One of the stranger aspects of the Syrian crisis was how little we saw China throughout it. Granted, China did strongly oppose any Western intervention into the country (though that hardly mattered thanks to the guaranteed Russian veto) and stood by Syria when it was required to do so, but otherwise, China played so inconsequential a role that at best it could be considered a junior partner in this endeavour. Considering that this is a country whose power is often mentioned in the same breath as that of the United States, this absence from the great power politics surrounding the Syrian crisis is most telling, especially since this not the only evidence of Chinese passivity in foreign policy. For example, despite its heavy reliance on oil from the Persian Gulf and its well-publicised investments in East Africa, China’s actual involvement in the Indian Ocean has remained almost entirely commercial, with concerns about them developing a “String of Pearls” encasing the region in bases still largely confined to the minds of Indian and American strategists.[1] Indeed, it seems that unless you are Japan or have a claim in the South China Sea, China’s willingness to engage in the politics that has often defined the great powers of the last two hundred years tends to be wanting. As for why this is the case, the answer lies in part with their history, both real and imagined.

Image courtesy of John French, ©, 2005

Image courtesy of John French, ©, 2005

While I do not subscribe to the idea that China’s Imperial foreign policy was pacifistic in character, it is indisputable that passivity was one of the defining traits in China’s pre-modern history, even if in practice that was not always the case. For China, military conquest of non-Chinese peoples was often undesirable, with China instead preferring to use what we now call soft power to achieve its objectives. Cultural diffusion, clever diplomacy, and commerce were all tools that Chinese emperors used to advance their foreign policies. Thus, China saw itself more as a “Middle Kingdom” that stood as an example for barbarians to follow rather than as an empire that sought to conquer. Of course, this self-image was not entirely accurate; China has a rich history of military conquest and subjugation of foreign peoples, particularly in the Central Asian steppe as well as Tibet. However, this self-image as a benevolent commercial and diplomatic partner retained an enormous influence in Chinese foreign policy going into Mao’s era.

The rise of Mao Zedong’s People’s Republic only served to modernise this well-worn trope. Set down by Zhou Enlai at the Bandung conference in 1955, the new China espoused principles of non-aggression and respect for sovereignty that in many ways served as a response against the colonialism that had defined the last century of Chinese history.[2] Instead of a Middle Kingdom, China was now part of a larger anti-imperialist cause and as a result, China would never partake in the aggressive conflicts that defined much of the period. Again, this was not entirely what happened. China went on to support countless revolutionary movements throughout the developing world and also used aggressive military action to great effect against India in 1962 and Vietnam in 1979. However in spite of this, the idea of China as a non-interventionist power retained traction within the Communist Party and since China’s last war in 1979, Party leaders have done their best to stay as close to these principles as possible. Despite the fact that China has developed a world-class economy with growing military power and clout on the international stage, China in many ways still behaves as if it were the same besieged isolationist power it was 40 years ago. This seeming contrast between capability and belief is all the more amusing when one realises that this is strikingly similar to the dilemma faced by American leaders at the beginning of the 20th century.

Of course, in China’s case, this contrast is not entirely irrational. While the country’s internal problems have a tendency to be exaggerated, China nonetheless faces domestic issues that far outstrip anything found in the West in terms of danger to the state and to the long term unity of the nation. With growth slowing, China is facing a period of structural transformation of its economic system, a painful process that will likely involve a strengthening of its currency and boosting consumer spending.[3] Combined with on-going political unrest among ethnic minorities and an increasingly aware mainstream public, it is becoming clear that now may not be the best time for China to go on the offensive with its foreign policy. Thus, while China’s passivity may seem unusual to a casual observer, China’s determination to hold on to a seemingly outdated foreign policy does make sense in a domestic context.

However, this attitude will not come without cost. China’s low profile has allowed Russia to become increasingly proactive in its foreign policy, with the country serving in its old role as a counterweight to the United States. While playing second fiddle to Russia has served China well on the Syrian issue, this constant deferment to what is in every measurable sense a weaker power will likely chafe at China, especially given that Russia’s clout is slated to weaken over the coming decades. Likewise, Syria has shown that America is becoming reluctant to partake in new foreign entanglements, raising the spectre of a gradual American decline. Faced with an enthusiastic, but weakening Russia and an increasingly overstretched America, China will probably be forced to make a choice in the near future. It can choose to continue the comforting fiction that it is just another regional power with some say in the world order or it can choose to accept the role of a world power and all the responsibilities and costs that such status entails. Like America, this choice will likely be forced upon them and also like America; there is a good chance that China will say no the first time. Regardless of how that choice ends up playing out, one thing is clear, while China may not awaken onto the foreign policy scene just yet, a more vigorous and assertive China is still on the horizon and the West had best figure out what that means before the choice is made for us.

[1] “Don’t Worry About China’s String of Pearls… Yet.” The Diplomat. July 9, 2013.

[2] “Bandung Conference.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica Inc. 2013.  Web. 22 Sep. 2013.

[3] “Li Keqiang: China Economy at Crucial Stage.” BBC News. September 11, 2013.