China’s Foreign Policy, by Stuart Harris

The Party is still at the root of everything, says Jonathan Mirsky

April 24, 2014

A professor emeritus of international relations at the Australian National University, Stuart Harris was previously head of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and had much contact with China. It is the diplomatic career that defines his writing. It is four-square – the book’s first sentence, in case one missed the title, is “This is a book about China’s foreign policy”. Considerable information and even opinion is generally attributed, directly into the text, to a (usually academic) source, although why that source is chosen is rarely explained. Harris claims that he avoids judgements, and he sprinkles his text with phrases such as “it seems” or “it appears”.

At first this seemed tiresome, but I soon found the narrative convincing, and in fact capable of robust judgements that neither Beijing nor Washington will like. Indeed, in his ultimate sentence, Harris criticises the “military, the usual US solution to problems”, while earlier in the book he notes the “unjust, repressive, and often brutal treatment of Chinese citizens and sustained legal injustices”.

But above all, and especially for those coming to Chinese foreign policy and affairs for the first time, Harris’ book is balanced, orderly and informative. He notes continuities in Beijing’s foreign policy, even though there are no longer overpowering leaders such as Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. But in the new China, where the Party’s handful of top leaders strive to have the last word, Harris shows convincingly, in ways new to me, that away from the centre, either geographically or in terms of livelihood, new contenders make inputs into foreign policy. Both provinces and individual cities, which need and encourage foreign investment abroad or internally, express needs that cut across normal Party preoccupations. Major enterprises, too, make demands. Harris does not make clear, however, that such contenders are invariably led or dominated by the Party, even where its policies may be regional rather than centrally ideological. He observes, very gingerly, that senior leaders often have a stake in such enterprises. Such official corruption outrages many Chinese, and their anger, which often eludes the internet’s censors, provokes reprisals if mentioned in the foreign media.

Another factor in foreign policy is the sense of past “victimhood” and the constant (sometimes false) memory of the “neocolonial” exploitations of the 19th and early 20th centuries. This underpins Beijing’s determination that nothing, but nothing, must ever challenge its own sovereignty and, by extension, that of others. Harris observes that Beijing opposes regime changes imposed from abroad on other countries, such as Syria, no matter how ghastly their regimes may be.

Unlike the US, which seeks to strengthen its international position through its foreign policy, Harris contends, Beijing’s goal is always the strengthening and maintenance of the Chinese Communist Party, the main task as well, he explains, of China’s military.

Then there is the conviction of territorial rights, for example in the South China Sea, where China challenges, sometimes militarily, many of its near and far neighbours. Uprisings in Xinjiang and Tibet are attributed to foreign or, as with the Dalai Lama, disloyal interference. Attempts to blame foreigners for such discontent, Harris suggests, “have been neither skilful nor effective”.

What Beijing fears above all, Harris writes, is internal discontent arising from “large-scale corruption, significant income inequality, and widespread environmental degradation”. All of these can cause considerable internal disorder – he notes the tens of thousands of annual riots and demonstrations – which can prompt “China to overreact in regional and international disputes”.

This sort of observation makes Harris’ book invaluable for readers new to the subject and even to scholars and diplomats.

China’s Foreign Policy

By Stuart Harris
Polity, 240pp, £50.00 and £15.99
ISBN 9780745662466 and 2473
Published 9 May 2014

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