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The Logic of China's Global Policymaking

Is there a grand strategy behind Beijing’s foreign policymaking? Thomas Fingar, Shorenstein APARC Fellow at Stanford University, explored this question in his talk titled "The Logic of China's Global Engagement" as part of the China Program's Winter Colloquim series, "China: Going Global." Noting the ever-proliferating punditry regarding China’s international behavior, Fingar marked his dissatisfaction with most. Fingar noted that countries including China are neither “pawn nor patsy” but rather “have goals and policies to take advantage of opportunities and to protect themselves.”

By examining the historical patterns that emerge from China's global enagements since 1949, Fingar summarized Beijing’s basic priorities since 1949 as follows: (1) internal and external security; (b) economic development; and (c) autarky or economic self-reliance. Fingar noted that Mao’s 1949 decision to align with the Soviet Union, for example, encompassed all three goals -- counterbalancing security threats from the U.S.; receiving massive developmental assistance from Stalin; yet preserving economic independence, which the Soviet model encouraged by promoting autarky among communist bloc countries. The ensuing Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union and China’s own development of nuclear capabilities further enhanced Mao’s ability to act independently.

According to Fingar, the preeminence of these three goals were evident even in Deng Xiaoping’s opening and reform policy. Internally acknowledging China’s need to “catch up” to the rest of the world, Beijing’s leadership pursued its policy of rapprochement with the U.S. It sought to modernize its economy, neutralize the Soviet threat, and, with the U.S.’ blessing, enter the liberal international economic order – but hoped to “get in, get rich, and get out” as quickly as possible.

As its economy took off beginning in the 1990’s, China saw its need for raw materials skyrocket. Its engagement with resource-rich, developing worlds – such as Southeast Asia and Africa and, later, the Middle East and Latin America – only grew in scope and scale.

After the great financial crisis of 2008, Fingar noted an inflection point in China’s international behavior. According to Fingar, presumption grew in China’s policy circles that U.S.’ influence had begun to irreducibly wane and that, as U.S. influence declined, its efforts to contain and thwart China’s rise would intensify. With its own economy softening, furthermore, Beijing’s leadership increasingly turned towards nationalism rather than economic development to bolster its legitimacy.

According to Fingar, China has consistently prioritized its security, economic growth and autarkic goals since 1949. This three-part strategy is not particularly conducive to building alliances and regional partnerships, however. As he noted, “[b]y pursuing this logic of security, development and autarky in the way it has, Beijing has arguably worsened its situation.” By 2017, he asserted that these policy proclivities have resulted in China’s failure to form robust alliances and aligned partnerships in the region. Fingar argued that this historical trend for China to minimize its dependence on the international system while attempting to preserve its own security and economic objectives will slow China’s development and modernization, and create problems for all states in the global system.