China-US relations

The US is right that China has no allies – because it doesn’t need them

Zhou Bo says US criticism that China is building a ‘great wall of self-isolation’ misses the point, as choosing to remain above the fray is a strategic choice and serves Chinese interests well

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 June, 2016, 5:19pm
UPDATED : Monday, 13 June, 2016, 5:26pm

The latest round of attacks from the US on China – following American criticism over “freedom of navigation” and “militarisation” – is on China’s image. In January, Admiral Harry Harris, commander of the United States Pacific Command, said at a Washington think tank that “we have allies, friends and partners where China does not”. And, earlier this month, US Secretary for Defence Ash Carter asserted at the Shangri-La Dialogue that Beijing is “erecting a great wall of self-isolation”.

Such remarks can be brushed aside almost effortlessly. China has no friends? China is one of the top tourist destinations in the world. A hundred million people visit the Chinese mainland each year. China has no partners? China is the largest trading nation in the world and the top destination for foreign investment. By 2015, 124 countries, including the United States, have China as their largest trading partner.

Nevertheless, Admiral Harris is right to say China has no allies.

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The thing is: China doesn’t need allies. States engage in military alliances to protect themselves against threats from other states. However, China doesn’t need alliances for survival. During the stand-off during the cold war between Nato and the Warsaw pact, China’s non-alliance and non-interference policies won it many friends, particularly from the Third World.

China is not a hegemonic power with an ambition to police the world

Today, China is the second-largest economy in the world and a nuclear weapon state. China has become, as Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) said, a pole itself. An invasion into the Chinese mainland by any country is next to impossible. As the late Germany chancellor Helmut Schmidt said: “You [China] are big enough and you will be able to stand alone.”

More importantly, China is not a hegemonic power with an ambition to police the world with a Pax Sinica. However different China might be in its social system and ways of development, it has no intention to overthrow the existing world order from which it has benefited enormously. A stronger China today is happy to promote its culture abroad through its Confucius Institutes and so on, but the offer is voluntary rather than missionary. China’s military presence abroad is restricted to humanitarian operations such as peacekeeping, anti-piracy missions, disaster relief and evacuation of non-combatants during a crisis.

Is a new cold war brewing over the South China Sea?

If China develops alliances, particularly with Russia, the American hostility towards China will only heighten. The China-US relationship will certainly become more volatile. True, the US is rebalancing towards the Asia-Pacific and beefing up its alliances against China in the South China Sea, but it is irresponsible to conclude that the US wants a conflict with China.

In the South China Sea, China needs to rightfully react but not overreact against American provocation

Even the worst pessimists have yet to describe China and the US as foes. Joseph Nye has famously warned that if you treat China as an enemy, you are certain to have an enemy. But the same is true the other way, too. In the South China Sea, China needs to rightfully react but not overreact against American provocation.

No matter how China and Russia have supported each other’s agendas, they can hardly become allies. Neither nation wants the US as the enemy, albeit for different reasons. It is as difficult for China to take sides with Russia in the Ukraine spat as it is for Russia to take sides with China in the South China Sea issue. Another thing is that allies are hardly equal. In a “China-Russia alliance” scenario, who would have the final say – an economically stronger China or a militarily stronger Russia? In the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which is not a military alliance, China and Russia don’t have to compete for leadership.

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America’s alliance with some 60 countries need not be envied. It is maintained at huge political and economic cost. None of these allies are blind followers. Israel demands almost unconditional support from the US in any Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Japan wants an American security commitment in any potential Diaoyu Islands conflict. Germany and Britain ruled out carrying out air strikes on Islamic State militants in Syria, a day after President Barack Obama authorised the start of US air strikes there.

Rather than a ‘great wall of self-isolation’, the non-alliance is one of China’s highest moral grounds

The recent invitation to Montenegro as the 29th Nato member may be hailed as a fresh proof of continuous popularity of the alliance, but only five members meet the standard of spending at least 2 per cent of their GDP on defence, in spite of the “Russian threat”. The US vows to continue to sail and fly in the South China Sea, in part for its credibility among allies. But the USS John Stennis carrier strike group has to spend US$6.5 million a day.

Having no allies won’t diminish China’s appeal. It attracts even Nato, the largest alliance in the world. Since 2002, China-Nato security dialogues have helped to foster mutual understanding between the largest military alliance in the world and a country that believes in no military alliance. Beijing is assured that Nato doesn’t have a policy towards Taiwan or in the South China Sea; Nato will not take sides with Japan over Diaoyu Islands disputes. Both sides also cooperate to counter piracy in the Gulf of Aden.

Rather than a “great wall of self-isolation”, the non-alliance is one of China’s highest moral grounds. It has not only served China’s national interests for decades, but has also helped to reduce hostility and confrontation in a dangerous world.

Zhou Bo is an honorary fellow with the Centre of China-American Defence Relations at the PLA’s Academy of Military Science