Understanding “Tao Guang Yang Hui”

A phrase that is making the rounds among China watchers is “tao guang yang hui.” I will not attempt to explain the concept: any brief explanation would hide too many nuances, and nuances are important here. I just watched an online debate amongst some of my more scholarly friends, and the battle was about different interpreteations of of the phrase.

One interpretation of the phrase is captured in Deng Xiaoping’s maxim “keep a low profile and bide your time, while also getting something accomplished.” Given the noises China has been making in the South China Sea, the East China Sea, the Indian frontier, and Hong Kong, it appears to some that China has abandoned the tao guang yang hui strategy altogether.

Others, however, suggest that the strategy was not abandoned, but that Deng’s intention all along was to wait for a time when China was ready to assert itself in the global sphere, not simply lay low forever.

Yang Wenchang, President of the Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs, offers his interpretation in “My Views about ‘Tao Guang Yang Hui.” It is a worthwhile read, and an important one: not only does he provide an erudite explanation of the idom’s roots, his interpretation of the phrase seems to be at odds with China’s current foreign policy.

The entire debate may seem a petty tempest among the cognoscienti. If China is becoming more assertive globally, what does it matter whether this is Xi’s own policy or a continuation of the past?

In truth, it does matter: the answer to the question of whether this is part of a long-standing plan or whether this is Xi rejecting Dengist strategy would help us better predict where China is likely to jump next. We are unlikely to get clarification from the leadership compound at Zhongnanhai: Xi will want to seem unpredictable so as to keep his percieved opponents, both at home and abroad, guessing as to his intentions, leaving him with the initiative. Hence a better understanding of his strategic approach is essential to ensure that Asia and the west are not caught unawares by China’s next Great Leap Outwards.

 

China and the Limits of History

Some things we used to know about china’s past and present but, now, not so much” 
Alice Lyman Miller
Proceedings of the USC US-China Institute Symposium, “History and China’s Foreign Relations: The Achievements and Contradictions of American Scholarship”,
Feb. 16-17, 2008

Stanford’s Alice Miller is one of those China scholars who prefers not to mince words. Whether it was her sixteen years with the CIA or the cumulative effect of four decades studying China, she is direct and still unfailingly scholarly in her assessments and, as a result is, a joy to read.

Her paper at a USC symposium above is an excellent example. There is a school of China scholarship that attempts to parse Beijing’s politics and foreign policy through a prism of China’s imperial past. To those scholars, the CCP is just another dynasty in China dynastic cycle, its current leaders just emperors in new clothes, and China wants to turn the rest of the world into tributary powers.  As a history buff with late-life aspirations to historianship, these parallels are appealing to me, and they are clearly appealing to others, else Miller would not feel the need to debunk the approach.

And debunk she does. Offering ample examples from current scholarship and public discourse, she makes a convincing case that while the history has some general value as background in understanding Chinese strategic thinking, past behavior is no template for current or future action.

A must-read for any China-watcher, it surprises me that this paper has not received more attention, but perhaps it shouldn’t: as a longtime purveyor of the “China is more nuanced than that” approach, I know that people are not looking for nuance: they’re looking for easy. Miller makes it clear that this sort of intellectual laziness is a hazard to be avoided.

History, however, is not the bunk that Henry Ford thought. I side with Cicero: ignorance of history is the hallmark of intellectual immaturity. Miller is correct in saying that we should not rely on history too much. It is important to caution that we ignore it at our peril.

China Won’t Cut off the Kim Family Regime

Re-Think Chinese Policy Toward DPRK
Bonnie S. Glaser
Freeman Report
Issue 7, February 2013

In this short paper, Bonnie Glaser at the CSIS presents a cogent, well-framed case for China to cut its assistance to North Korea as a means of getting the DPRK to stop its rogue behavior. As much sense as the paper will make on Capitol Hill, it is unlikely to change China’s stance. This is because the paper does not consider the internal logic that drives Beijing’s calculus on North Korea.

While Beijing’s “dog” on the Korean peninsula enjoys biting the hand that feeds it, the dog still guards China’s back door. It remains a buffer designed to ensure that neither the US nor South Korea have forces crouched on the Yalu frontier. Its rogue behavior diverts the heat of international opprobrium as China begins to assert its own strategic posture and build its military. The loyalty Beijing continues to extend to the DPRK is a demonstration to all other allies and prospective allies that Beijing is a reliable friend, even when the going gets tough. Finally, Beijing would hate to have somebody else – Russia, for example – step in and become Pyongyang’s patron.

So Beijing cutting off Pyongyang is probably not in the cards. What is likely to be in the cards, however, is a careful effort by China to prove the the mercurial Kim Family Regime that there are wiser courses of action to pursue, and that China continues to be its best possible benefactor. Whether that will yield any worthwhile results is anyone’s guess.

Mincing Words on Chinese FDI

China Invests (Somewhat) More in the World
Derek M. Scissors
American Enterprise Institute 
January 2014

In a deep-dive based on the data produced by the American Enterprise Institute and Heritage Foundation in their China Global Investment Tracker, Derek Scissors shows us how large China’s foreign direct investment effort has become and how fast it is growing. By the end of 2015, if all things go as expected, China will surpass $100 billion per year in funds invested overseas.

The numbers are large, but when measured against other capital flows in the past, not yet at a level which should concern average Americans. Indeed, there are significant benefits from such investments. Nonetheless, Scissors suggests, we should not assume all Chinese FDI is a good thing. He joins a growing chorus of voids suggesting that national security, the growing role of China’s state-owned enterprises, and genuine reciprocity should guide policymaker approaches to Chinese FDI as much as economic benefit.

Scissors does a superb job at laying out the key issues, and I especially liked his nuanced approach to SOEs. Disappointingly, he stops short of suggesting a framework that would allow us to distinguish Chinese investments that should be welcomed, and those that should be rejected. Reading between the lines (and in keeping with AEI’s economic approach), Scissors is more concerned about debating the laissez-faire end of the business community who would prefer that government simply got out of the business of regulating Chinese foreign investment.

A worthy roundup of the issue.

Measuring the Monsoon

“India Advances in Naval Arms Race With China”
Micha’el Tanchum
The Begin Sadat Center for Strategic Studies
January 14, 2014

Media in the west has been focused on China’s increasing assertiveness in the East China Sea and the South China Sea. Less visible in the west – but plainly evident to New Delhi – China has been moving to enhance its naval and maritime presence in the Indian Ocean for some time, being careful not to raise the stakes too quickly.

In this brief paper, Micha’el Tanchum offers a sobering, pithy explanation of how China is moving toward provoking a face-off in the IO, as the response from the subcontinent shifts from the diplomatic to the unequivocal.

India now sees China’s moves as zero-sum, as each step China makes in the region is perceived as undermining New Delhi’s strategic position in its own back yard. India does not yet seem ready for a showdown, but Tanchum’s paper leaves a concern that India is not prepared to allow China’s growing influence to continue unchecked for much longer.