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Comparison of the Current Foreign Policy of the U.S. and China


A foreign policy is a country’s independent strategy or outline of how a sovereign state will deal with the rest of the world or how it will conduct its international affairs and invariably involves a multidisciplinary effort encompassing the fields of diplomacy, economics, military and politics. A country’s foreign policy is also shaped by its history, the environment, national psyche, and resources. Foreign policies are not made in vacuum but are invariably based on theories of statecraft and international relations that are incorporated by the leadership consciously or subconsciously for the conduct of foreign policy. This essay makes a theory based comparison of current foreign policies of the U.S. and China to provide an understanding of how future foreign policies of the two countries may evolve.

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To understand the current foreign policy leanings of the U.S. and China, it is necessary to examine the historical parameters and geopolitical imperatives that have shaped their respective foreign policies. This understanding is essential to provide a logical explanation why certain theories seem more relevant in defining foreign policies of these countries rather than others. America’s preference for Constitutionalism is rooted in their history influenced by the enlightenment theories of Isaac Newton and John Locke and of course the influence of British common law. The words of John Locke that “no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions” (Locke 73) inspired the foundation of the American liberal state that jealously guarded its individual freedoms and believed that other people too deserved the same rights. Locke’s philosophy with its emphasis on individualism led to the formulation of the concepts of Capitalism and free trade (Medina, 2006, p. 260). America’s own experience of violent struggles with the Indians and the British to attain independence reinforced their belief in the Hobbessian construct that humans by nature are “apt to invade and destroy each other” (Hobbes, 1651, p. 86) and can only be controlled by coercive power. Hobbes, one of the earlier proponents of Institutionalism believed that it was necessary to build “strong institutions to save mankind from its own worst instincts” (Peters, 2005, p. 4). The Hobbessian constructs were readily adopted by the realist school which deemed ‘institutions’ to be strong economic and military power aimed at preserving the core national interests of the state. The writings of Locke and Hobbes are basically realist formulations that converged with the American settlers’ own experience. Hans Morgenthau, one of the best known theorists of Political Realism succinctly laid down six principles, which according to him clearly explained state to state relations. Firstly, according to Morgenthau, politics is governed by objective laws that have their roots in human nature and that such laws can be organized into a rational theory of politics that could drive politics among nations (1972, p. 4). Secondly, the central “concept of interest [which when] defined in terms of power” provides the understanding of international politics (Morgenthau, p. 5). Thirdly, this “key concept of interest defined as power is an objective category that is universally valid” (Morgenthau, p. 8). Fourthly, Realism recognises the importance of morality in political action but believes that “universal moral principles cannot be applied to the actions of states” (Morgenthau, p. 10). Fifthly, the moral aspirations of a state cannot be referenced to the moral laws of the universe (Morgenthau, p. 10) and sixthly, the precepts of Political Realism are significantly different from other schools of thought which is more or less autonomous (Morgenthau, p. 11). A statesman must therefore “think in terms of the national interest, conceived as power amongst the other powers” (Morgenthau & Thompson, 1985, p. 165). Another realist, Kenneth Waltz emphatically stated that “balance of power among nations has a firm basis in reality (Waltz, 2001, p. 207)” and that a central enforcer is required to contain anarchy and maintain the balance.

The U.S. has been a prime beneficiary of realist policies. In the early years after its independence, America chose to stay away from European politics and meddling in the affairs of the world resulting in the Monroe Doctrine which was steeped in realism because it laid down practical steps for limiting European power politics from spilling into America’s domain (Williams, 2007, p. 48). However, after the Second World War, with the threat of expanding Soviet power and receding British Empire, it suited the only other Super Power, America to take over the mantle of the ‘leader of the free world’. America then rightly concluded that it was a matter of national survival, of world freedom, and of democracy that the U.S. rise up to contain the Soviet Union. This was a realist articulation of foreign policy that led to the Cold War and endless proxy wars that dominated the next four decades (Little & Smith, 2006, p. 387). American realist approach worked successfully as the Soviet Union collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions and the economic strain of having to match the U.S. led Western Bloc militarily. Issues such as global warming, climate change and global ecosystem for the realist school are only important in as much as they can help further own national interests. For example, if it is not in the interest of the United States to sign the Kyoto Protocol then it must be rejected (Roberts & Parks, 2006, p. 3) irrespective of its legitimacy and international acceptance. If the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Seas (UNCLOS) 1982, which has over 159 signatories is seen to impinge on the American notions of ‘Freedom of the Seas’, then it must be challenged and not be allowed to pass the Senate (Winkler, 2000, p. 1840). These past positions continue to hold in current foreign policy initiatives of President Obama as was proven by America’s effort to bury the Kyoto protocol at the recently concluded Copenhagen Summit.

Since the end of the Cold War, US geostrategic experts had been arguing for a more muscular Grand Strategy since there existed no challenger to US might. Brzezinski postulated that the key to control the Eurasian landmass rested in the control over central Asia (Brzezinski, 1997, p. 31) that acted as a guard post over American control of the oil. In Brzezinski’s construct, the three grand imperatives of imperial geostrategy were to prevent collusion and maintain security dependence among the vassals, and to keep the barbarians from coming together (Brzezinski, 1997, p. 40)”. That the Bush administration was clearly influenced by Brzezinski’s thesis is evident from their successive foreign policy decisions in Iraq, Middle East and Afghanistan and the same has been continued by the current Obama administration.

China’s experience too has been similar albeit, over thousands of years and was based on an indigenous eastern philosophy. Throughout Chinese history, warlords and kings clashed incessantly to gain supremacy. The Chinese emperors strove to control their peripheries through a series of wars, alliance building and opportunistic diplomacy that in western terms can equate with realism. Chinese realism was however based on their own theoretical underpinnings. Chinese believe their country to hold a special central place in the world and was the Middle Kingdom to which everyone had to pay tribute (Grasso, Corrin, & Kort, 2004, p. 3). This Middle Kingdom construct is built on Confucian traditions that seek harmony in the world with China being the central locus spreading such harmony. Thus when Chinese speak about a ‘harmonious world’ they refer to a world steered by China. China’s belief in its Middle Kingdom status received a rude shock when it was divided into ‘spheres of influence’ during the colonial period. The ‘century of humiliation’ was followed by a violent revolution that led to the victory of the Chinese Communist Party, which affirmed the realist tendencies of Chinese leadership and the need for strong central control. The Chinese revolution gave rise to a totalitarian state(Rejai, 1995, p. 228) with Marxist-Leninist ideology as interpreted by Mao Tse Tung in his Little Red Book becoming the guiding ideology of the state. The present day CCP while downplaying Mao’s aphorisms has kept the central ideology based on Marxism-Leninism intact albeit, modifying it to ensure steady economic progress. China also realised the need to build their strength before they could stake their claim on the world stage and hence the sage advice of Deng Xiaoping “Observe calmly; 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” (Geis & Holt, 2009, p. 81). This guideline has guided Chinese foreign policy through much of the 20th century and is now recently being modified to assume a more visible global presence. Sun Tzu’s, The Art of War, is not just a rendition of war strategy but also statecraft and foreign policy. Surprise and deception as advised by Sun Tzu are also central to Chinese foreign policy and it becomes important to understand “the [Chinese] diplomatic tendency to say the opposite of what is meant helps one interpret China’s relationships with other nations(Gries, 2004, p. 10)”. This is the reason why China continues to surprise foreign policy experts even today.

Current U.S. policies have continued their realist underpinnings. Though Obama’s speeches have an idealistic pitch, the foreign policy directions of his administration are very much rooted in realism. Obama has shifted the focus of the ‘war on terror’ from Iraq to Afghanistan-Pakistan (Af-Pak) theatre. Despite knowing about the proliferation track record of the Pakistanis and their undeniable governmental links with the Taliban and other terrorist organizations, the Obama administration continues to shower aid on Pakistan in pursuit of the realist goal of ensuring American security. Realising that American force was getting stretched on a two war front, Obama has chosen to drawdown from Iraq to concentrate on the Af-Pak theatre. The decades old US policy of supporting Israel has not changed despite stratospheric rhetoric at Egypt. On China, American foreign policy is going the extra mile to accommodate Chinese concerns as they realise the crucial importance of Beijing continuing to buy US bonds if the US economy has to recover from its present slump. On Iran, while holding out an olive branch, America continues to urge Teheran to give up its quest for nuclear weapons to ensure security of American interests in the Middle East. America continues to treat Russia with kid gloves despite grave provocation by Moscow in its Georgian adventure. American planners realize that they need Russia’s cooperation if their quest to open an alternative supply route through central Asian countries to the Af-Pak theatre is to succeed. In the view of one foreign policy watcher “Obama’s foreign policy team seems to have abandoned the Democratic Party’s traditional liberal internationalist playbook in favour of hard-headed (some would say hard-hearted) realism. The administration has made clear its willingness to downplay human rights and to make whatever deals it can with Iran, Syria, Russia, and China” (Friedberg, 2009, p. 2).

China for its part has tailor-made its foreign policy to first build a strong economy. Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao have emphasised on the need for development that is sustainable. The need therefore was to adopt a scientific approach to balance economic and social development that was also environmentally friendly (Yongnian, 2007, p. 7). Both the leaders realised that the untrammelled growth of ‘economic development at any cost’ of the Jiang Jemin years had widened the divide between the rich and the poor, between the abject poverty depicted by interior China and the glitzy periphery of coastal cities. The fact that such a trend would lead to social instability, prompted Hu and Wen Jiaobao to stress that development must progress harmoniously and that it must be people friendly. Hu Jintao has been a great champion of social justice and for the first time in its official capacity has the Chinese government talked about a sort of ‘social democracy’. For those who favour liberal capitalism with Chinese characteristics, Hu has provided for cautious but significant concessions. “In March 2007 the government also passed the Property Rights Bill(Yongnian, 2007, p. 3), an unprecedented step in a communist country that had officially abhorred private property as sins of bourgeois capitalism.

In foreign policy matters, the Chinese leadership has moved away from being just US centric as was the case in the Jiang Zemin era to a more widespread engagement with the world especially with the ASEAN, Africa and South American countries. Hu clearly envisions that China’s time to engage globally has come and that is reflected in his foreign policy directions that include greater involvement in world affairs including UN peacekeeping missions across the globe. To ensure the continuance of balance of power and prevent other nations from muscling onto the centre stage of global geopolitics, Chinese foreign policy has used every strategy known to the realist school. To checkmate India, China has assiduously cultivated Pakistan. This can best be termed as a countervailing strategy or a balancing strategy. At the same time, China has unleashed a containment strategy by building a chain of bases across the Indian Ocean that some have termed as a ‘string of pearls’. The aim of the ‘string of pearls’ appears to be to firstly contain India and secondly to provide security to China’s sea lines of communications in the Indian Ocean. To ensure that China is able to operate beyond the second island chain, China has embarked on settling its border disputes with neighbouring countries (except India) and provided monies to South East Asian countries that now see greater prudence in bandwagoning with China than the U.S. The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) launched by China and Russia is seen to be another chess move in the new central Asian ‘great game’. China’s extreme reluctance to allow further sanctions on Iran (MacFarquhar, 2010, p. 1) point to its future calculations of energy needs and the fact that Iran has the second largest oil reserves in the Persian Gulf. All these actions have been taken ostensibly to build a ‘harmonious world’ but to any student of international relations these are nothing but realist formulations with ‘Chinese characteristics’.

Current Chinese and American foreign policy initiatives are increasingly acquiring the structure of classic realist formulations. During a recent meeting at China between Presidents Barack Obama and Hu Jintao, the joint statement of the two countries included amongst other things “bringing about more stable, peaceful relations in all of South Asia” (The White House, 2009, p. 1). This strange inclusion points to a shift in balance of power where the United States seems to be making space for China to occupy the global centre stage. Chinmerica and Duopoly are two global strategic constructs increasingly being talked about by foreign policy experts who now believe that a defacto ‘G2’ exists (Clarke, 2009, p. 1) with China underwriting most of American debt and thus acquiring a stake on the world’s stage alongside America. China’s decade old chequebook diplomacy, buying friends across South East Asia, Africa and providing veto to dictators and theocracies such as Iran is now being tempered by more responsible and nuanced support. These are indications of a Chinese foreign policy gearing up to make the transition towards a G2 construct.


In conclusion, it can be reiterated that the foreign policy approach of both the U.S. and China have been guided by the theoretical underpinnings of realism. While American realism was guided by western philosophies of Locke, Hobbes, and IR theories of Morgenthau and Waltz, Chinese realism was shaped by their Confucian tradition and the Middle Kingdom construct. An examination of past foreign policy behaviours of the two countries revealed a consistency of the realist approach as also their continued adherence to classical political realism. Hu Jintao’s ‘Harmonious World’ concept suggests centrality of China as the enforcer. The ‘Balance-of-Power’ as a theoretical base applies to the current foreign policy initiatives of both the countries as America makes concessions and creates space for China to occupy on the global centre stage. China on its part has shed some of its extreme pragmatism in dealing with dictators, military and illiberal regimes in line with its growing global clout and growing realisation of its inevitable rise to the global centre stage in this century. In final analysis it can be concluded that theoretical underpinnings of both U.S. and China will remain the realist approach.


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