China’s rational mix of hard and soft power
China’s 15th peacekeeping multifunctional engineer detachment recently erected its 134th boundary marker along the Blue Line, the disputed and highly militarized border separating Lebanon and Israel, a record for the military contingent serving the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon.
In another development, Beijing’s 25th convoy fleet rescued a Tuvalu-registered ship and a Panamanian vessel from pirate attacks in the Gulf of Aden last month.
The recent actions by Chinese peacekeepers and sailors in Lebanon and the Arabian Sea came just as the Asian giant launched its first home-built aircraft carrier and successfully tested its large AG600 amphibious aircraft.
China’s muscle-flexing in East Asia and its soft-power engagement outside the Pacific region may appear conflicting, but the reality is that Beijing has managed to achieve a rational allocation of its military strength. While the Chinese dragon is aggressive in its “near-abroad,” it is able to play the role of responsible stakeholder in troubled regions of Africa and the Middle East.
Cannons, ships and peacekeepers
The Chinese naval reinforcement is part of a broader military effort that includes enhanced coastal missile defense, island-building in the South China Sea and relative militarization of that territory. China’s new aircraft carrier looks similar to the Liaoning, its only other flattop, which Beijing purchased from Ukraine in 1998 and commissioned in 2012 after extensive renovation.
China’s AG600, said to be the world’s largest seaplane, will be deployed in the East and South China Seas, where Chinese territorial claims are challenged by a number of neighbors, as well as by the United States.
Regarding its soft-power commitments, China has 2,510 peacekeepers on the ground at the moment. This makes it the 12th-largest supplier of troops to UN peacekeeping forces; Beijing is also the second-largest financial contributor – behind the US – to UN humanitarian missions.
Further, the People’s Liberation Army Navy has escorted more than 6,000 ships and freed or assisted more than 60 vessels – often in coordination with other nations’ navies – since the start of its anti-piracy mission in the waters off Somalia in 2008, according to Chinese media reports.
China’s “dual foreign policy” is working well. On the one hand, it has deterred the geopolitical ambitions of neighbors and limited US military projection from the Strait of Malacca to the Korean Peninsula. On the other, it has instilled in the majority of foreign interlocutors a sense of trust in Beijing’s international stabilizing influence.
There is no doubt that Chinese money has largely influenced this dynamic. In particular, China is using “One Belt, One Road,” its grandiose project to improve infrastructure connectivity across Eurasia, as a catalyst for economic and diplomatic interdependence from the western Pacific to the eastern Atlantic and, accordingly, as a tool of dissuasion against potential rivals.
Balancing values and interests
In this context, China is in a far more comfortable position than the US. Beijing is not a global enforcer like Washington and does not have to harmonize democratic values with security-focused policies in its foreign actions.
When the US won the Spanish-American War in 1898, putting an end to Spain’s colonial rule in East Asia and the Caribbean, it consolidated dominance over the American hemisphere and, more importantly, became a Pacific power. That first step toward future global supremacy, however, created a permanent tension in US foreign policy between democracy and liberty on the one side and empire and security on the other.
Now, more than ever, the US is struggling to strike the right balance between democratic principles and security interests when it comes to its foreign conduct. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently told his diplomats that political values would have to be subordinate to national security. This line possibly marks a shift in American foreign policy tradition, which has always tried to find a compromise between principles and interests when they differ.
China, for its part, must balance nationalistic sentiment with pragmatic actions. Its mix of military assertiveness in East Asia and multilateral security involvement away from that region is proving a correct solution to hold all Chinese interests together, provided that Beijing keeps the financial tap open for its foreign clients.