Does China know what it’s doing?

How times change. Only a couple of years ago, China watchers were preoccupied with its ‘charm offensive’ as China’s policymakers worked overtime to assure traditionally nervous neighbours that its rise posed no threat. Now much of the region is having a collective attack of the vapours and looking to the US to make good on its promise to ‘rebalance’ toward Asia.

In diplomatic terms this looks like something of an own goal, and one that threatens to undermine China’s assiduously cultivated image as a source of regional economic dynamism and stability. Surely China’s policymakers are smarter than this?

This is a difficult question to answer for two reasons. First, it depends which ‘policymakers’ we’re talking about. Second, it depends on the time frame in which the effectiveness of policy is judged.

It is notoriously difficult to know exactly what drives foreign policy in China, especially when it comes to specific initiatives like the new Air Defense Identification Zone that has caused such uproar across the region. The International Crisis Group provided one of the best recent English language analyses of China’s foreign policymaking.

The key point that emerged from this study is that there are many influences on Chinese foreign policymaking, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the People’s Liberation Army, powerful state-owned corporations, provincial governments and, most importantly of all, the Politburo Standing Committee, chaired by Xi Jinping.

Given such a variety of influences and opinions, it is hardly surprising that foreign policy can be a bit unpredictable and ad hoc at times. There are, however, a few non-negotiable issues. Perceived threats to national sovereignty are taken especially seriously. China’s traumatic history at the hands of European and especially Japanese imperialists helps to explain such attitudes. Understandable as this preoccupation with national security and even dignity may be, however, is it becoming counter-productive?

Significantly, China has resolutely resisted having its territorial claims in the South China Sea adjudicated by an independent umpire. Neither the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea nor the ASEAN Regional Forum have proved capable of providing a diplomatic solution to the current impasse.

The principal source of the current friction is the territorial dispute with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. From a Chinese perspective, they do seem to have a point: the islands really are a lot closer to China than Japan. One can understand why China might see Japan’s ownership of the islands as an historical anomaly.

Unfortunately for China, the Philippines, Vietnam and others might make precisely the same point about China’s inherently implausible looking claims to most of the South China Sea. The Southeast Asian states would seem to have much stronger territorial claims than China in terms of sheer geography and natural justice.

Everyone recognises that the stakes are high in both the East China and the South China Sea disputes. Rich fishing grounds and massive potential reserves of oil and gas make these prizes worth contesting—perhaps even fighting for. The big unanswered question is whether China’s policymakers prefer to use coercion or diplomacy in attempting to resolve these disputes.

The great hope among many in the international and scholarly communities was that Chinese officials would be ‘socialised’ into the diplomatic ways of the West. At the height of the charm offensive when China was offering economic sweeteners to its neighbours in return for little more than their good opinion, it seemed as if multilateralism might, indeed, be working its magic.

Now this confidence looks misplaced. China’s increasingly assertive behaviour is a direct threat to regional stability. If the US and its pivot was to retain any credibility in the eyes of an unnerved region, it, had little option other than to respond to what could be read as a direct challenge to its influence and its alliance with Japan.

Perhaps China’s actions are part of a long-term strategy to push the US out of the region as many analysts fear. In the short-term, however, it looks likely to have precisely the opposite effect and confirm fears about China’s intentions.

What this suggests is that China’s foreign policy is a work in progress and its architects —whoever they may be, at times— are learning on the job. It is important to remember just how profoundly the entire country has changed in an unprecedentedly short period of time. Great power, like great humiliation, takes some getting used to. Missteps are always possible.

In a forthcoming book, Fujian Li and I argue that China’s policymakers are using the Asian region to test their evolving foreign policy options. The key question for its neighbors is about the lessons China’s leaders learn from these varied experiences. Diplomacy and multilateral engagement plainly have enhanced China’s position, especially in Central Asia where they are clearly regional leaders.

In East Asia, by contrast, the danger is that some in China will think that an increasingly aggressive attitude pays dividends. Persuading China’s notoriously prickly and nationalistic leaders that this is not the case is the big challenge for countries like Australia whose economic and strategic future is so dependent on the Middle Kingdom.