Executive summary

  • In spite of the lessons from history that rising powers almost always upset the status quo and cause conflict, the early 2000s saw a China that was seemingly rising "peacefully."
  • However, despite the initial optimism, events in recent years have shown Chinese leaders experiencing increasing difficulty in sustaining a restrained approach to the world.
  • In light of this reality, the United States must devise policies that will continue to induce cooperative behavior from China, least the unease experienced by its regional partners pave the way to greater risk of miscalculation

China’s foreign policy is formulated within a distinctive domestic environment that is constituted of strong influencing factors. Up until recently, China was on a path to rise peacefully, evinced by its cautious behavior and intent on avoiding conflicts that would disrupt economic growth and social stability. However, Chinese leaders now struggle to sustain this restrained approach. In particular, China’s increasingly assertive effort to enforce its expansive claims over the South China Sea is telling. Within China’s domestic context, the deep insecurity of Chinese leaders has led to an over-emphasis on preventing large-scale social unrest, avoiding public splits in the leadership and keeping the military loyal. Against the context of intensifying popular nationalism, nationalist public opinion now has a clear influence on Chinese foreign policy. To this end, the case for strong United States (US) military presence in the region is compelling. The US should also seek diplomatic opportunities to encourage cooperation.