'China now has only one real ally'

One of the Chinese establishment’s leading foreign policy voices thinks that China is alarmingly short on allies — a label that he reserved for one unexpected country.

In an interview with the New York Times published on Tuesday, Yan Xuetong, the director of the Institute for International Relations at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, said “China has only one real ally, Pakistan.”

In context, Yan seemed to be working off of a narrow definition of alliances.

North Korea, he said is not a Chinese ally because of Beijing’s 2013 declaration that the two countries had “normal relations,” and the fact that “[t]he two countries’ leaders haven’t met for years.”

In contrast, Pakistani-Chinese relations are surprisingly energetic. China and Pakistan inked a $46 billion energy and infrastructure deal in April of 2015.

That November, a Chinese state-owned enterprise took control of the strategically located and Chinese-built port of Gwadar, which could easily serve as a future way-station for the country’s commercial and military vessels.

As the RAND Corporation’s Jonah Blank wrote in Foreign Affairs in 2015, Pakistan owes much of its vaunted military might — which is far out of proportion to the country’s middling economic development — to Chinese assistance.

China has provided Pakistan with much of its nuclear weapons program, an even greater portion of its ballistic missile program, a steady stream of conventional arms, and steadfast diplomatic support that has spanned over half a century,” Blank writes.

Close ties with Pakistan offer obvious benefits to Beijing: the country counter-balances India, one of China’s top regional rivals, and gives China a strategic reach into Central Asia, the Middle East, and the Indian Ocean basin.

While Yan doesn’t define what an “ally” really is, he at least implies that allies serve as an extension of Chinese hard power, as Pakistan arguably has: “We should scale back this economic assistance and switch to military aid,” Yan says when asked about what form Chinese aid to the country’s international partners should take. “Military aid should be given to friendly countries to improve strategic cooperation and secure political support.”

Yan is one of China’s top foreign policy experts, the editor-in-chief of the Chinese Journal of International Politics, and one of Foreign Policy Magazine’s top 100 public intellectuals in 2008. He has a somewhat hawkish, anti-internationalist reputation and enjoys a degree of official influence that belies his apparent lack of formal connections to the Chinese state.

According to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Yan is a member of the Consultation Committee for China’s Chamber of Commerce. International relations scholar Lindsay Cunningham-Cross describes him as “influential with China’s opinion-makers in the mass media,” and someone whose “research has been important in shaping public policy as well as recent intellectual trends in China.”

The New York Times notes that his latest book, entitled “The Transition of Power: Political Leadership and Strategic Competition,” has received favourable reviews in Chinese state-run media.

So it’s notable that such an important establishment foreign policy figure takes such a narrow view of what could constitute an “alliance” for a China that aspires to superpower status.

In Yan’s mind, it isn’t enough for China just to have trading partners — he told the Times he “[doesn’t] think China’s One Belt, One Road initiative for economic development across Eurasia can fundamentally change the nature of the relations.” Neither does Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea represent a significant development in Beijing’s international behaviour: “China’s South China Sea policy is only intended to safeguard its own interests, so I don’t think it’s overly assertive,” Yan said, adding that “previous policies were not forceful enough.”

Instead, China’s alliance-building and power projection implicitly involves shared strategic objectives, the hosting of Chinese strategic assets, and a high degree of diplomatic and economic loyalty.

Yan believes that more Chinese alliances will actually help relations between China and the US: “The more allies China makes, the more balanced and stable the relationship will be.” But one of China’s leading foreign policy thinkers believes Beijing has its work cut out for it.

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