China after 70: Between a rock and a hard place

China is struggling to keep up its traditional foreign policy principles on issues that may carry implications for its domestic politics. Its stance on Turkey's military operation in Syria is a case in point.

China celebrated the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the socialist republic on Oct. 1 with a long-awaited parade in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. As China transforms its army into a heavily technological one and unveils a newly consolidated military-industrial complex, it centered the parade on its D17 missiles that are technically capable of penetrating US missile shields.

Meanwhile, news came out about an alleged farm in central China that raised pigs the size of polar bears. I am unaware of this farm's public health aspects, but the news came out at a time when pork prices in China spiked due to swine flue. Pork is the only affordable meat for most people in the country. Social media users raised the question of why the bear-sized pigs were not on display during the National Day parade.

The joke had a point. The Chinese state has long pursued two goals to gain legitimacy: state power and propserity for its people. The military parade showcased the former, but not the latter. Below, I will talk discuss two recent issues that highlight the intermingling of domestic and international concerns for China.

China’s Macro-Regional Aspirations vs. The Intractable Hong Kong   

China announced its new White Paper on October 2nd. It is a vaguely worded document that mostly reiterates China’s main foreign policy principles, commitment to peaceful coexistence, but also its recent rise. We shall have to wait for the less audible “notes to circulate” for further details on the new foreign policy orientations in the making. Still, the Oct 2 White Paper seems like an attempt to strike two birds with one stone. It features statements regarding internal and external consumption. And its reference to the ‘100-years of national humiliation’ theme provided early signals that the government would tap into the nationalist sentiments of readily excitable public opinion online.

In less than a week, the broadcasting rights of the NBA in China were hastily cancelled only to be re-established discreetly. A public uproar against the NBA was sparked by a pro-Hong Kong tweet from Daryl Morey, the manager of the Houston Rockets.

Yet this NBA-related crisis is a good example of why nationalism - contrary to what English-language media outlets often claim - is not necessarily a dominant factor in China’s public opinion, and the state knows it. Sudden outbursts of nationalism are good for symbolic confrontation while the real issues, such as the looming trade war and perhaps more importantly, the consolidation of the camp against Chinese technology companies, remain on the back-burner.   

More telling was Xi Jinping’s rather unusually harsh statements against Hong Kong protestors in - of all places - Nepal. Xi Jinping set off for series of visits in South Asia immediately after the National Day celebrations. He met with Modi of India with the aim of ironing out the differences between Asia's two major powers before moving on to Nepal, a traditional ally of India and future recipient of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) investments. There, he announced that “anyone attempting to split China will be crushed and any external force backing such attempts will be deemed by the Chinese people as pipe-dreaming”. This statement is commonly interpreted as a warning against Hong Kong's protest leaders and the state officials and politicians, such as Ted Cruz (R) of the US Congress, that openly supported the protests. The dissatisfaction of the residents of Hong Kong with the current Beijing administration directly challenges the claim that ‘the century of humiliation’ has ended to make way for China’s new assertiveness in international relations. This explains Xi Jinping's strongly worded statements during his visit to a BRI partner. The entire discourse of the BRI emphasizes the priority of economic collaboration over political confrontation.

The Non-Intervention Principle vs. the IS Threat

After decade-long diplomatic tensions over Turkey’s protectionist attitude towards Uyghur refugees and other Muslim migrants from China, the last two G-20s and BRI summits were marked by an improvement in the relationship between the two countries's leaders. Energy deals and debt packages are now on the table. The Turkish army’s military intervention in Northern Syria happened right at this stage in the bilateral relations.

It took two days for China to react to the military operations, and it only did so through its official media, while the countries and institutions in the same league, such as the US and the EU, reacted immediately. The official statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs came as late as October 15th, many days after other major powers had made their positions clear. This suggests China’s diplomacy has yet to keep up with its new ambitious military makeup. 

Turkey’s military advance in northern Syria is a two-sided coin for China.  China’s initial reactions were along the lines of its traditional foreign policy principles: non-intervention in the domestic affairs of sovereign states. It also voted in favor a joint UNSC statement to condemn Turkey’s operation in Syria based on its long-cherished foreign policy principles. The Foreign Ministry spokesperson’s words were the first that explicitly referred to Islamist terrorism in the context of a Turkish operation in Syria.  

Earlier references to IS had signaled a paradigm shift towards Islamist terrorism - an issue China regards as of vital importance for its domestic security - rather than the predicament of the PYD and the Kurdish population in northern Syria. 

Even then, its references to international terrorism have thus far been confined to the Middle East. One explicit reference made was regarding to the IS militants that were set free during Turkey’s operation. They were described as a potential domestic security threat to China, though and it was published by a Global Times reporter on Twitter. It is not an issue the Chinese state discusses domestically and the lack of official discourse on it is also reflected in online discussions.

Media reports in China quoted Fahrettin Altun’s piece in the Washington Post repeatedly and the comments on these media reports were heavily tilted towards discussing the PYD. Public opinion were first in taking up a nationalist and anti-American stance on the issue. Netizens were critical of both Turkey and the PYD, for the same reason: that of being an American ally. Besides, comparisons were drawn for both Hong Kong and Taiwan on what is seen as a betrayal of the Kurds. 

China is struggling to keep up its traditional foreign policy principles on issues that may carry implications for its domestic politics. The Chinese state is slowly forming its position on Turkey’s operation in Syria. But it has yet to be seen whether it will decide to be a forceful external actor on the issue.