as saying: “China and Ukraine should firmly support each other on major issues concerning national sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity and the development path of their own choice.” That reads well today!
It might be that Xi remembers this historic occasion, and certainly plenty of Chinese diplomats will. That may explain why despite the February 4 agreement between Xi and Putin, China has been cautious in its public comments on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. What is more, Beijing has abstained in both the United Nations Security Council and General Assembly on resolutions condemning the Russian invasion.
China’s foreign policy planners might also be taking into account the consequences that have befallen Russia for its reckless invasion. The sanctions imposed will strangle the Russian economy, and politically Russia has become a pariah state.
In Zhongnanhai, where China’s leaders have their offices, officials may reflect on whether it is in China’s interests to escalate tensions dramatically with the West and many countries beyond by aligning closely with Russia’s deplorable act.
Would it really be in China’s interest to create a major Cold War aligning China and Russia against the United States, its allies and the liberal democratic world? How would China’s economy thrive in an environment where its international economic engagement was seriously curtailed?
And given China still suffers from a substantial technological deficit compared to the United States and Europe, and is therefore still dependent on Western technology, will alienating the West still further exacerbate this technological gap? And how will that enhance China’s security?
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has turned out to be a watershed moment for China’s foreign policy. The absurd wolf warrior diplomacy and constant denigration and attacks on the West and disregard for international norms of human rights and law have been bad enough over the past 10 years.
Adding to that support for Putin and a world in which decisions and disagreements are resolved through military force would render China’s foreign policy catastrophic.
Until a few years ago, China had a very smart foreign policy. It supported its own security, as every self-respecting country should, but it maintained an arm’s length from international conflicts, largely adhered to international law, denounced alliances of any kind as relics of the Cold War and pursued aggressive and effective economic diplomacy.
That foreign policy served China well under Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. It would be in China’s best interest to get back to that kind of diplomacy rather than being seen to align itself with a vicious and rogue leader such asPutin.