2 October 2019
Yesterday, China held one of its biggest ever military parades to celebrate seventy years of Communist Party rule. But the showcase of its latest weaponry and growing military power will do little to ease global anxieties about the uses for which that hardware is intended. This is largely because the role that China wants to carve out on the international stage remains ambiguous. China’s foreign policy often seems to be guided by a crude calculation of commercial benefit, and this can lead to contradictory positions that only fuel confusion about its objectives.
A good example of this unfolded late last month, when a defence official in Tehran revealed that China planned to hold joint naval exercises with Iran and Russia. This was just as the United States was considering a military strike on Iran, following a drone attack on Saudi oil facilities allegedly orchestrated by Tehran. The announcement from Tehran raised the spectre of China taking on the US-led coalition that is due to patrol the Strait of Hormuz, and which includes Australia. Yet it quickly became clear that Beijing had no intention of taking on the coalition and had been drawn, perhaps somewhat unwittingly, into the stand-off between Iran and the United States. In China, the local media made no mention of the naval exercises with Iran and Russia, and a foreign ministry spokesperson claimed to have no knowledge of them.
The incident did not highlight Chinese adventurousness, but rather its willingness to cultivate ties with all governments and regimes, including dictatorships. It signals a foreign policy that is often guided less by communism or traditional Chinese values than by economic pragmatism. This leads to strategic moves that can appear to lack values, morality or principles, but it can also result in China avoiding picking sides in conflicts or picking all sides at once.
For instance, after the oil facility attacks in Saudi Arabia, Xi Jinping phoned Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to condemn the incident and call for an investigation. And China’s growing ties to Iran have occurred alongside a quickly developing relationship with Israel, a country that Iran says it hopes to see destroyed.
As China has grown, it has tried to avoid stoking tensions that might threaten the flow of goods that has enabled its rise. It will do trade with almost anyone. Its entities often breach international sanctions, but it is not always clear whether such cheating is done with the approval of Beijing or only by local authorities. And when China issues aid or loans, it tends to do so without strings attached – an approach that has endeared it to recipients.
China’s pragmatism is also evident in the way it handles its role on the United Nations Security Council, a forum where it has long been ranked as a global power. For decades, China used its veto power in the Council to block sanctions against countries such as North Korea, Iran, Sudan and Myanmar, saying it did not want to interfere with their sovereignty. But since the 2000s this has changed. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, China supported 182 of 190 sanctions-related resolutions passed by the Security Council from 2000 to 2018. While it may not have led the push for these sanctions, it has supported international cooperation above its policy of non-intervention.
The broader question is how China’s approach will change as it continues to grow. Though wary of military engagement, Beijing appears increasingly willing to test Washington. It recently hosted Taliban negotiators after the Taliban’s peace talks with the United States collapsed. And, defying US efforts to impose pressure on Iran to curb its nuclear program, China remains one of the last major importers of Iranian crude oil. It has backed Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro, despite the country’s descent into chaos, apparently due to both a commitment to non-interference and as a way to continue accessing Venezuelan oil.
Outside of immediate interests such as the status of Taiwan, it does not appear that China is about to directly confront the United States or Australia, in the Middle East or elsewhere. The main audience for the Beijing parade was domestic. But its non-confrontational approach may evolve along with its hardware. It may find that it has less to lose from confrontation if it can engineer the result.