The 2008 Beijing Olympics – implications for Chinese foreign and security policy?

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Camilla T. N. Soerensen PhD Fellow, Department of Political Science, University of Copenhagen ([email protected])

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The 2008 Beijing Olympics has intensified the difficult dilemma confronting the Chinese leaders in conducting foreign and security policy and has furthermore highlighted how closely connected Chinese domestic politics and Chinese foreign and security policy have become. However, whether the 2008 Beijing Olympics has had or will have direct implications for the development in Chinese foreign and security policy remains questionable.

Following China’s strengthened international economic, political and military position, the Chinese leaders have increasingly come to confront a difficult dilemma in conducting foreign and security policy. Narrow national interests in ensuring the necessary inputs in order to maintain a high economic growth and safeguarding the traditional principles of sovereignty and non-intervention increasingly conflict with broader national interests in promoting the image of China as a responsible and constructive great power and ensuring pragmatic and stable relations with the other great powers, especially the U.S. In relation to the broader national interests in promoting the image of China as a responsible and constructive great power and ensuring pragmatic and stable relations with the other great powers, the Chinese leaders are increasingly confronted with stronger international attention and strengthened external demands on how China must act in relation to different international questions and conflicts. Such international attention and external demands are difficult to handle for the Chinese leaders also in relation to the domestic context, where the Chinese society is characterised by growing popular nationalist pride and expectations. In such a domestic context, the Chinese leaders cannot risk appearing too soft and as bowing to external pressures and demands, but must seek to uphold the image of the Communist Party as the foremost defender of Chinas national interests and pride and thus meet the popular nationalist expectations growing in the Chinese society.

In the period leading up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the international attention and external demands confronting the Chinese leaders have further increased. Many Western governments and NGOs have generally regarded the period leading up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics as a kind of window of opportunity, where the Chinese leaders are more vulnerable to external criticism and demands. The developments seen in Chinese foreign and security policy in this period, however, suggest that Western governments and NGOs have overestimated the ‘size’ of this window of opportunity. Clearly, there have been important developments in Chinese foreign and security policy that support that China is developing into a more ‘responsible stakeholder’ that seeks to play an active and constructive role in reaching peaceful solutions to international questions and conflicts. Such developments have especially been apparent in the developments in China’s policy towards the conflict in Darfur and the situation in Burma following the uprising in the autumn of 2007. The question is, however, whether such developments have any strong relation to the increased international attention and external demands confronting the Chinese leaders leading up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics or whether such developments rather must been seen in the context of the overall development in Chinese foreign and security policy since the end of the Cold War.

Regarding the closer connection between Chinese domestic politics and Chinese foreign and security policy, the domestic legitimacy of the Communist Party has in the post-Mao era increasingly come to rely on a kind of performance legitimacy. The Communist Party has succeeded in presenting its continued monopoly on power as a guarantee for continued domestic stability and high economic growth as well as for increased international respect and influence. As noted above, this, however, links Chinese domestic politics and foreign and security policy in ways that also pose a dilemma for the Chinese leaders. On the one hand, the Chinese leaders must conduct a foreign and security policy that meets the popular nationalist aspirations and expectations growing in the Chinese society. On the other hand, however, the Chinese leaders must do this in a way that does not risk high tensions with the other great powers, whose negative reactions could jeopardise the integration of China in the international economic system, a process that, since the late 1980s, has become essential for the ability of the Chinese leaders to continue to provide growing domestic prosperity. This difficult dilemma confronting the Chinese leaders was recently seen following the foreign criticism – in particular the Western criticism – of the Chinese management of the uprising in Tibet in March 2008 and the linking of Tibet with threats of not participating in the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The reactions in China were anger and massive demonstrations, which the Chinese leaders could neither control nor ignore. It is revealing, however, to see how the Chinese leaders handled these Chinese reactions, particularly how after a few days of ‘letting off stream’, the Chinese leaders started to emphasise and encourage the Chinese people to express their patriotism ‘rationally’. This suggests that the Chinese leaders increasingly are trying to ‘guide’ the popular nationalist sentiment in the Chinese society in a direction, where it becomes more supportive in relation to the official “peaceful development” strategy promoted by the Chinese leaders since the mid-1990s.

The Chinese leaders today confront many internal and external concerns and demands, which are often in conflict presenting difficult dilemmas for the Chinese leaders. Generally speaking, being confronted by strong international attention and conflicting demands in relation to Chinese foreign and security policy is a new situation for the Chinese leaders, who are still in a kind of ‘learning process’ as regards learning how to handle this high level of international attention and conflicting demands. Thus far, however, the Chinese leaders have generally been handling this new situation in a typical Chinese manner, which has also been characteristic of China’s economic reform process, i.e. a very pragmatic approach, where the Chinese leaders to use Deng Xiaoping’s phrase “cross the river by feeling for the stones”. This means that there is a tendency to take a more flexible stand on the traditional principles of sovereignty and non-intervention and deal with foreign and security issues on a more case-by-case basis, in each instance taking account of the costs and benefits for the Chinese security position and interests in Asia and for the domestic authority and legitimacy of the Communist Party. This is also a consequence of how domestic political concerns and developments have an increasing impact on Chinese foreign and security policy. Seen in this context it remains questionable whether the 2008 Beijing Olympics has had or will have direct implications for the development in Chinese foreign and security policy.

The 2008 Beijing Olympics – implications for Chinese foreign and security policy?
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