International Politics and China’s Foreign Policy

An Interview with Dr. Russ Glenn

In this video interview, Florian Schneider and Russ Glenn discuss China’s military modernization in the context of changing PRC foreign policy goals. The interview follows up on the US Department of Defense’s 2013 congressional report on Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, the PRC’s 2013 White Paper The Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces, and the discussion of China’s role in the world that these publications have elicited in the English-language press, for instance in The Diplomat, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, or The Washington Times. Follow the video interview here, or read the full transcript below. You can also follow Russ Glenn on Twitter.



Schneider: Welcome to Politics East My name is Florian Schneider, and today I am talking to my colleague Russ Glenn here at Leiden University, who’s an expert in international politics, and in particular in foreign policy of modern China. I want to talk a little bit about the resent changes and shifts in Chinese foreign policy and military strategy that have been in the news so much – the Pentagon has also recently published a defense paper on this – and I am wondering how you feel about the way that the Chinese government, for instance, is framing the first two decades of the 21st century as a “strategic window of opportunity to expand national power”. What does that mean? What does “national power” mean in this context?

Glenn: So national power generally just means all the different ways or means by which a state or country tries to achieve its goals. Normally, we think of this in different elements. The economic side of things would be how – you know, the GDP – how strong a country is economically. The military side would be something like how many aircraft carriers or nuclear weapons they might have. But it also involves things like technological level, and the level of influence, their culture, things like that.

A secondary consideration that sometimes we don’t take into account is the geography, resources, and populations. And most of the time we don’t try to quantify these into one grand index, one grand metric, and say “these things all add up to this”, but that is exactly what the Chinese Communist Party has tried to do. In the 1990s and 2000, they tried to create a metric called “comprehensive national power”, which was just that: they would plug all these different elements into a computer and come out with a number that says “China is this strong”, and “in 2020 it will be this strong”, and “other countries will be this strong”.

S: Alright, and how is China fairing on its own index so far?

G: I think it is doing okay. In some ways it’s doing quite well and in other ways it is doing not quite as well. The first part: China has certainly risen up in the world quite a lot. The economy is growing. Quality of life is increasing in a lot of ways. Economic interconnection is increasing in a lot of ways. But the other thing is, we have to remember the second aspect of this strategic window, in that it is not only a chance for China to “rise up”, to increase its comprehensive national power as much as possible, but it has to do it while not angering the rest of the word, especially the US. It has to do it while not making the international environment more difficult. And it is on that part that I think it is a little less set. I mean, internationally we have already seen that China’s rise has engendered some concern from the US, in terms of its pivot to Asia, but also, maybe even more troublingly, throughout the East Asian region, with Japan and also the states surrounding the South China Sea rearming and getting more involved in being worried about this.

Domestically, there is another big consideration, and that’s that there are some problems that we do not normally consider, involving China, that have arisen throughout its rise: things like massive environmental degradation, rising inequality, and great injustice.

S: Okay, but these are all issues that cost money, and I think one of the concerns not just internationally but also for those who look at domestic developments in China is how much the Chinese government is spending on military development, and if I am not mistaken it is about 100 billion US dollars.

G: Yes.

S: And that’s only the official number.

G: Right.

S: So it’s a conservative estimate, and critics and scholars who have looked at these numbers have said it should probably be twice as much. So how do you see these numbers, both in their domestic context but also in international comparison?

G: Yeah, I think the numbers are big, certainly, but some of the concern over it isn’t warranted. It’s been a little overblown, in many ways. The thing is that China’s economy has been growing very quickly, right? But China’s military expenditures have been growing apace with the economic growths. So as the GDP has been getting bigger, the military gets the same slice of the pie. The military has not been prioritized. We are not seeing a greater growth in military budgets than compared to the economy. So I don’t think it is fair to say that China is favoring military modernization over economic growth, for example. And when we look at the international sphere, it’s even less of an “outlier”, you could say. So China’s the second largest military budget in the world, but the US is five times larger, maybe even a little bit more, at 680 billion US Dollars a year. And on a percentage basis China is only tenth, so as a percentage of GDP China’s military spending is about 2 percent, which puts it at tenth [in the world], compared to the US, which is at 4 to 4.5 percent.

So overall, it is something to keep an eye on, but I think the absolute numbers are not the big question. It’s more a question of what’s happening: how is that money being spent and what is it actually being put to do.

S: Ok, but when we look at things like, for instance, the 2009 PRC anniversary, which included a large military parade, you see all this military equipment being driven down Tiananmen Square. So the money does go somewhere, and it’s the Chinese government that actually argues that both the conventional weapons and the nuclear weapons arsenal – which is substantial – that these all serve the purpose of “peaceful development”, which is one of the core elements of the foreign policy strategy. But isn’t that hypocritical? Isn’t that just a euphemism, in a way, to call these weapons tools of peaceful development?

G: I think that entirely depends on your standpoint. For us in the West, or for Japan, or Taiwan especially, it looks very threatening to have this increasingly capable Chinese military. All these missiles, for example, look very dangerous. But from the perspective of China’s national leadership, or maybe even the Chinese people, maybe they see this military modernization as something that is keeping them safer, for example as something that is protecting China’s national interests. I mean, just to play devil’s advocate here for a second, no country with nuclear weapons has ever been successfully invaded. Would the UN have invaded Iraq in the early 1990s if Saddam had had a nuclear deterrent? Would NATO have gone into Libya if Gaddafi hadn’t forsworn nuclear weapons?

I am not trying to be difficult, or trying to be controversial with this, but I think beyond the question of moral good we need to look at the fact that your perspective on peace and security does depend on where you are looking from.

The bigger question in my mind is that this phrase “peaceful development”, or this idea “peaceful development” – the problem as I see it is that China has not done a good job, the Chinese leadership has not done a good job, of linking this military modernization and even the economic growth into a larger ideology or a larger communicative strategy. And thus these things like peaceful development or scientific development or harmonious world – these catch-phrases that the government uses – often ring quite hollow, because how do you describe it? Peaceful development for whom? Are we talking about just the Chinese people? Are we talking about the world? We don’t know, and there is nothing to understand it better.

S: I think one of the key rhetorical elements in this discourse is the famous Deng Xiaoping quote that gets mentioned a lot, both by the Chinese government but also its critics. So I am just going to read this to you, because I find it very interesting, and we can talk about it a little bit more. This is Deng Xiaoping, saying that China should “observe calmly; secure its position; cope with affairs calmly; hide its capabilities and bide its time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership”. Now I understand why never claiming leadership, that last part of the quote, might be something that the Chinese government is emphasizing, but what about the critics, who say: “actually, the Chinese government is hiding its capabilities and is biding its time”, and that there is something sinister going on? What is your impression?

G: Yeah, well, first of all Deng Xiaoping had a knack for good quotes. He was pretty good at putting out memorable sayings. I think this has also, like the military budget, been overblown a little bit, in that we look at this and say that maybe China has this deceptive strategy, going forward, but I am not so sure it’s a good idea to distill a grand strategy from a political slogan. And it is important to remember the context of when this was first said. Deng first said this phrase, or at least part of this phrase, shortly after Tiananmen, when China was really keeping a low profile and was beset on all sides, internationally, and facing a lot of international criticism. So maybe in that context it made sense for the Chinese leadership to keep things down and not make too much of a fuzz.

So I am not sure how much credence we should put in it overall. Having said that, I do think that the general idea of the quote is still equal to or similar to China’s current grand strategy. I think China’s current strategy, long term and for the last two decades, has been to increase its comprehensive national power as much as possible while not making the security environment more difficult, while not angering the US, especially. While not making them align against them á la the Cold War. And I think that that quote accurately encapsulates that idea, but it’s important to remember that there is no stated negative second half to that. It is not like “we are going to hide our capabilities and bide our time… and then we are going to take over the world!” It does not actually say that. Now I am not trying to be naive about the fact that that might be possible, but it’s important to remember that this is only the first half of something.

S: As you say, a lot of this is about perspectives and about different world views, and so on, but isn’t using a quote like this if you are a Chinese government official or propaganda expert, isn’t that just shooting yourself in the foot? I mean if the Pentagon is this worried that Chinese foreign policy and military strategy is in-transparent  then suggesting that Deng’s idea of biding one’s time and, well, being in-transparent – I mean it sounds like that’s what it says. So what do you make of that then? Isn’t that just disingenuous?  

G: Yeah, I agree entirely, actually, and I think that a lot of people, a lot of actors in China – whether they be political actors or academics or whatever else – are realizing that. There are alternate translations of that phrase that downplay the “deceptive” side and translate it differently, as something more modest, as in “we are not hiding our capabilities, we are just not showing them off, because we are trying to be nice” – something like that. So those translations can phrase this differently, and I think it is important to take that into consideration.

But this transparency thing in general is a bigger question. The Pentagon and a lot of other places have been talking about how China needs to be more transparent for quite a while, and I think that China has been making progress. We see the military budgets now are increasingly transparent. We have a better understanding, I suppose, of where the money is going and what it is being used for. To some extent you can see this across the political system and economic system, as things get a little more institutionalized.

But it is important here, too, to remember that secrecy is a double-edged sword. In the same way that we are seeing this now, with the Snowden affair in the US, that US spying and the secrecy involved in that come back to bite it in the ass, I think this could also be the same for China and the military. While Western militaries and Western observers might not have a good idea of what the Chinese military can do, they themselves also do not know the full extent of their capabilities. China hasn’t fought an armed conflict since the invasion of Vietnam in 1979, and that did not go very well. And while the Chinese military has modernized a lot since then, has changed a lot since then, has changed immensely, has ably looked at the rest of the world to see what they are doing, and has modernized in line with that, there is still… they have got these beautiful plans, but as Mike Tyson said: “everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face”.

S: Well, the Chinese government is trying to get involved with UN peace-keeping missions,  and is actually very actively involved, collaborating with other actors – is that a way to check whether you get punched in the face?

G: Absolutely. Actually, I think that is a good sign, in some ways. It shows China is a little more confident in both their military capabilities and their political and diplomatic capabilities. They are able to take a step forward, and when something goes wrong they can learn from it, as opposed to feeling they need to hide everything. We’ve already seen this with the Chinese navy, helping with anti-piracy operations off the Gulf of Aden, and now we are seeing it in Africa, I think, with China’s first peace-keeping deployment abroad.

In one way, that is a way to test the military and to find out what works and what doesn’t, but in another way it is also a chance to become a more responsible actor at the global level, under international auspices.

S: In many contexts, that responsibility seems like assertiveness, and I think it connects very much with what the Chinese government calls the “China Threat Theories, which you see nicely when you go to any kind of airport and walk through the bookstores and see all these “China is going to rule the world” book sets. So I wonder, isn’t that exactly what we are seeing now in the South China Sea, for instance, with increasing attempts to balance or contain China? We see this with the “pivot to Asia” by the US, we also have Japan and Thailand and the Philippines increasingly working together. Now that can’t really be in the interests of the Chinese government, which is trying to promote the idea that it is developing peacefully.

G: I agree. I don’t think the Chinese government has been particularly successful at combating the China Threat Theory. As I said before, I think part of the problem is the lack of a coherent ideology or communicative strategy. But also East Asia in general is seeing the fastest rise in defense spending  of any place in the world, right now. Some people think that by 2020 East Asia as a whole will spend more on military than northern America as a whole, which would be a big change.

So overall, I don’t think the China Threat strategy has been particularly well managed. But I think we have to keep a couple of things in mind. One is that while we may see this kind of conflict on the surface, and these storms between China and Japan, or China and other South-China-Sea states, there is still a deep and growing undercurrent of economic interconnection, of flows of goods and people, of communication, of some cultural interplay, so it’s not necessarily a black-and-white Cold War scenario. I think that sometimes gets hidden behind the heat and smoke of the conflict on the surface.

The second thing is that we need to realize as well that the Chinese Communist Party, the Chinese leadership, has multiple interests. Sometimes their international face, or what the rest of the world sees, will not be the biggest thing they care about. In the South China Sea, for example, it’s not only their relationship with Japan [and other states] that matter, but also economic interests surrounding the South China Sea or in the South China Sea, which includes energy and fishing, but also what the public thinks, what their sentiment is, what domestic nationalist sentiment feels about it, as well as longer-term things that we don’t know about yet. So it’s not just, I think, what we see at the diplomatic level, but there’s also a lot of things going on at the domestic level as well.

S: What I am taking away from this conversation then is that the situation is incredibly complex, and I am wondering how fit we are, with our descriptions of China doing this and China doing that, and constantly treating China as a unitary actor, to actually describe properly what is going on. Don’t we need other ways of discussing this complexity?

G: Yeah, I would absolutely agree. That would be a good thing. It would add a much needed perspective on studying China, and on reporting on China. We often hear “China does this” or “China does that”, and I think knowing that China is an authoritarian state, we assume that the leadership or maybe even Xi Jinping himself has the power to personally change or influence policy, or anything at any one point. And while that may be the case in very specific instances, 99 percent of the time the Chinese political system and Chinese governance is just as messy and convoluted and beset by interests and differing opinions as any Western political system, and sometimes more, in many cases.

S: Well, I am thinking of the South China Sea again, and of the fact that it is not just the Chinese government, or one arm of the military, which is involved. Just in terms of maritime security, you have at least five agencies that are involved, as far as I know, including the China coast guard, which isn’t a military organization. And then you have all these private organizations, you have national interest groups, people sailing to islands for instance in the East China Sea – also a good example that is similar – you have media conglomerates that report on this, all of this feeds back [into the process], not to mention the Internet, public opinion… so what kind of tools do you use as a scholar to get to this [complexity]?

G: That’s a really good question, and I think while we need to simplify anything to a certain extent to be able to better understand it and most importantly to communicate it to others, I think with respect to Chinese studies, it is particularly important to keep in mind the massive diversity, in both different topics and different regions, and things like that. So I would say you need to tailor your tool belt, depending on what you are looking at.

I mean China is a big country, as we all know. It’s got 1.3 billion people. Things are very diverse from place to place in a way that I don’t always think gets represented well in the West. So, for example, on the South China Sea issue, you would need to have a good understanding of the different groups involved. You’d need to have an understanding of how the military relates to the government. You’d need to know how the central and local governments relate to each other. Things like that. It’s one of those things where you just have to dig in and simplify based on what is most important for that specific topic.

S: Do you use the word party-state at all? You know, “party” slash “state”?

G: I think you can. It is again one of these simplifications. It’s a way to describe China. The thing is China’s political system is dominated by one party. The Chinese Communist Party is the de facto Chinese leadership, and a lot of the things we consider to be state organs or state responsibilities in the West or in other countries around the world are not the case in China. For example, the Chinese military is not a national military. It is not technically “China’s” military. It is technically the Chinese Communist Party’s military, and its constitutional privilege, or its constitutional responsibility, is to uphold the Chinese Communist Party, not the Chinese state as a whole, which is interesting.

That kind of complexity, that kind of focus on the Chinese Communist Party, is interwoven with all of Chinese government – governance and government in general. I mean all state options are really subordinated to the Party apparatus. Even if it looks on the surface as if it is a government organ doing it, it is actually the Chinese Communist Party that’s got the real power behind it. In one way, and this is kind of a simplification, but one way to think about it is that the Chinese Communist Party is the decision-maker behind the scenes whereas the state is the implementer. So you could think of the Chinese Communist Party as an executive and the state organs as making sure what the Chinese Communist Party decides actually happens. So these are the kinds of intricacies of studying Chinese politics that you have to keep in mind when looking at different issues.

S: So what do you tell your students when they want to study Chinese international relations, and how China is rising to power in the world, what do you tell them to look for?

G: I think it depends on the topic they are looking at specifically. I tell them to get to know the issue, and to think about what it is that’s important to understanding that specific thing. So, one example here is when we are looking at China in Africa, or when we look at Chinese economic interests abroad: we know that China is going more around the world, China is getting more involved around the world – economically and in all kinds of different ways. But one thing that we often see in the West, when China goes into… when a Chinese company goes into Sudan and buys oil blocks, or something like that, we often get this spade of newspaper articles about how China is “taking over Africa”, or it’s “kicking the West out of Africa”, and it’s presented as this state-state conflict, this very hard-edged thing.

But I think that is really not the case. In the same way that when Dutch Shell goes into Nigeria and buys an oil block we don’t talk about the Netherlands trying to conquer Nigeria anymore, right? And in the same way it’s quite similar to that with a Chinese oil company like CNPC or Sinopec going into Sudan to buy an oil block. While these companies are related to the Chinese government, they are state-owned, and there are connections, it is also much more complicated than that, in that these companies are most of the time guided by economic interests and economic incentives, just like any other major oil company. And most of the time I think they actually aspire to be treated like an international oil company, like an Exxon Mobil or a Shell.

So when it comes down to guiding my students, or helping my students with what to do, I think it really does depend on the specific issue at hand, and just making sure that you‘re taking the considerations in that work best through that particular viewpoint.

S: So basically we should open up the “grand strategy”, and actually take a look at what that means, and who is part of it. Not everyone is. Are the large state-owned enterprises part of a grand political strategy?

G: I think the question there is… well, I would say the one-word answer is “no”. But the bigger question is… sometimes in some circumstances, bigger political trends are pushing for that. So a small example here: a couple of years back, when the Chinese oil companies released exploration blocks off the coast of Vietnam – and when I say “off the coast” of Vietnam, I mean when you look at the map, it’s Vietnam, and then they released blocks for oil exploration right off the coast, literally right outside. So it was a little ridiculous. And I am almost certain that the Chinese oil companies would never have done that individually, on their own economic interest, because it doesn’t make any sense. It is too risky, it is too inflammatory.

But that was probably something guided by the Chinese government. They wanted to make a statement in that particular case, or they wanted to make a claim to those particular resources, and they acted through the Chinese national oil company. Now that doesn’t mean that particular oil company is a puppet of the Chinese government. It just means that in this case the political interests overrode the economic interests that would normally guide the company.

S: That reminds me a little bit of how banking works in China, and of what is called “Window Guidance, where also the Chinese government sits down with banks to talk behind the scenes about what the next strategy move is. That doesn’t mean that the banks are always acting exactly as the government would suggest. So it’s much more complex than that.

G: Yes, that’s a very good way to describe it.

S: Well, I think it’s an exciting time to be studying these things. I can only hope that your students are taking away as much away as I am from this interview. So thank you Russ.

G: Thank you. This was a lot of fun.

S: You have been watching We will be putting up other resources here online, so that you can take a look at the kinds of links, the kinds of resources, the kinds of articles that Dr. Glenn has been talking about. So check in again soon on this website, for more information on politics in East Asia. 


[21 August 2013 – FS] An earlier link in the introductory paragraph to the Washington Post article by Bill Gertz “Pentagon report: China closer to matching modern militaries” had to be removed, due to malware concerns regarding that webpage.


Barr, Michael. 2011. Who’s Afraid of China? The Challenge of Chinese Soft Power. London & New York: Zed Books.

Hwang, Yih-Jye & Schneider, Florian. 2011. “Performance, Meaning, and Ideology in the Making of Legitimacy: The Celebrations of the People’s Republic of China’s Sixty-Year Anniversary“. China Review  11/1 (Spring): 27–56.

Jacques, Martin. 2012. When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order. New York et al.: Penguin Books.

Lanteigne, Marc. 2012. Chinese Foreign Policy – An Introduction. Abingdon & New York: Routledge.

Liff, Adam P. & Erickson, Andrew S. 2013. “Demystifying China’s Defence Spending: Less Mysterious in the Aggregate“. The China Quarterly, June: 1-26.

Shambaugh, David. 2009. China’s Communist Party: Atrophy and Adaptation. Berkeley et al.: University of California Press.

Shirk, Susan L. 2008. China – Fragile Superpower. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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  1. 0openscience0

    the intricacies of state owned enterprises are addressed well in this article :

  2. Florian Schneider

    The success or failure of SOEs really depends on the sector, doesn’t it. In some areas, reforms have gone very far (e.g. light industry), in other areas the situation is more sluggish (e.g. Tobacco). A daunting issue indeed, and this is a good analysis on the subject. Thanks.

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