China is aggressively pursuing its One Belt One Road initiative as it seeks to broaden its global influence in the wake of growing American isolationism. Image: iStock/Hakule

During the current decade, China has started looking outward, especially after the Belt and Road Initiative was announced by President Xi Jinping during his visit to Kazakhstan in September 2013.

China’s strategic culture has often been described as defensive; the cult of defense, the teachings of Confucius and Sun Tzu and the uncompromised goal of national unification are the hallmarks of Chinese security doctrines. However, China’s strategic culture has changed in the 21st century, shifting from old-fashioned positions to focus more on other features including population, ecology, environment, pollution, energy, economics, and the rights of the unborn.

In a research paper entitled “China’s Real Strategic Culture: A Great Wall of the Imagination,” Andrew Scobell, a senior political scientist with the Rand Corp., has termed the strategic culture of China as “active defense.” This concept is described as an equilibrium between offense and defense; there is flexibility in active defense.

 The BRI will encompass a population of 4.4 billion with a gross domestic product of US$21 trillion (one-third of the global wealth) and connect participating countries to three continents.

China’s foreign policy has become more proactive and globally driven, and the BRI forms the cornerstone of this new policy. This strategy stretches across 60 countries along envisaged routes extending through Asia, the Middle East, Europe and even Africa, and could potentially generate an even greater international impact. It is expected that the BRI will encompass a population of 4.4 billion with a gross domestic product of US$21 trillion (one-third of the global wealth) and connect participating countries to three continents.

China’s concentration on the BRI, and the change in the administration in Washington, whose current stance is anti-globalization, could mean a greater role for China in world affairs. US President Donald Trump’s isolationist rhetoric has helped foster an international power vacuum offering China the chance to assume America’s erstwhile domination of global affairs.

The BRI can also be seen as an extension of the “String of Pearls.”  The term was coined by Booz Allen in a 2005 report called “Energy Futures in Asia.” The international consulting firm forecast that China would attempt to expand its naval presence throughout the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) by building maritime civilian infrastructure in friendly states in the region. Beijing recently launched Asia’s most advanced warship. This 055 naval destroyer is similar in size to the US Navy’s Arleigh Burke-class ships.

The BRI is intended to achieve China’s strategic objectives, but it poses a security dilemma for others, especially the US and its Asian allies such as India, Japan and those surrounding the South China Sea with competing claims with China over the strategic waterway.

A strategy to strengthen China’s global influence

Since the beginning of the 21st century, globalization has not only accelerated the integration of the world economy but also competition among countries, especially among big powers. The motivation for China’s new strategic culture — and considering its naval presence in the IOR — may be seen as a way to deter rival states from restricting its shipping and strategic imports, to guard energy investments, mainly against non-state threats, to shift influence of major economic competitors in the IOR, to realize geo-strategic leverage against adversaries, to achieve military objectives alongside adversaries during war, and to bolster nuclear deterrence against India.

China’s expansionist plans are seen by some as a policy to protect its maritime lines of communication. But others say China wants to achieve naval predominance. The nature of global politics leaves some suspicious of a rising China. With the Trump administration taking an inward-looking stance, China has missed no opportunity to show that it is very much a part of the global economic order and will actively participate in it.

While China, whose rapidly growing economy ranks behind only the US in absolute terms, has shifted to  more active strategic culture, the policy orientations of the US and other developed and developing countries reflect their inclination to adopt an aggressive doctrine that power politics at the international level is a zero-sum game, and thus a rise in the national power of one is perceived as a loss of it for the other.

The status of China as the only possible challenger to America’s worldwide superiority is clear, but the United States still retains significant influence in global affairs.

Junaid Ashraf

Junaid Ashraf has a Master of Philosophy degree in government and public policy. He has international publications through Taylor & Francis, a leading British publishing body. He regularly write columns for newspapers. His interests include international political economy, geopolitics and good governance. He can be followed on twitter:

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