Abstract. Two things has become increasingly clear in the Chinese foreign policy: (1) aspiration for expanding and enhancing China's power influence soft and hard, or even preponderant role in longer terms, in Asia and Western Pacific; and (2) after conducting primarily "strategic military" over nearly two years with mix results, President Xi Jinping has made a strategic transformation in favoring "strategic economy", while a few major aspects of the "strategic military" is still in his fundamental posture, making his approach a combined and complex one, and the strategic transformation look like a "strategic expansion" without major retrenchment. As having been prominently demonstrated by the practices of "strategic military", there is an imperative of prudence which should be met by China's future efforts in the initiated Belt and Road and similar projects of "strategic economy". All the major requirements in this aspect concern with China's mentality, behaviour, words and deeds and manners to be tested at the present and in the future. China's prudence, together with its vigorous and appropriate advocacy and pushing, would bring better chance of success to the international cooperative Belt and Road, while help to prevent "strategic overdrawing".
Since Xi Jinping took over the leadership in China, one major development has been increasingly certain: his increasingly clearer aspiration for expanding and enhancing China's power influence soft and hard, or even preponderant role in longer terms, in Asia and Western Pacific at the cost of American dominant advantages.
There are two categories of major policy instruments to serve this objective: "strategic military" and "strategic economy". Roughly defining, until middle of 2014, President Xi Jinping used primarily "strategic military" in its broad sense, building up with an even further accelerating pace China's dramatically increased strategic military capability, extending very remarkably the extent of China's maritime strategic activities, engaging vigorously in strategic/ military rivalry and competition with the U.S., conducting intensive confrontation against Japan, taking an assertive and hardliner approach toward South China and East China Seas disputes, accompanied by intensive military and para-military patrol actions.
Assessing their double effects, one can easily find that they strengthened China's hard power, extended its strategic presence, but damaged China's international soft power, complicated further its peripheral diplomatic/strategic situation, while increased remarkably risk of conflict with Japan as well as the U.S., and promoted unexpectedly the further strengthening of the American strategic/diplomatic "re-balancing" with the Japanese lifting the ban on its rights of collective self-defence.
Therefore probably, some review has led to a major decision of strategic transformation in favoring "strategic economy", and the increasingly urgent requirement for expanding demands outside for China's huge surplus production capability in the context of its slow but adamant economic downturn has made this transformation even imperative. Whether Xi's beloved projects of Belt and Road in the nature of strategic economy, or China's advocacy and leading role in establishing Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) with its headquarter in Beijing and serving Belt and Road as its primary purpose surely in Xi's mind, and whether Beijing's suggestion of creating an enormous Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP), or completion of FTA negotiations with the Republic of Korea and Australia, are all indications in the same direction. Moreover, there is also the vigorous pushing of the various projects to export China's high-speed railway to numerous regions and areas outside.
China will in a substantial period in the future to diversify its focus in foreign strategic policy, making "strategic economy" just another dimension of the agenda of priorities, which is based on China's enormous economic and financial strength and a broader diplomacy to be engaged in the region and globally.
Though, as analysed above, there were been substantial costs and risks embedded in the approach of primarily relying upon "strategic military" which lasted nearly two years, but they have not deterred China. A few major aspects of "strategic military" is still there in President Xi's fundamental posture, if one consider the remaining or even increasing complexity in his foreign policy.
The dramatic and sustained build-up of China's strategic military capability still continues, even in a quicker speed, and surely will continue to be so in the predictable future. In this aspect, the world has already seen a China-U.S. arms race, or more broadly competition for combat capability, over the western Pacific (at least its western part from the Chinese seacoast to the first island chain) emerging, which relating to strategic and operational weaponry in air, sea, outerspace, and cyberspace.
Besides, China's determination to develop and exert maritime power in South and East China Seas and even in the western Pacific is still kept intact, with reclamation of land for five to seven reefs and construction of aircraft runways there in Spratly Islands in a massive scale and extraordinary pace as its current primary demonstration, together with deployment of military equipments including missiles, advance radar, and fighters in some islets in Spratly and Paracel, both of which look somewhat like a coup de grace, greatly intensifying the strategic rivalry with the United States while broadening the tension with Southeast Asian maritime countries. Most prominently, U.S. military "freedom of navigation operations" again and again in recent months met China's military response conducted by PLA's warships and fighters, together with the dramatic beginning of China's diplomatic mobilization of foreign governments' endorsement of some elements in China's position on South China Sea.
Moreover, the strategic/military cooperation between China and Russia has progressed quickly, especially for export from Russia to China of latter's advanced military hardware and technology, plus Russian-Chinese joint naval drills in Mediterranean and Japan Sea.
So, it could be said that China's current strategic approach has become a combined and complex one, and the transformation from primarily relying upon "strategic military" look like a strategic expansion without major retrenchment. And therefore, there are some tensions unable to be overlooked between the requirement of "strategic economy" and those major aspects of "strategic military" mentioned above, which need to be deal with seriously in China's desirable future efforts for balancing in foreign policy.
As having been prominently demonstrated by the practices of "strategic military" during the past two years, there is imperative of prudence which should be met by China's future primary efforts in its foreign policy in the nature of "strategic economy".
What is most important in this aspect is that Beijing has to realize further deeply the imperative of full participation by other countries, on whose sovereign lands the intended infrastructure systems might built, in making related initiatives, as well as the imperative of conducting related inter-state consultations far sufficient than those have been done. The projects must be really made as international collective enterprises, for only in this way the various external obstructions that would mainly result from national worries and suspicions could be reduced substantially, and the success of the projects could become much hopeful.
China must inquire countries along the way of Belt and Road with full sincerity and seriousness about what they really need, rather than defining their supposed requirements by China itself as something almost taken for granted. In this vitally important aspect, the issue of compatibility must be paid full attention: Compatibility between China and the other concerned countries and societies in their respective contemporary experiences, including those on Development. We Chinese should not suppose subjectively that the approach of massive construction of infrastructure and growth through huge investments, which has characterized China's economic development in the past two decades, is something universally applicable and welcomed to all or most other developing countries with their various basic particularities. If those complex particularities or even in some cases opposite inclinations would be ignored, the oft-disastrous mistake of the Western universalism criticized so frequently in the contemporary China could committed by the Chinese ourselves.
It is extremely important to realize fully that the huge infrastructure systems China now aspires to construct on the sovereign lands of many countries in Central, Southeast, and South Asia have, by their essential feature, almost "natural" inherent sensitivities. Those countries of course hold related doubts and worries about their longer-term sovereignty, autonomy, and distribution of prospective benefits. This sort of construction is "naturally" easy to bring out nationalistic worries, stimulate domestic political controversy and faction struggle shrouded by nationalism, together with negative effects resulted from them, if China operates inappropriately.
With the same importance, it has to be emphasized that for Belt and Road, etc. China's pushing should not be too quick, for "more haste, less speed" as a traditional Chinese axiom says. "To take small bites one after another at the table, to fight successive battles one after another during a war." The whole enterprise must be divided into different stages, with different staged width and depth appropriately differentiated. China should have a keen sense on its limitations, limitations in terms of knowledge, experience, available resources, international influences, and shrewdness in strategy and tactics. There are requirements to identify and differentiate various concrete situations as to different issue areas, geographical regions and sub-regions, and individual countries, thereby developing and revising different concrete strategic ideas and plans.
All in all, the major requirements we discussed here in terms of prudence concern with China's mentality, behaviour, words and deeds and manners to be tested at the present and in the future. China's prudence, together with its vigorous and appropriate advocacy and pushing, would bring better chance of success to the international cooperative Belt and Road.
In a short time-span of the past three and half years, China opened up or solidified so many "new fronts" or "new battlefields," as it were, but none of them could have a final decision developed in the predictable future through all the possible actions and reactions of the concerned countries. So, if there would be no retrenchment and adjustment made by Beijing, a logical inference must be that China would be engaged in "fights" and "campaigns" in multiple fronts at the same time. This is undoubtedly a worrisome situation according to strategic common sense, besides the worrisome increasing strategic/military rivalry with the U.S. in western Pacific which has been moving both Beijing and Washington nearer to the margin of "Thucydides Trap" in despite of all their "interdependences".
Moreover, if the following two trajectories would be taken into account, the situation could become even more so: (1) the increasingly complicated Chinese economy has been slowly but adamantly in its slowdown, with increasing financial precariousness in a context of decreasing government revenue and increasing national debts; and (2) at the same time, China's international involvement and its overseas commitment has drastically increased or intensified, accompanying with more multiple external tasks which demand more Chinese national resources to deal with. Taking an analogy, it could be said that China's "bank deposit" is probably decreasing while its expense quite dramatically increasing. In other words, the risk of a sort of "strategic overdrawing" may be increasing accordingly.
The particularly critical strategic issue China now faces is: Whether it is able to be really aware that it should "take small bites one after another at the table, and fight successive battles one after another during a war." Because of the overall Chinese economic situation at home, an overwhelming strategic "center of gravity" should be made and put on nowhere but maintaining the economic growth, adjusting its structure, and deepening reform at home. As to that, what really urgent are China's domestic tasks rather than the external ones for strategic exertion to increase power influence and win glory at Asia and in the world.