Money, Might and Mindset: China’s Self-centred Global Ambition

To run a truly global foreign policy, the ultimate challenge for China is winning hearts and minds rather than showering renminbi.

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Beijing hosted the China International Import Expo this month. Photo: Getty Images.

Beijing hosted the China International Import Expo this month. Photo: Getty Images.

Forty years since beginning to open up to the world, China now faces a fresh set of foreign policy challenges. One of these will be developing a global foreign policy and responding to concerns in regions that are historically little known in China but will affect and be affected by the country’s economic growth. In order to improve its global diplomacy, China needs to draw on policies that go beyond the simple purposes of securing China’s own economic interests.

The Middle Kingdom projects its power and secures its national interests in three ways: exercising might, spending money and expressing its own mindset. Each of these relates to one another, and each has somewhat inhibited China’s pursuit of international order in its own vision.

In terms of might, China’s sheer size and self-perception of its own interests will inevitably lead to expectations that the rules of international politics will change around China, even without President Xi in power. Deng Xiaoping’s approach — to ‘keep a low profile’ and ‘hide capability’ — is being replaced by Xi’s much more proactive approach, which seeks to promote China’s core interests more forcefully while asserting its ‘rightful’ place in the global order. Whether China’s bureaucracy and government are yet fully equipped with the skills to meet the new challenges remains to be seen.

The domestic politics of China and the interest of the Chinese Communist Party do not always correspond to China’s global ambition, and sometimes even contradict one another. Its own astronomical economic growth has produced vested interest groups that refuse to give up their power and authority which — together with extreme wealth inequality and severe environmental damage — could challenge the very survival of the party leadership.

Bureaucracies in Beijing and the provinces are fundamentally rooted in a Sino-centric approach to the world. Driven chiefly by inward-looking impulses and intended primarily to meet pressing domestic needs, it is almost impossible for various ministries to see China’s national interests the same way or to speak with one voice. These differences confuse outsiders as well as many Chinese people.

In terms of money, China’s extensive practice of flexing its economic power to gain political clout globally seems to win some friends, but serious backlashes have caused more troubles. Beijing must be fully aware that it should not treat emerging economies and great powers as merely financial vehicles to advance China’s economic benefit. If China continues to do so, building resentments will erode its path to becoming a true global power.

In terms of mindset, China clearly does not share the same values and ideologies which the current world order is based upon. Instead, Beijing has forcefully promoted its world view through exercising might and spending money both at home and abroad.

A dangerous mixture of China’s historical humiliation and its staggering economic success has bred a strong sense of complacency on one level and an equally powerful current of hubris on another. As Xi moves to shape China in his image, the lack of institutional constraints inside power corridors in Beijing creates a danger.

Leadership by central control has not had an illustrious history. This could turn out to be lethal inside China as well as detrimental to other countries.

Judged by the increasing strong rhetoric from the rest of the world, China’s might and money have spread more fear than admiration. This too easily plays into developing fears in liberal democracies, as pundits and politicians increasingly blame China for global problems.

Instead, the Chinese leadership must be cautious to not to become too self-centred, and to retain a keen interest in what their partners want or fear from their interactions with China. President Xi should not forget that any successful cooperation led by China, while clearly dependent on Chinese objectives and actions, is also dependent on how others perceive these objectives and how they act on these perceptions.