July 22, 2014

Trouble at sea reveals the new shape of China’s foreign policy

By Kurt Campbell

China’s recent moves in the East and South China Seas – various military deployments, policy proclamations, provocative naval maneuvers and rhetorical stridency – pose serious challenges for how Sinologists have traditionally perceived China and its foreign policy pursuits.

The conventional wisdom has long been that China is primarily focused on its domestic imperatives, including urgent tasks dealing with corruption, endemic pollution, and restructuring of inefficient state-owned industries. For decades now, it has been widely accepted that a benign international environment is a critical requirement for maintaining a sustained domestic focus. When there have been incidents in the past – such an encounter in 2001, when an American reconnaissance aeroplane was intercepted by an overzealous Chinese fighter pilot – it is often the case that the leadership in Beijing and Washington had to work carefully behind the scenes to untangle the mess created by nationalist and poorly co-ordinated elements in the military or border protection units. Unanticipated accidents and incidents were the worry, not premeditated gambits.

Most of these previous incidents were seen in isolation and not part of a larger orchestrated strategy designed to push against the status quo in the maritime domain. In the past, when a new map or territorial interpretation was promulgated by someone in the vast Chinese bureaucracy, it often caught senior Chinese leaders unawares. In the aftermath, one of the primary objectives was usually to enable them to save face.

Read the full op-ed at Financial Times

  • Reports
    • January 28, 2020
    Rising to the China Challenge

    An independent assessment for Congress as mandated by the FY2019 National Defense Authorization Act....

    By Ely Ratner, Daniel Kliman, Susanna V. Blume, ​Rush Doshi, Chris Dougherty, Richard Fontaine, Peter Harrell, Martijn Rasser, Elizabeth Rosenberg, Eric Sayers, Daleep Singh, Paul Scharre, Loren DeJonge Schulman, ​Neil Bhatiya, Ashley Feng, Joshua Fitt, Megan Lamberth, Kristine Lee & Ainikki Riikonen

  • Commentary
    • January 22, 2020
    Challenging China’s Bid for App Dominance

    Social media platforms are emerging as central to China’s efforts to shape the global information architecture....

    By Kristine Lee & Karina Barbesino

  • Podcast
    • January 17, 2020
    Stories from the Backchannel: Season Two Trailer

    Now more than ever, Americans are interested in the people working behind the scenes on consequential national security decisions. In Season Two of Stories from the Backchanne...

    By Ilan Goldenberg, Richard Fontaine, Susanna V. Blume, Kayla M. Williams, Price B. Floyd, Kurt Campbell & Kara Frederick

  • Commentary
    • War on the Rocks
    • January 15, 2020
    Defense Strategy for a Post-Trump World

    In a recent piece warning about an emerging arms race in hypersonic missiles, The New York Times quoted Will Roper, the Air Force’s senior acquisition and technology official,...

    By Van Jackson

View All Reports View All Articles & Multimedia