March West: China’s Response to the U.S. Rebalancing

In China, Mao Zedong once had a famous exposition on military strategy: “Where the enemy advances, we retreat. Where the enemy retreats, we pursue.“ (敌进我退,敌退我追) As China’s foreign policy community contemplates how to counter the U.S. rebalancing to Asia, a grand strategic proposal has been made that China shift its attention from the heated competition in East Asia and rebalance its geographical focus westwards to the vast area from Central Asia to the Middle East, where the U.S. is pivoting away from.

The strategy, branded “March West” (西进), was recently articulated by Wang Jisi, China’s most prominent and influential international relations scholar and a professor at Peking University, in a piece published on Global Times in October 2012. Due to the heightened tension in the East China Sea and the 18th Party Congress, most analysts in and outside China missed this key message. However, the proposal has currently passed the stage of academic research and the frontrunners of the foreign policy apparatus have been mobilized to study the feasibility, implementation and the potential reactions from the world. According to a distinguished Middle East scholar in China, Wang’s article is the most important policy exposition of China in the past 2-3 years. The U.S. Embassy in Beijing is also actively investigating the details and implications of “March West”.

The logic of “March West” is rather simple and reflects the complex regional quagmire China is in. As Washington rebalances to Asia, the relation between the U.S. and China has become increasingly contentious and “zero-sum”. In Beijing’s view, deeply embedded in the rebalancing is Washington’s profound concern about China’s rise in the region and a determination to curtail its expanding influence. Under this overarching theme, Beijing sees a comprehensive policy of Washington to block China’s rise in the East through strengthened military alliances, “sabotaging” China’s ties with ASEAN and undercutting China’s effort to lead the region economic integration by pushing U.S.-centered and China-free Trans-Pacific Partnership. Since both Beijing and Washington are seeking to expand their influence in East Asia, as Wang argued, if China continues to push forward, more problems, even a head-on military confrontation with the U.S. (such as over Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute), would be inevitable.

In comparison, the region to the west of China, including Central Asia, South Asia and the Middle East, bears no such risks. In Wang’s view, the area is free from a U.S.-dominated regional order or a pre-existing economic integration mechanism. Strategically, Washington is retreating from the area (manifested by its withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan), leaving more space to be filled and China a perfect opportunity to advance in. Unlike in East Asia, the relationship between the U.S. and China would conceivably be more cooperative in the region, due to their common interests in economic investment, energy, anti-terrorism, non-proliferation and regional stability. Furthermore, “March west” would offer Beijing additional strategic leverage against Washington since “U.S. is desperate for China’s assistance in stabilizing Afghanistan and Pakistan.” In this sense, it will help build a “more balanced” U.S.-China relationship.

Still under construction, “March West” in Wang’s vision would center on enhancing China’s presence, resources, diplomatic efforts and engagement in Central Asia, South Asia and the Middle East. Beijing will speed up the construction of a “New Silk Road” led by China to ensure the smooth flow of energy supplies and commodities through Eurasia into western China and enhance economic cooperation with the region. To turn China’s economic muscles into political strength and soft power, China will allocate more resources into forging closer ties with countries in the region through diplomatic engagements, human exchanges, foreign assistance, and academic research projects. Furthermore, given the grave security conditions in Xinjiang and Tibet, China will also design comprehensive social, religious and foreign policies to reinforce its national security and improve relations with the ethnic minorities.

The strategy is already being tested out. In Afghanistan, Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang visited Kabul in September 2012, the first visit by a top Chinese leader since 1966 and signed a number of security and commercial agreements. Almost unprecedentedly, China pledged to assist in “training, funding and equipping Afghan police”. The move signals a significant policy shift from China’s previous hands-off approach to an active engagement to stabilize the turbulent neighbor. China is also hosting an annual China-Arab States Economic and Trade Forum in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. In the most recent event in September 2012, the focus has substantially expanded from economic and trade to cooperation on energy, culture, human resources and education with Arab countries.

“March West” would benefit China greatly. It would provide China with an alternative geographical area, one that is free from U.S. dominance to expand its influence. By returning to its roots as a continental power, China hopefully will avoid further competition/confrontation with the U.S. in East Asia, foster stability, and build a better relationship with Washington through cooperation in the West and on issues such as Afghanistan and Pakistan. Internally, “March West” would accelerate the “Grand Western Development” (西部大开发), a national strategy launched in 2000 to promote the growth of China’s western provinces in light of its unbalanced development compared to the eastern coastal provinces. It would facilitate better economic integration between these two areas while strengthen the security of China’s western borders and provinces.

It should be noted that by “March West”, Wang is not proposing an abandonment of East Asia, just like the U.S. pivot does not indicate Washington’s abandonment of the Middle East. In fact, what he argues is China’s own “rebalancing” between its historical, singular emphasis on East Asia and another geographical angle to advance China’s rise, a parallel pursuit of both sea power and land power. Indeed, with the unstable “hotspots” such as Taiwan, North Korea and the maritime disputes in East and South China Seas, East Asia is not a region China could withdraw from. To mitigate the current tensions, Chinese policy analysts are actively promoting a “reset” of U.S.-China relations. This would inevitably translate into certain tacit concessions on China’s contentious and assertive moves in the region to reduce tension, distrust and potential confrontation.

“March West” is not the first time prominent Chinese strategic thinkers argued for the strategic importance of the West. Neither is it free of controversy. PLA General Liu Yazhou proposed for China to march westward to “seize for the center of the world (the Middle East)” as early as 2004. His and Wang’s proposal is met with strong oppositions from strategists such as PLA Admiral Yang Yi, who argue that China’s strategic priority invariably ends in the East and with the sea. Yang believes China’s expansion into the Pacific and Indian Oceans is a prerequisite for China’s rise to a global great power, therefore the West is at most a strategic backyard where China should pursue stability rather than advancement.

However, with the rapid deterioration of China’s external environment in East Asia in recent years and the leadership transition in 2012, the new Chinese leaders see an urgent task to break away from China’s traditional confinement in East Asia. They wish to explore new territories and diversified options for China to continue its rise and the West seems both feasible and promising. This is the fundamental reason why “March West” has gained serious attention from the top. This strategic rebalance does not necessarily indicate a change of their world vision or their pursuit of global power status. The underlying “retreat-pursuit” philosophy of “March West” still anchors on a zero-sum perception of the U.S.-China relations. Therefore, as the U.S. pivots away from the region and becomes deeply immersed in Asia Pacific, it needs to seriously consider the implication of and prepare for China’s “March West”.