Academic Zheng Wang makes a point we share on this blog. China doesn’t have a foreign policy in the conventional sense. In that way, there are plenty of opportunities for misunderstandings and tensions with neighbors.
A couple key observations from the Seton Hall international relations professor:
Words like “aggressive,” “assertive” and “arrogant” have been used to describe China’s foreign policy, particularly with respect to its protracted war of words with Japan over a set of disputed islands in the East China Sea.
However… When we conduct a careful examination of Chinese policies and actions, we see that Chinese foreign policy is actually ambivalent, even weak. Beijing does not have a clear and well-developed policy on many issues, from the disputed islands to North Korea to climate change. Strong rhetoric is often used to compensate for weak or incoherent policies.
…China has not been at war with another country since a brief armed conflict with Vietnam in 1979, and has been very cautious in its dealings with its neighbors who occupy islands claimed by China in the South China Sea. This explains why Chinese nationalists have at times criticized the government’s foreign policy for being as soft and accommodating.
Zheng hopes for an elevated for China’s diplomats in averting drift toward nationalism, which can be used to bolster internal cohesiveness and the legitimacy of the government, but may imperil China’s place in the global economy.
Moreover, that dynamic, of playing off domestic insecurity risks creating a cycle that leads to war.