- The Great Wall at Sea: China’s Navy in the Twenty-first Century, and: China, the United States, and Twenty-first-Century Sea Power: Defining a Maritime Security Partnership, and: China’s New Diplomacy: Rationale, Strategies and Significance
Writing about Chinese foreign and security policy will always be a challenge because of the rapid pace of change. Given China’s turn from relative caution to marked assertiveness in the last three years, however, it may the case that 2008 will be seen as something of a watershed. If so, then the three books reviewed here may be seen as spanning an important transition to great power status. Taken together, they provide a broad survey of Chinese foreign and defense policy and can be highly recommended for their wealth of empirical information and insights. Because their contents are in the main based on research conducted before the global financial crisis heralded a major shift in world power, they are imbued with a relatively optimistic tone.
This can be seen most explicitly in Zhiqun Zhu’s survey of China’s new diplomacy, which deserves credit as one of the first accounts of the subject that goes beyond East Asia and the Pacific. Zhu adopts a social constructivist perspective with the intention of giving a more balanced version of China’s rise than is offered by the pessimistic predictions of realists, resulting in the positive portrayal of a China that “no longer shies away from international responsibilities” (Zhu, p. 7) [End Page 424]and is projecting “a new national image as a responsible, friendly and peaceful player in international affairs” (Zhu, p. 4).
When Zhu cites Hu Jintao’s declaration that China will strive to build a “harmonious ocean” as he presides over the display of naval power on the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the PLA Navy (PLAN) (Zhu, p. 13), however, readers of a more realist persuasion might find the reliance on ideational factors less than satisfactory. The same can be said of Zhu’s attempts to address concerns over the development of China’s hard power by falling back on government white papers as evidence of military transparency and the way he sees the spread of Confucius Institutes as evidence that its soft power is on the rise. His statement that the launching of the English version of the Global Timesreveals a desire to show “how China is closely connected to global affairs” and to present “the complexity and fascination of China to the world” (Zhu, p. 9) will surprise readers who are familiar with the anti-Western chauvinism and militarism that characterizes this newspaper.
Such evidence certainly conveys a good account of how Beijing wants its presence to be perceived. Zhu may be right, for example, to argue that the dispatch of aid and a special representative to Darfur shows a new willingness to play a role in preventing genocide and revealing a new ability to learn. A more cynical interpretation could dismiss this as just a reluctant attempt to save face in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics while Beijing’s fundamental norm of noninterference remains in place. Similarly, the claim that “even the United States looks up to China for crisis control” when it hosts the Six Party Talks on North Korea (Zhu, p. 8) might be dismissed as an example of how China attempts to evade international pressure while Pyongyang continues to manufacture nuclear weapons.
In the absence of a more systematic assessment of official claims against alternative sources of evidence, it is hard to know which interpretation...