BY MONTE R. BULLARD | IN-DEPTH PIECE
In general, experts tend to perceive that a rising China poses a threat to international peace and security. Some experts state the threat comes from expansionism, while others assert the threat comes from China’s easy lending to developing nations around the world, which, now, because of China’s loan policies, face potential debt crises. According to many experts, both threats pose an imminent threat to U.S. national interests. In this article, we examine the Chinese threat of expansionism, which is perceived as one of China’s strategies to attain its ultimate foreign policy goals of taking over the world. However, we disavow the mainstream narrative that Chinese expansionism poses a threat to international peace and stability. We contend that the experts’ focus on Chinese expansionism as a threat to peace and security in neighboring areas such as the South China Sea, the East China Sea, the Taiwan Strait, as well as farther afield, is a red herring, because China’s overall strategy is not territorial expansion. In this series, we aim to refute these types of China threat theories in order to identify more likely Chinese international aspirations that pose a challenge to the current U.S.-led world order. China’s strategy, in fact, can be found in the advancement of legal, cultural, political, and, in particular, economic relationships, that drive China’s foreign policy goals and are clearly inimical to some U.S. national interests. These different aspirations will be examined in future blogs while this article focuses on expansion threat theory.
CHINA'S ULTIMATE GOAL
China is charged with being an “expansionist” power and, based on this charge, China is accused of being a “threat’ to international peace and security. Many who write about Chinese expansion use the models of previous empire building and other imperialist expansion, mostly in the 18th and 19th centuries. These expansionist tendencies were characterized by military campaigns, land seizures, and intervention in local and regional politics. The British Empire is a prime example. Some even contend that given Chinese history, specifically the cycles of reunification and expansion, followed by decay and fragmentation, China is now set to embark on a period of expansion. We contend that these models are not adequate and fail to characterize Chinese intentions in the 21st century.
Some writers imply that the Chinese strategies contradict their stated goals of world peace and that China’s ultimate goal is to take over the world. Some argue that as President Xi consolidates power inside of China, he will be able to be more assertive, even aggressive, in achieving his personal goal of world dominance, first on the periphery of China, then in developing countries, and, finally in the western world. By extension, there is an assumption that China – characterized by a communist political system (Leninist) and a socialist economic system (Marxism) poses a major threat to the viability of the democratic-capitalist systems around the world and in turn the international liberal institutions built by the western world in the post-World War II era. Some believe that the final goal can be found by carefully examining the Chinese leadership’s ideology detailed in official statements and documents such as Xi Jinping’s speech to the 19th Party Congress; others suggest that bureaucratically there is a secret committee within the Communist Party that is working toward achieving control of the world and making all other nations subservient to China, like China’s ancient tributary system. We can see in nearly every article written about China there is an underlying theme that assumes China is a major threat to the United States. In short, the pervasive sentiment is that China is in search of global domination and seeks to replace the current liberal world order. This brief discussion begs the salient question of: What is China’s ultimate goal?
To answer this question, we agree that it is critical to review China’s formal documents and official statements to help identify China’s ultimate goal.
Our assumption is that China has a central goal and a strategy to reach that goal. The goal is to change the international system from a unipolar to a bipolar, but preferably a multipolar system with China as one of the world leaders. There is little evidence that China hopes to take over and rule the world. There is no doubt that some Chinese leaders would like for China to be one of the leaders at the pinnacle of world power in international relationships, like the U.S. is now. It is also clear that China aspires to be the model for modernization ending and with a socialist government. China has outlined its strategy for attaining its goal and it prefers to use economic power to get there. China’s preferred approach makes it difficult to understand by basing analysis on historical precedents.
The most important document that outlines China’s ultimate goal and strategies is the October 18, 2017 19th Chinese Communist Party Congress Report. It states the overall goal of the Party is to maintain stability and unity in China, increase the central power of the Party, strengthen the military in order to prevent the fragmentation of China by internal and external forces, engage in national rejuvenation, and promote the China development model around the world and in particular in developing nations. President Xi stated that the Chinese leadership “must do more to safeguard China’s sovereignty, security, and development interests, and staunchly oppose all attempts to split China or undermine its ethnic unity and social harmony and stability”. In addition, he emphasized that China would never “seek hegemony or engage in expansion implying that China would not seek American style hegemony and expansion. In place of the American world order, China aims to promote norms as expressed in the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence (e.g., mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual nonaggression, mutual noninterference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence).
Thus China’s primary stated foreign policy goal is to advance the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence. Over the past 50 years China has used a peaceful policy toward its neighbors to resolve boundary and territorial disputes. A series of White Papers and a UN Foreign Policy statement highlight Chinese efforts and activities directed at creating a stable surrounding environment, particularly on its periphery.
The 2000 White Paper, titled “China’s National Defense in 2000” (Section III titled National Defense Construction) discusses China’s “Frontier Defense” which aims to promote a “policy of good neighborliness and friendships”. Its overarching stated goal is to defend as well as administer China’s land borders and territorial seas. Furthermore, China aims to “safeguard the country's territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, and secure both its land and sea borders, strictly in accordance with treaties and agreements it has signed with its neighboring countries, and the United Nations maritime conventions”. In the White Paper, it states that the Chinese leadership supports the settlement of “pending and unresolved border and maritime demarcation issues through negotiations, attaches importance to the setting up of mutual confidence-building mechanisms in border regions, and opposes the use of force or provocative acts.”
Furthermore, in the Frontier Defense section there is a discussion on exactly how the Chinese government has solved or almost solved peacefully nearly all the boundary issues. According to the White Paper:
China has solved or basically solved boundary issues left over by history with most of its adjacent countries.
In the 1960s, China and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), Mongolia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal and Myanmar settled their border issues through negotiations.
In the 1990s, China signed new border treaties or agreements with Laos, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Viet Nam, re-demarcating or basically demarcating the respective boundaries. The borders between China and Laos and Russia were resurveyed; the field survey of the border between China and Kazakhstan has been completed; the survey of the border between China and Kyrgyzstan has started, and the survey of the border between China and Viet Nam is about to commence.
The Chinese leadership has, in effect, peacefully resolved nearly all the boundary issues without resorting to the use of force.
In addition, the resolution or near resolution of the boundary issues brought about other agreements between China and its neighbors on border control and other issues. For example,
China has signed treaties, agreements and understandings respectively with the DPRK, Mongolia, Russia, Myanmar, Viet Nam and Laos on border control measures, setting up confidence-building measures, preventing dangerous military activities and promoting border cooperation, jointly maintaining frontier order within a bilateral or multilateral legal framework and preserving peace and stability on the borders.
Furthermore, by resolving the boundary issues China has been able to pursue infrastructure projects in neighboring countries. For instance,
In the course of its vigorous development of various kinds of cooperative relations with its neighboring countries, China has opened more than 200 ports along its land and sea frontiers.
The 2002 PRC White Paper titled “China’s National Defense in 2002” also highlights the Chinese government’s ‘policy of good neighborliness and friendship”. In the White Paper, the Chinese leadership argues that it “defends and administers its land borders and seas under its jurisdiction, safeguards the country’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, and secures both its land and sea borders strictly in accordance with treaties and agreements it has signed with neighboring countries, and the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea. China has solved or basically solved boundary issues left over by history with most of its adjacent countries”.
Furthermore, in a government statement titled “China’s Independent Foreign Policy of Peace”, China’s leaders vow to uphold a “foreign policy of peace” that aims to maintain Chinese “independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity”. Likewise, the leaders want to have good relations with its neighbors while cooperating with them to advance development. According to the statement, the leadership:
…unswervingly pursues an independent foreign policy of peace. The fundamental goals of this policy are to preserve China's independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity...
It is an important component of China's foreign policy to actively develop good-neighborly relations of friendship with the surrounding countries. China has resolved problems left over by history with the overwhelming majority of neighboring countries. And China's mutually beneficial cooperation with its neighbors has witnessed a vigorous development.
Based on these documents, Chinese strategy consists of a several components. It aims to resolve peacefully border and territorial disputes. These agreements can serve as the basis for expanded and future cooperation in bilateral or multilateral frameworks. At the same time, China wants to promote and establish international norms in which governments from around the world respect a nation’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and in which governments are free from any form of foreign interference in their internal affairs. These three pillars establish the conditions in which China can create stability on its periphery and farther afield as well as establish predictable foreign relations on the basis of the aforementioned norms that promote bilateral and multilateral cooperation particularly in the economic realm, as we will demonstrate in a later article.
CHINA'S TERRITORIAL DISPUTES
It is worth examining whether or not the assertions the Chinese leadership makes in official documents and statements hold up under close investigation. In the neighborhood, China engaged in actions across its border. Its goals, however, were always couched in terms of recovering territory that used to be Chinese, whether true or not. Sometimes it was to get peripheral leaders to kowtow to the Chinese emperor, not to conquer them and take over their countries. In general, Chinese actions consisted of forms of indirect strategy or gambits to make the leaders of neighboring countries recognize China as the hegemon. The Chinese leadership’s aim seems to have been to make a political point, subordinate peripheral powers to China but not to expand Chinese territory.
A few cases demonstrate this line of argument. This examination begins with a tour d’horizon starting with Korea. On 20 October 1950, 200,000 Chinese troops entered Korea to stop U.S. forces from advancing to the border with China (the Yalu River). At one point the Chinese had 700,000 troops in Korea. Even though they suffered serious casualties and were hampered by lack of air support and logistics problems, they could have increased their numbers and taken over and maintained control of Korea… if they were expansionistic. But they withdrew all Chinese troops immediately after the ceasefire.
The next area of our tour is the border with the Soviet Union. China and the Soviet Union, now Russia, have been in conflict for centuries from the Pamir Knot in Tajikistan to the Xinjiang area to Zhenbao (Damansky) Island. The latter erupted into armed conflict in 1969 and was not totally resolved until a Border Line Agreement was signed in 2008.
While China rationalizes the current Spratly Island Conflict in terms of an historical claim, it has made no effort to recover Mongolia, which was part of China during the Yuan and Qing dynasties.
China had no border dispute with Burma. But in 1961, with the permission of the Burmese government, sent 4,500 troops into Northern Burma to exterminate remnant Chinese Nationalist troops. The PLA troops quickly withdrew once the Chinese Nationalist forces were scattered and out of that region.
Four states on the southern border (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Myanmar and Thailand) all maintain good relations with China and there are no border disputes.
China did go to war with Vietnam in 1979, but it was primarily to punish Vietnam for its aggressive military attacks into Cambodia and not over border issues. Chinese forces suffered extensive casualties because the Vietnamese forces had years of experience fighting the Americans in Vietnam. China could have sent waves of troops into Vietnam, but they ultimately elected to withdraw.
China has disputes with India in two separate areas. The first area is Aksai Chin, an uninhabited high-altitude desert area of approximately 37,000 square kilometers. Aksai Chin is located between the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir and the Chinese province of Xinjiang. The second dispute is over the now Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, a hill region with a population of about 1.4 million people spread out over 84,000 square kilometers that borders Tibet (Xizang). China claims much of this area as Lower Tibet. The second dispute is problematic because they have not agreed upon a Line of Actual Control (LAC) to separate the jurisdictions under the control of their militaries. To reduce the risk of escalation, the two governments established a Border Defence Cooperation Agreement. The agreement establishes the code of conduct for both sides. The Agreement contains two main components that military patrols take every precaution to ensure that they do not confront each other and that no permanent structures can be built in the disputed areas
China and India are, however, still are at odds over the arbitrary border (McMahon Line) drawn by the British in the 19th Century. The Aksai Chin Area is a high altitude, sparsely populated area that is strategically valuable to China because of a road they constructed from Southern Tibet to the Xinjiang Autonomous Region of China. The Arunachal Pradesh (North East Frontier) area is also an area between Southern Tibet and India. The competing claims erupted into relatively serious military battles between the two sides in 1962. Chinese soldiers who had been training at high altitudes defeated Indian soldiers who had come to the higher altitudes from lower valleys. Chinese troops advanced and took control in both areas up to the lines they claimed to be part of China. A final agreement was signed in 1996. It gave China territory in the Aksai Chin area to build their road and they conceded territory in the Arunachal Pradesh Area.
China has had military confrontations with India and Bhutan in the Doklam area at the tri-country border point. China’s participation in the solution is a great example of how China now hopes to settle any border disputes. It may be the first example of a major power using social media (Twitter) to help resolve the problem. China avoided a military buildup, of which they are fully capable, and opted for peacefully and diplomatic resolution to the territorial issue.
The Chinese government is involved in a series of sovereign territorial disputes along its eastern, southern, and western sides. On the eastern side of China, the Chinese leadership has historical claims to three main island groups: Taiwan, Diaoyutai (Senkaku) Islands and Nansha (Spratly) Islands. China uses historic right claims to assert sovereignty over these territories. It contends that Taiwan once was a part of China and, because its leaders lost the civil war and because the Treaty of San Francisco returned Taiwan to China, China has sovereignty over the island. It also claims that the Diaoyutai (Senkaku) Islands have been part of Chinese territory since ancient times and when Taiwan was returned to China (Treaty of San Francisco), these islands should also have been returned. Finally, China uses the 9-dash line in the South China Sea, which, of all the disputes requires a more in-depth analysis because the claims are so complicated.
The Nansha (Spratly) claims are complicated because they contain conflicts with four other countries, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines. Taiwan is also a claimant, but its claims mirror those of the PRC. There are 14 islands or islets, 6 banks, 113 submerged reefs, 35 underwater banks, 21 underwater shoals. While China claims all the islands, it does not control any of the islands. Taiwan though, controls the largest island, Itu Aba. China has not tried to take by force the islands controlled or administered by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia or Brunei. They have built up areas on reefs that might now be considered islands. They have imported land to the point that some now have personnel living on them and enough room for fairly large airport landing strips.
Given the Chinese leadership’s perception that these three main island groups belong to China based on historic claims, it is difficult to contend that Chinese intentions and actions in those areas are expansionist.
CHINA'S ECONOMIC STATECRAFT
Although we contend that China is not an expansionist power seeking to gain territory through military might, there are examples of China using economic and political strategies to become a world leader. According to the 19th Party Congress Work Report, the Chinese leadership’s primary goal is economic expansion in the peripheral areas as well as in the beyond. Perhaps the most important example of this policy goal is the Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road Initiative, also known as China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The leaders provide loans to build infrastructure like ports, highways, rails, airports, and pipelines as well as build trade, financial and people-to-people links. From China’s view, these projects drive cooperation and development in the new era and thus the BRI represents a major part of the Chinese strategy to become a superpower through economic connections.
To promote the BRI, China established the Silk Road Fund and initiated the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). The Fund is a lending institution set up to finance BRI projects. AIIB is a multilateral financial institution that offers finance for infrastructure projects in BRI countries. The BRI also lends support to countries that are not part of it, such as India. The goal is to strengthen ties across Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. When China created the AIIB, 87 countries joined it, indicating it could become a major competitor of the U.S.-created IMF.
A driver of China’s regional and international economic initiatives is the attempt to establish the Yuan as a currency equal to or displace the U.S. dollar, a policy goal clearly emerging due to China’s experience with the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. BRI trade and investment, for example, is increasing Yuan denominated currency flows between China and BRI countries and China and non-BRI countries like India. China also aims to increase Yuan currency flows with key trading partners, such as Russia and Iran which are vulnerable to U.S. sanctions. Furthermore, in 2018 China launched a yuan-backed oil futures that will strengthen the yuan because OPEC’s third largest producer is Iran which now sells crude to China in RMB instead of in U.S. dollars. 
China’s economic strategy differs from the West’s and in particular the U.S.’s. Unlike loans from western institutions that come with strings attached such as the adoption of certain policies, there are no strings attached to the Chinese loans and the interest rates can be low. However, there are risks. For example, recipient governments must repay the loans much faster. The rapid repayment has left some countries at “high risk of debt distress”, such as Kenya that might default on a USD 3.2 billion loan for a rail project. If Kenya defaults, it might allow a Chinese bank to take over a Kenyan port. That said, China has allowed countries to restructure some of the debt. An example is Ethiopia which was the first African country to have its debt restructured. Furthermore, in 2018, China pledged USD$60 billion in grants to African nations in an attempt to deflect growing criticisms that accuse China of engaging in “debt trap” diplomacy. President Xi stated that “government debt from Chinese interest-free loans due by year-end would be written off for the poorest African nations”. African leaders such as President Kabore of Burkina Faso stated, “Africa has chosen China. It is our choice and we stick to that”. In other cases, however, China has not allowed governments to renegotiate the loan terms or has not offered to dismiss the loans. In Sri Lanka, for instance, the government handed over the Hambantota Port as well as 15,000 acres around it on a 99-year lease.
China has expanded its influence by offering loans to build infrastructure projects in nations all over the world. While some of the countries have begun to react to these loans by China and some countries end up on the short end of the stick, it is clear that China’s world reach is expanding and, in some areas, such as Africa, China’s ties are overtaking the U.S.
CONCLUSION AND IMPLICATIONS
This brief review suggests that Chinese foreign policy strategies do not include what is generally defined as expansionism. China, regardless of its development of modern military weapons, is not a military threat to its neighbors or to other nations of the world. It appears that the Chinese leadership aims to resolve peacefully border and territorial disputes, use them as the basis to expand cooperation through bilateral and multilateral frameworks, and, most importantly, establish China as the dominant player in the relationship.
We do not dismiss the potential consequences of China’s modern military accomplishments. Our analysis focuses on the intent of Chinese leaders and not on the capability of the People’s Liberation Army. We understand that military planners must focus on capability and if they expand the analysis to include intent it softens the potential political interactions.
We have already begun to examine China’s non-kinetic strategies to become a world leader. We have not assumed, as many researchers do, that just because China becomes a world leader it will ipso facto be inimical to world peace. Whether authoritarian governments are automatically a menace to democracies is still an open question. But we can track China’s strategies to become a world leader. In China’s terms these efforts are termed Political Warfare which we have begun to examine on our website, but so far our effort has been limited to the Cross Strait issue. There is a long way to go to understand Political Warfare strategies, which includes the economic approaches, and the consequences of these efforts to world peace. We welcome all writers to join us in this research effort.
1] White Paper on China’s National Defense in 2002. Available online at: http://en.people.cn/features/ndpaper2002/nd.html
 China’s Independent Foreign Policy of Peace. Permanent Mission of the People's Republic of China to the United Nations Office at Geneva and Other International Organizations in Switzerland. Available online at: http://www.china-un.ch/eng/ljzg/zgwjzc/t85889.htm
 Guruswamy, Mohan. "India and China's Border Disputes Are So Difficult Resolve." South China Morning Post, 20 July 2018, www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/2124528/why-india-and-chinas-border-disputes-are-so-difficult
 "2013 Border Defence Cooperation Agreement between India and China." Press Release The Government of the People's Republic of China and the Government of India, 23 October 2013, https://peacemaker.un.org/sites/peacemaker.un.org/files/CH-IN_131023_BorderDefenceCooperationAgreement.pdf
 "China & India play ‘who blinks first’ over tiny strategic area in Himalayas." RT, 03 August 2017. www.rt.com/news/398412-china-india-conflict-doklam/
 “Why is the South China Sea Contentious?” BBC News, 12 July 2016, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-pacific-13748349
 For a complete discussion of these disputes see: The East Asia Peace and Security Initiative, www.eapasi.com and "Diaoyu Dao, an Inherent Territory of China", The State Council of the People's Republic of China, September 2012,
 “Belt and Road Initiative.” South China Morning Post, www.scmp.com/topics/belt-and-road-initiative
"Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank." South China Morning Post. https://www.scmp.com/topics/asian-infrastructure-investment-bank
 "Yuan Going Global as China Boasts Largest Foreign Reserves & Infrastructure Megaprojects." RT, 5 June 2018, www.rt.com/business/428759-china-global-currency-yuan/
 Wong, Edward. "Competing Against Chinese Loans, U.S. Companies Face Long Odds in Africa." The New York Times, 13 January 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/13/world/africa/china-loans-africa-usa.html
 Udosen, Itohoimo. "China Agrees to Restructure Ethiopia’s Railway Loan." Business Times of Africa, 07 September 2018, http://businesstimesafrica.net/index.php/business/item/3278-china-agrees-to-restructure-ethiopia-s-railway-loan
 "China Pledges $60 billion to Africa, Fends Off Accusations of Setting a Debt Trap." Euractiv with Reuters, 05 September 2018, www.euractiv.com/section/development-policy/news/china-pledges-60-billion-to-africa-fends-off-accusations-of-setting-a-debt-trap/
 Abi-Habid, Maria. "How China Got Sri Lanka to Cough Up A Port." The New York Times, 5 June 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/06/25/world/asia/china-sri-lanka-port.html