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The rise of China is causing strategic headaches at the same time as it is prompting questions about whether Beijing will agree to play by established “rules of the game” in international politics. According to Liselotte Odgaard, associate professor at the Royal Danish Defence College, however, China has little interest in promoting system-wide change in the global order and is more concerned about protecting its core interests. In order to do so, it has emphasized the concept of coexistence in its national security strategy. In focusing on coexistence, a concept that earlier also drove Indian and Soviet national security strategy, Beijing emphasizes national sovereignty and non-interference as inviolate principles of world order, yet remains flexible and cooperative with other states outside its direct areas of interest. It stands in stark contrast to universal notions of international order, such as the liberal democratic model stressed by the United States, which offer the vision of a particular and natural relationship between civil society and the state, applicable everywhere.

According to Odgaard, China’s strategy of coexistence stems from its weakness vis-à-vis its main competitor, the United States. China’s domestic problems, including a wealth divide between urban and rural areas and pollution concerns, are legion. Historically, many states have sought to dampen internal dissent by focusing on a common foreign enemy, but with the U.S. alliance system maintaining regional and global order and the quality of Chinese troops lagging behind the United States in terms of training and war fighting experience, Beijing does not really have that option. Instead, China has wooed middle powers and small states with political and economic enticements. China has engaged in strengthening and modernizing its military, largely because it sees the U.S.-centered alliance system as a threat to core territorial interests in its near environment, but its strategy of coexistence has meant that it has punched above its weight in political and diplomatic spheres.

Odgaard believes, therefore, that while Beijing has recently been outspoken on territorial claims in the South China Sea, it prefers to avoid the use of force in settling such issues. China’s relations with Taiwan are symptomatic of such an approach. While China has acted with strength in the past when political leaders in Taipei have hinted at moving towards independence, in general China has focused on economic and political incentives to draw Taiwan ever more into its embrace. Odgaard noted that China has also generally been consistent in its dealings with smaller powers within the United Nations, and has even voted against the interests of its own ally, North Korea, when the latter has engaged in nuclear delinquency to the concern of other players in the world body.

Despite the fact that coexistence is a product of China’s weakness, Odgaard does not see Beijing’s attachment to the concept as a stalling tactic, a way of protecting its core interests until it is in a position where it can propagate universalistic notions of a Sino-centric world order. First, China’s current model of society and state, based around notions of communist party dominance, is hardly an attractive arrangement to those outside its borders. Perhaps more importantly, however, Odgaard believes that even leaders in Beijing, dealing as they are with domestic problems, have a vested interest in promoting a world order where coexistence is valued by all, and non-aggression and peaceful conflict resolution, rather than confrontation and competition with the United States, drive Chinese strategy. Therefore, it is likely, according to Odgaard, that China will continue to pursue its strategy of co-existence well into the 21st century. This will lead to a bifurcated international order, with the United States insisting on universal liberal and democratic norms and China remaining firm on sovereignty issues while maintaining practical working relationships with smaller powers. 

By Bryce Wakefield

Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program