The ‘Soft Balancing’ in China’s Foreign Policy, by Paulo Duarte

Lacking (at least for the moment) the full set of tools needed for a full assertion in international chess, China has, in the interim, opted for a strategy of soft balancing (Paul, 2005). Indeed, since its hard power does not allow China to neutralize the power of the superpower, it is left with no choice but the use of more subtle methods and, therefore, less likely to cause a ‘frontal collision’, extremely harmful to an emerging power. As Moisés Silva Fernandes (2010) points out, “the Chinese understood that they cannot undertake aggressive politics because if they follow a hundred percent aggressive policy, the United States and the European Union respond in turn”. According to the author, “little by little, China is able to, in fact, confront the great powers, although in a very discreet way” (…), “creating, economic and financially, the conditions for Chinese supremacy” (Fernandes, 2010).

While trying to achieve a position of equality with regard to the United States, China has also been more active in establishing strategic alliances with other major powers in order to reinforce its global status: the deepening of relations with Russia is, perhaps, the best example (Duarte, 2012).

The creation of strategic partnerships has proved to be a common practice in Chinese foreign policy since the 1990s. Although some of them have been marked by an anti-hegemony rhetoric, Chinese partnerships generally refrain from any actions that could be perceived as hostile by the United States (Mingjiang Li, 2008). However, this does not prevent the Sino-Russian partnership from revealing an increasing trend for soft balancing against Washington (Brooks e Wohlforth, 2005). To this contributes China’s understanding that the global hegemony of the United States has come to an end. Today, as Moisés Silva Fernandes (2010) states, “Americans are not in a position to say no to the Chinese”. For M. Silva Fernandes (2010), that fact is a clear example of “Chinese power”, since “if we look closer, what was previously mainly an American organization, today has to give away gradually: the Americans are retreating relative to the Chinese, little by little”. In the opinion of the author (Fernandes, 2010), “China will continue to finance the U.S. external debt, which is huge, and little by little – it can take about 10 to 20 years – Beijing keeps on trying to make Chine gain prominence in the international sphere”, but always “very discreetly”.

Since 2004, the Chinese strategic partnership with Russia has acquired new contours. The two countries have expanded trade between them, resolved territorial issues and adopted common positions on many international issues, such as the Iranian nuclear issue. On the other hand, Beijing and Moscow have been working on new forms of strategic cooperation in what regards, for instance, the military and security fields. China and Russia have also sought to adjust their policy within the regional institutions in order to counterbalance the American influence in Asia (Contessi, 2010). In this respect, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) – which involves China, Russia and some Central Asian republics – is seen as the most instructive example (Safiullin, 2010). Some American experts suggest, moreover, that the SCO is a forum to promote Russian and Chinese hegemony in Central Asia, aiming, therefore, to neutralize Washington’s interests in the region (Duarte, 2012).

The strong resurgence of Russia, both at a diplomatic and economic level in recent years, as well as the atmosphere of tension felt with regard to the United States, provided China with the motivation and the opportunity for reinforcing ties with its northern neighbor. Russia is, therefore, more than ever, perceived as an important ‘asset’ that Beijing can use to redefine its foreign policy, particularly in relation to the United States. In this context, it is understandable that authors such as Haiyun Wang (2007: 7) argue that “China and Russia need to establish closer coordination, supporting each other and ascending together”.

However, there seems to be limits to the Chinese soft balancing (Pape, 2004), since the Sino-Russian partnership may not go ‘so far’ as many would wish. In fact, it is important to note that China and Russia do not always share the same goals and interests with regard to regional and global issues (Mingjiang Li, 2008). But the most important constraining factor is the perception (by many members of the Moscow elite) that China may pose a threat, in the long-term, to Russia’s security. The rise of the Middle Kingdom, especially the expansion of its military power, has alarmed many members of the Russian ruling class (Cohen et al, 2012). Moreover, Moscow is concerned about the issue of immigration along the border regions, where the number of Chinese immigrants working in Russia, legally or illegally, has grown in recent years. On the other hand, Russia may be concerned by the growing interference of Beijing in Central Asia, its traditional sphere of influence (Duarte, 2012).


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Paulo Afonso Brardo Duarte is a PhD student in International Relations at Instituto Superior de Ciências Sociais e Políticas – ISCSP, Lisbon. He is a researcher at Instituto do Oriente in the same city (

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