For some three decades, the words of Deng Xiaoping have guided Chinese foreign policy. "Observe calmly," he cautioned, "secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership." The meaning of Deng's maxim has been the subject of wide debate inside and outside China. Was the Chinese leader describing a policy of deception with his instructions to conceal the country's abilities, or was he hoping to keep China out of major entanglements with his focus on keeping a low profile? Whatever the words' intention, their basic interpretation has long emphasized China's need to strengthen itself and to avoid following the European powers, or past Asian powers, down the path toward imperialism. Deng's was a "China first" policy, one that sought to avoid conflict and trouble while building up the country's domestic capacity and strength.
And on the whole, it has been a successful foreign policy. China boasts the world's second-largest economy today. The World Trade Organization ranks it as the largest global exporter and the second-largest global importer. Furthermore, the country's economic, cultural and political reach spans the globe. China is second only to the United States in outbound foreign direct investment and aid, and projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative and the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank have put Beijing at the forefront of infrastructure development and investment in the developing world. At the same time, the country has expanded its military presence abroad, contributing significant numbers of troops to U.N. peacekeeping missions and participating in multinational anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden. China, in fact, just established its first overseas military base, located in Djibouti, though it is still wary of getting embroiled in conflicts abroad. The Dengist dictum served China well in these endeavors. But now, Beijing is nearing the limits of its long-standing foreign policy.
A World Apart
When Deng laid out his strategy in 1990, China was navigating a transition from the chaotic and internationally activist era of Mao Zedong's rule to a period of reform and opening. (The country, and the rest of the world, was also on the threshold of a shift between the Cold War and a new global order, though Deng couldn't have known that at the time.) For most of its history, China's economy was largely self-sufficient. The country suffered neither the resource scarcity and internal competition that drove European imperialist powers to colonize foreign lands nor the excess abundance that drove the United States to seek out markets overseas. China could afford to isolate itself from the broader world and often did, developing a form of empire that seldom required the use of force abroad or even regionally. The country's biggest risks were always internal, and its size and its ability to buffer itself from the surrounding chaos were its greatest strengths.
Today, by contrast, China is in a much different position; the very success of Deng's economic opening and reform has fundamentally altered its relationship with the wider world. The country, unable both to supply the commodities it needs for production and to consume all of what it produces, depends on imports and exports. The need for resources and consumers, in turn, puts China at the mercy of the global trading system, complete with its risks and instabilities.
As its economic ties to the outside world deepened, other countries came to view China as a rising power striving to challenge the status quo. The perception put the rest of the world on guard against China's interactions and ambitions and convinced Beijing of the threat to its economic security. If its rise as a global power made it a target for containment, then its supply lines would be vulnerable to foreign interference. Deng's guidance had long dictated caution even in areas such as the South and East China seas and the Chinese-Indian border, where Beijing acted more assertively to push its sphere of influence. Now, however, China's international dependency is too great — and the concerns over its expanding influence around the world too acute — for Beijing to sit back and hope no one tries to meddle in its activities.
Adapting to the Times
Other countries already have started pushing back against even China's economic policies. The outside world, for example, no longer sees China's Belt and Road Initiative as a benign, albeit ambitious, infrastructure development endeavor but see it as a vehicle to extend China's reach through economic corridors that could, in a pinch, double as military routes. And for the recipients of China's development investments, the payments are starting to bear an unsettling resemblence to the infrastructure loans that European powers issued to help "modernize" countries in Asia and Africa, paving the way for their imperial subjugation. China has tried to allay these concerns by channeling some of its aid payments through institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Nevertheless, as nationalism and subnationalism gain traction around the world, the opposition to China's activities abroad could deepen.
U.S. foreign policy, meanwhile, is adding to Beijing's concerns. After a decade and a half of involvement in overseas conflicts from Afghanistan to Iraq and, more recently, Syria, the United States is focusing its attention inward, as it has done periodically following major interventions abroad. On the one hand, Washington's retrenchment gives Beijing an opportunity to get more involved in areas where the United States' interest seems to be waning. But on the other, it could draw China into decades- or centuries-old conflicts that intersect with Beijing's strategic goals. China is having trouble as it is limiting its role in managing regional instability. The country, after all, is facing volatility in Afghanistan and Pakistan along critical Belt and Road routes, a growing threat of militancy bleeding over to Central Asia and Western China from the Middle East, and an unfolding crisis in North Korea.
On top of these dilemmas, China is grappling with domestic political changes. Beijing is moving away from Deng's advice on collective leadership and back toward a more centralized and consolidated power structure. China's rapid development and increased clout on the world stage, moreover, have awakened a renewed sense of nationalism among its people. The country has evolved, just as the world around it has, leaving Beijing little choice but to adapt its foreign policy to the times. Deng's focus on self-strengthening at home and projecting noninterference abroad is no match for China's current economic, political and social realities. China is not the first emerging power to encounter this problem; the United States, for example, long rejected getting bogged down in European affairs only to be drawn into one world war after another in the 20th century. Based on other countries' experiences, Beijing understands the costs and benefits of a more active international role, as well as the risks and responsibilities it entails. But China also understands that sooner or later it will have to break with Deng's policy.
The country's leaders hope to avoid the inevitable for as long as they can. Directly engaging, picking sides in a conflict and deploying troops would mark the clear end of China's Dengist foreign policy and raise the country to the status of an interventionist power like Russia, the United States or the European states. For now, though, this is a role that China is neither politically nor militarily ready to fill. The country's armed forces, despite their formidable appearance, simply haven't had the training or practice to take on multiple overseas problems at once. When China does find itself pulled into intervention, its involvement will probably come at the behest of a friendly government asking for support in a counterterrorism or anti-insurgency mission. Even that kind of measured action will be enough to shatter the Dengist facade.