September 28th, 2011
11:00 AM ET

China’s dictator complex

Editor's Note: Minxin Pei is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. The following post was originally published in The Diplomat, a stellar international current-affairs magazine for the Asia-Pacific region. 

By Minxin PeiThe Diplomat

The conventional wisdom about China’s foreign policy in the post-Mao era is that Beijing is the world’s quintessential practitioner ofrealpolitik – it pursues its national interests without ideological biases.

But the portrayal of Beijing as a non-ideological pragmatist in international affairs is at odds with its policy and behaviour toward some of the world’s worst dictatorships. For example, China maintained its support for Slobodan Milosevic’s regime almost until the very end of his rule. In Africa, China stuck by Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, inviting him to visit Beijing even when he was an international pariah.  Of Latin American leaders, the mandarins in Beijing seem to have taken a particular liking to Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, a dictator in all but name.

China’s dictator complex was on full display during the Arab Spring. Around the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime in February, the official Chinese media consistently cast Egypt’s anti-Mubarak forces as mobs who would do nothing but cause chaos. The Chinese handling of the recent collapse of Moammar Gadhafi's regime was egregiously inept. Beijing not only received a high-level representative of the doomed Gaddafi regime in June – its arms manufacturers were trying to sell $200 million worth of weapons to Gadhafi's forces in July, in violation of a U.N. Security Council resolution forbidding arms sales to Libya.

Read: Russia’s submarine woes.

What does this dictator complex tell us about Chinese foreign policy?

The most obvious answer is that, instead of being non-ideological, Chinese foreign policy actually is quite ideological.  As can be seen from recent events, even in situations where supporting dictatorships hurts Chinese interests, Beijing has chosen to side with these international outcasts. This ideological bias stems from the nature of China’s domestic political regime – a one-party state. The ruling Chinese Communist Party believes that its greatest ideological threat is posed by the liberal democracies in the West. Even as China benefits from the West-led international economic system, the Communist Party has never let down its guard against the democratic West.

A foreign policy corollary of this belief is that China needs allies – particularly of the authoritarian variety – in the developing world to counter the West. Dictators are easier to deal with, from Beijing’s point of view, simply because China knows very well how to do business with rulers unconstrained by the rule of law, civil society, and opposition parties. The fact that such dictators are ostracized by the international community is, then, no cause for concern. On the contrary, their isolation makes them all the more dependent on China.

The trouble with such thinking is that it isn’t true because coddling dictators hasn’t actually served Chinese interests.

Read: Is Shanghai’s education best? 

Isolated dictators may be weak, but they are tough customers and troublemakers. North Korea is perhaps the best example. The Kim Jong-il regime, the most isolated in the world, has given his Chinese patrons enormous grief over his nuclear programme and aggression against South Korea. Gaddafi, while in power, repeatedly blocked the Chinese state-owned oil giant, CNPC, from purchasing oil assets in Libya. Gaddafi committed the ultimate sin against China by hosting the Taiwanese president, an ardent pro-independence advocate, in 2006.  China may keep scores against its enemies, but apparently cuts its autocratic clients plenty of slack.

Dictators are also poor assets to invest in for China.  From Beijing’s perch, such dictators may seem secure in their power. However, because of endemic corruption, brutal oppression and lack of support within their societies, dictatorships are notoriously unstable and often implode without warning, as the Arab Spring shows. Beijing’s hopes that long-term relations with dictators are possible and productive are naïve and ignore the serious downside risks should its clients fall.

From a purely realpolitik perspective, Chinese fears of new democracies in developing countries are grossly exaggerated. Most new democracies are no stooges of the West. In fact, their foreign policy has been exceptionally pragmatic. Take Brazil and Indonesia, for example. Both are success stories in making the transition from dictatorship to democracy. Both have shown strong independence in their foreign policy. Both enjoy good relations with China.

Read: Australia's China dance.

At the same time, some of the autocratic regimes surrounding China will pose the most serious threats to Chinese security. Russia is one possibility. The authoritarian Vladimir Putin regime not only distrusts China, but has taken steps to harm China’s national and energy security. It has repeatedly failed to honour its pledge to increase its energy exports to China and has sold Vietnam advanced jetfighters and submarines that can be deployed against the Chinese military in a potential conflict in the South China Sea. Vietnam, another one-party dictatorship, is most likely to get into a fire fight with China over territorial disputes in the South China Sea. As for North Korea, its Beijing-fed ruling elites, whenever possible, barely conceal their hostility to their patrons and, during the now-defunct Six Party Talks, repeatedly betrayed and embarrassed Beijing with their double-dealing and duplicity.

So China should drop its dictator complex. If allowed to continue to influence Chinese foreign policy, this complex will needlessly set China up for confrontations with the democratic West, waste its precious diplomatic and economic resources, and undermine China’s own national interests.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Minxin Pei.

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Topics: China • Foreign Policy • Strategy

soundoff (17 Responses)
  1. Kailim

    Logically insight of Minxin Pei should be well ponder by our government. Rational pragmatism should prevail in lieu of past values for sustained future development.

    September 28, 2011 at 11:47 am | Reply
  2. DonCorleone

    A tip of the hat to China for coming so far in so short of a time.

    September 28, 2011 at 5:45 pm | Reply
  3. That'snotTrue:[

    What about the American Military Complex? Try to fix that before going off on other countries....

    September 28, 2011 at 7:17 pm | Reply
  4. JUSTSAYNO

    Can Pei be any more naive? Who kept the Arab dictators more, the Western powers or China? The fact of the matter is if it weren’t for US, Israel, and other Western powers’ continued support of the Arab dictators the Arab spring would have happened a long time ago. If you look at the events in the period of last 5 decades, China isn’t the country with dictatorship complex. If anything China’s government has a stability complex in that its foreign policy focuses on continuing the status quo.

    September 28, 2011 at 8:24 pm | Reply
    • vokoyo

      China boundary settlements with other countries -

      Western and Indian analysts and journalists frequently accuse China of having a new-found self-confidence, call on Obama to "burst Beijing's bubble", call its statements "harangue" and its behaviour "hubris", and accuse it of possessing an increased "assertiveness" (Almost everyone!).

      Even a 2005 Pentagon report on Chinese military power expressed concern that “conflicts to enforce China territorial claims could erupt in the future with wide regional repercussions."

      J.Mohan Malik, an expert in Asian Geopolitics and Proliferation, proclaims, "Having wrested substantial territorial concessions from Russia, Vietnam, and Tajikistan in their land border disputes with China, Beijing is now expecting the same from India."

      Although a thorough analysis of China border disputes merits a separate blog post, only a summary is sufficient here to put things in perspective.

      China has had land border disputes with every country which it bordered. However, it has resolved 12 out of the 14 disputes quite remarkably, giving remarkable concessions in each of them.

      In its border negotiations with different countries, China has pursued compromise and offered concessions in most of these conflicts. China compromises have often been substantial, as it has usually offered to accept less than half of the contested territory in any final settlement. It has also not reiterated its claims on a majority of the territory which was seized from it by the so-called unequal treaties.

      According to M.Taylor.Fravel, a premier expert on China border disputes,

      "Contrary to scholars of offensive realism, ......China has rarely exploited its military superiority to bargain hard for the territory that it claims or to seize it through force. China has likewise not become increasingly assertive in its territorial disputes as its relative power has grown in the past two decades. Contrary to others who emphasize the violent effects of nationalism, which would suggest inflexibility in conflicts over national sovereignty, China has been quite willing to offer territorial concessions despite historical legacies of external victimization and territorial dismemberment under the Qing."

      ".....China has not issued demands for large tracts of territory that were part of the Qing dynasty......"

      "China only contested roughly 7 percent of the territory that was part of the Qing dynasty at its height"

      China land border negotiations with neighbouring countries offer a startling revelation. Portions of the total disputed territories that China received as part of its boundary negotiations with 12 of its 14 neighbours are as follows:

      Afghanistan – 0%
      Tajikistan – 4%
      Nepal – 6%
      Burma – 18%
      Kazakhstan – 22%
      Mongolia – 29%
      Kyrgyzstan – 32%
      North Korea – 40%
      Laos – 50%
      Vietnam – 50%
      Russia – 50%
      Pakistan – 54%

      Pakistan was a special case in which China received 60% of the disputed land but transferred 1942 square kilometers of separate land to Pakistan. In Tajikistan’s case, the figure refers to the 28000 sq.km of the disputed Pamir mountain range, other sectors were divided evenly. In the case of Vietnam, in addition to this settlement, China transferred, apparently without any strings attached, the White Dragon Tail Island to (North) Vietnam in 1957.

      According to Fravel, "Analysis of China dispute behavior bears directly on the future of peace and stability in East Asia. Behavior in territorial disputes is a fundamental indicator of whether a state is pursuing status quo or revisionist foreign policies, an issue of increasing importance in light of China rising power."

      October 5, 2011 at 6:07 am | Reply
  5. j. von hettlingen

    Dictators are mostly independent-minded rulers and conduct their foreign policiIes.

    September 29, 2011 at 5:25 am | Reply
  6. j. von hettlingen

    Western leaders are elected and are held accountable for what they do!

    September 29, 2011 at 5:27 am | Reply
  7. j. von hettlingen

    The Chinese are not the only ones who prefer strong leaders to stooges and puppets.

    September 29, 2011 at 5:28 am | Reply
  8. j. von hettlingen

    The Russians too and it explains why they prefer Putin to Medvedev.

    September 29, 2011 at 5:28 am | Reply
  9. j. von hettlingen

    In many countries, where civil societies are weak and the herd mentality strong, the author sees the culture of "dictator-complex".

    September 29, 2011 at 5:30 am | Reply
  10. j. von hettlingen

    Paths to independence or transitions from weak to strong are led by charismatic and strong-willed leaders.

    September 29, 2011 at 5:31 am | Reply
  11. j. von hettlingen

    People will only rise up, if their autocratic regimes are corrupt and the grievances unbearable.

    September 29, 2011 at 5:31 am | Reply
  12. Mike Smith

    brutal PRC Communist regime engages in widespread human rights abuses as well as the barbaric practice of organ harvesting done in Chinese labour camps (Gulags)

    ORGAN HARVESTING IN CHINA'S LABOR CAMPS

    Magazine Breaks News on Organ Harvesting in China

    October 2, 2011 at 4:45 pm | Reply
  13. Mike Smith

    brutal Chinese Communist regime engages in widespread human rights abuses:

    October 2, 2011 at 4:47 pm | Reply

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