China and the Primacy of Domestic Politics

Commentary | December 15, 2015

The EastWest Institute has engaged intensively with China in November and December, running two top-level bilateral meetings between Chinese and American leaders. Here are my takeaways. 2016 can be a very important year for both countries to set their sights long-term, for mutual benefit.

This is not to say that there aren't immediate challenges. At the High Level Security Dialogue, in November in Beijing, top American experts discussed tough issues with their Chinese interlocutors—among them top Party leaders, defense- and foreign-ministry-associated think tank experts, and even uniformed military—from the South China Sea to U.S.-Taiwan relations to North Korea. In all these areas, there are substantial differences. Similarly, at the Sanya talks in December in Beijing, which brought together senior retired military leaders from both countries, discussions focused on these flashpoints and it was evident that both sides were far apart.

But it was also clear that Chinese leaders hope to make clear that they do not seek a confrontation with the United States. This had much to do with the focus on the top Chinese leadership on efforts at domestic reforms and the challenges they pose to China. Looming in the background of every foreign policy discussion were such domestic tasks as coping with falling growth rates, restructuring the economy toward higher-value manufacturing and services, meeting the growing demands of the Chinese people for action against environmental destruction and ecological poisoning, and the debt overhang in the provinces. These talks—on the surface, talks about foreign policy issues—were in fact marked by the primacy of domestic politics.

This accounts for the phenomenon that many find in China: that a country that has many of the attributes of a superpower—a sophisticated military and a GDP that rapidly approaches that of the United States—still insists that it's a developing country. Our interlocutors claimed that only decades from now, say around 2050, will China mature. Thus we may think of China's achievements, but Chinese leaders choose to speak of all the many difficult obstacles that remain. As we look at the coming year, we may find that this primacy of domestic politics may help us understand Chinese actions and more important, help us avoid unintended conflict.

Certainly, it leads me to predict that certain sharp pronouncements of "core interests" in foreign policy may be just that—pronouncements—rather than indications of foreign policy adventurism. At the heart of it all will be the need for stability in China: the leadership wants stability to allow it to continue its anti-corruption campaign, the far-reaching reform of the People's Liberation Army, and the enormous transition from an export-driven economy to a service economy.

This is where American and Chinese interests can coincide: in a world that appears to many as the most unstable in years, the two most powerful countries may find common ground in their efforts to work together in areas that promote stability. It may be that in 2016 the focus on counter-terrorism, non-proliferation, or the environment may be the areas of greatest opportunity for China and America, setting the foundation for stability. In a year in which domestic issues are at the forefront—after all, it's also an election year in America—these longer-term topics may be the most constructive areas for the two countries to explore.