China’s Use of Strategic Ambiguity: The Ukraine Crisis and the Belt and Road Initiative

Israeli President Ephraim Katzir meeting with Bedouin sheikhs on 18 November 1974.

In a December article for the Moscow Carnegie Center, Alexander Gabuev (2017) insightfully argued China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is so broad that it ceases to be a useful way to understand Chinese foreign policy. Meanwhile, since 2014, China has managed to remain an ally to both Ukraine and Russia, providing support to both despite hostile relations between the two countries. The BRI and Ukraine-Russia relations may seem unconnected. In fact, they both demonstrate China’s adept use of strategic ambiguity.

Strategic Ambiguity

To explain strategic ambiguity, it is best to separate it into its constituent parts. Strategy is the management of the resources and methods available to meet objectives (Freedman 2013, xi). Ambiguity is the failure to express a clear position among possible alternatives. Strategic ambiguity, then, is an intentional lack of clarity or deliberate uncertainty in the communication of goals (Jarzabkowski et al. 2010). The following post is a discussion of China’s use of strategic ambiguity in international relations.

In political settings, strategic ambiguity can be highly useful. If there is ambiguity over goals, this means the purpose or aims of these goals can be interpreted in multiple ways. In a complex situation where collective actions is needed—such as a large project with many partners or a political crisis with various actors—participants can assign their own interpretations of a goal if that goal remains ambiguous. For influential actors, being ambiguous about goals can be used to encourage collective action, because actors involved may arrive at their own interpretations for acting, which do not contradict their own interests (Eisenberg 1984; Eisenberg and Goodall 1997).

The agony of choice.

Ambiguity is the failure to express a clear position among possible alternatives. Photo credit: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0.

In this understanding of strategic ambiguity, scholars equated it to a discursive (that is, relating to communication and discussion) resource (Zhang and Han 2013Jarzabkowski et al. 2010; Davenport and Leitch 2005; Eisenberg 1984; Ring and Perry 1985). “[S]trategic ambiguity is a valuable political resource in ambiguous contexts because it enables the mobilization of collective action and change, even where organizational constituents hold different interests” (Jarzabkowski et al. 2010, 221).

Let the World Worry: Strategic Ambiguity and International Relations

When strategic ambiguity and international relations are discussed, two examples tend to be mentioned. The first is the US’s management of Taiwan Straight tensions between Taipei and Beijing. In the 1950s, Dwight Eisenhower, the former WWII Allies Commander and then US President, suggested the US would respond with nuclear weapons if China pursued conflict against Taiwan. Today, though threats of nuclear war seem less plausible, the core of US policy remains the same: Beijing and Taipei have to arrive at their own conclusions at what Washington is and is not willing to do in order to maintain cross-Straight stability. US ambiguity is a tactic to prevent the deterioration of relations between China and Taiwan, because both sides are wary of the unpredictable repercussions if a breakdown will be perceived by the US as an escalation of conflict (Hsu 2010, 140; Zhang and Han 2013, 195).

The second contemporary example of strategic ambiguity in international relations is Israel’s nuclear programme. Israeli founding Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion initiated a policy of neither confirming nor denying the existence of Israeli nuclear weapons, while stating Israel could construct them if it so wished. In the meantime, Israel has conspicuously developed nuclear facilities, which have the dual capability to either build atomic weapons or generate power (Cochran 1996, 326–327). From this grey-zone, Israel is able to cling to the claim that it is not a nuclear threat to the region, but also to appear capable of a nuclear response. Strategic ambiguity has given Israel more options for how it chooses to posture itself to the region. Foreign actors have had to decide for themselves how to react to Israel’s behaviour. Questioned on 2 December 1974 wether the international community should be concerned about Israel’s activities, former Israeli President Ephraim Katzir replied, “Why should it be of concern to us? Let the world worry.” (Cochran 1996, 326; JTA 1974).

Israeli President Ephraim Katzir meeting with Bedouin sheikhs on 18 November 1974.

Israeli President Ephraim Katzir meeting with Bedouin sheikhs on 18 November 1974, two weeks before his infamous “Let the world worry” remark. Photo: Adler Menahem / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0.

These two classic examples are very different from the way China has recently used strategic ambiguity. It should be noted this post is not an exhaustive study of all cases where China has utilised this approach, rather it is a discussion of highly relevant cases. Both the above examples involve the ambiguous communication of threat. The two cases of China’s strategic ambiguity shown below involve the purposefully unclear communication of benefit.

The Ukraine Crisis and the BRI

This post singles out the Ukraine Crisis and the BRI as demonstrations of China’s application of strategic ambiguity. The Ukraine Crisis is the name given to the 2014-and-on-going breakdown of relations between Russia and Ukraine. In 2014, protests on Kyiv’s Maidan Square brought down the Russian-backed Yanukovych regime. The events that have followed include Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Russian backed separatist movements in Ukraine’s Donbas region, violent border clashes, EU sanctions against Russia, the deepening of EU-Ukraine ties, and trade spats between Russia and Ukraine, to name just a few.

The BRI, by contrast, is sold as a win-win for international trade and development. The BRI is an ambitious, Chinese-led project to expand a series of rail links from China to Europe and coordinate them with international seaports and maritime trade (reminiscent of the ancient Silk Road). The oddly named “Road” component consists of ports and shipping facilities with East Asia as the central trading hub. The vast trade from this maritime road is supposed to integrate with the railways of the “Belt” component, which will move goods overland rather than crossing oceans to reach Europe. “It will extend from the Pacific to the heart of Europe, stimulate some [USD] $4 trillion in investment over the next three decades, and draw in countries that account for 70 percent of the world’s energy reserves” (Luft 2016, 67). Although these cases are strikingly different, both will illustrate Chinese skill in strategic ambiguity.

The Art of Strategic Ambiguity I: The Ukraine Crisis

Ukrainians protest the annexation of Crimea.

Ukrainians gather at Kyiv’s Maidan Square on 2 March 2014 to protest Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Photo credit: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0.

Since the Ukraine Crisis began, China has managed its position towards it with strategic ambiguity (Baggiani 2015). On the one hand, China is committed to principles of international law, which suit its own internal interests (such as isolating Taiwan and controlling Tibet and Xinjiang). The rise of separatist movements within Ukraine, which Russia has done much to engineer, is an example that China does not want followed in its own territories. This is the source of China’s vocal support for Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty, and a peaceful solution to the conflict (Xinhua 2014). On the other hand, blaming the West for the Ukraine Crisis suits China’s aims of countering the spread of colour revolutions to China and to promote its policy of noninterference (Keck and Tiezzi 2015). Moreover, by doing so China continues to trade with both Russia and Ukraine (Ramani 2015; China Daily 2017).

This for-and-against approach is strategic ambiguity. It is a stroke of realpolitik, which enables China to gain politically and economically from the Ukraine Crisis. At the same time, it allows adversaries Russia and Ukraine to continue deepening ties with China.

The truly nuanced aspect of China’s approach is that it enables Chinese relations to bypass trouble over Ukraine’s divided, West-East national identity. Siding with China is neither anti-Russia (West) nor accepting of or pro-Russia (East). Officials in China have framed both the annexation of Crimea and the war in Ukraine’s south as the result of US and EU interference. “[The EU and US] planted the seeds of confrontation by fomenting discontent and inciting unrest” (Xinhua 2014). At the same time, it has made speeches at the UN defending Ukraine’s territorial integrity, but also abstaining on all UN Security Council and UN General Assembly votes on Ukraine (Kuznetsov 2016, 100–101). By being neither anti- nor pro- Russia, but instead anti-Western, China disconnects itself from issues of Ukrainian national identity. Deepening ties with China, therefore, does not appear to be incoherent Ukrainian policy. As one group of analysts describe the situation “China remains probably the only ‘trouble-free’ external source of modernization and opportunities… it does not cause any warnings from Europe, the US, or Russia” (Goncharuk et al. 2016).

China continues to pursue investments in both Russia and Ukraine. Chinese support for Russia has been persistent. After the EU and US imposed and then extended sanctions against Russia for the annexation of Crimea and supporting separatists in Ukraine’s Donbass region, Russia responded with its own counter sanctions (EU 2017; USDS 2014; RT 2015). Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated “[i]f the Russian side needs it, we will provide necessary assistance within our capacity” (RT 2014). In 2014 and 2015, China has issued Russia financial assistance amounting to USD $32.38 billion (Gabuev 2016). China continues to support Russia’s military industrial complex by purchasing Russian weapon systems (SIPRI 2016), yet Ukraine does not see this as a barrier to relations with China.

Indeed, Ukraine-China ties continue to develop. Funds for construction of a deepwater port, originally agreed to under Yanukovych in 2013, are being renegotiated (Liu 2016; Goncharuk et al. 2016, 33). Trade in agriculture remains strong (Ramani 2015). In 2015, China signed a USD $15 billion loan (one billion a year for 15 years) to build new residential homes and a USD $2.1 billion currency swap (Ibid). This means that Chinese financial assistance for Ukraine is only slightly less than what the IMF has provided Ukraine—USD $17.5 billion (Lasocki 2016).

The case of the Ukraine Crisis proves that strategic ambiguity can be used effectively to gain from politically awkward circumstances. By taking the ambivalent position of being both for-and-against Russia’s actions and supporting Ukraine’s sovereignty, China has maintained stability for its Russian and Ukrainian trade interests abroad and territorial security concerns at home. 

The Art of Strategic Ambiguity II: The BRI as a Foreign Policy Tool

BRI countries in 2016.

This map highlights the countries supportive of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2016. Image credit: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0.

Noted above, Gabuev (2017) argues the “‘Belt and Road’ concept has become so inflated, that it’s no longer helpful in understanding anything about China’s relationship with the outside world, but only further obscures an already complicated picture.”

The ballooning list of bilateral BRI agreements seem to support Gabuev’s claim. The new Silk Road is stretches far beyond its ancient trade routes. At the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) Forum in Santiago de Chile in January 2018, Chinese President Xi Jinping encouraged the member states to take part in the BRI (Detsch 2018). Of approximately 100 Belt and Road Cooperation Agreements in effect, Panama became the first Latin American country to sign one of its own in late 2017 (China Daily 2017; Xinhua 2017). In late January 2018, the Chinese government announced plans for a “Polar Silk Road” in the Arctic (Woodhouse 2018). In March 2018, President Xi and King Tupou VI of Tonga mutually voiced their support for enhanced cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative (Xinhua 2018). While holding court with a crowned-king is a suitable nod back to the original Silk Road, the dizzying array of locations included into China’s new Silk Road seem to stretch any resemblance beyond recognition. More importantly, it shows the location of the BRI is not set in stone.

The BRI exemplifies China’s gaining ability to set the global agenda. At the same time, its purpose remains conspicuously unclear. Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed a new Silk Road (initially daubed the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB)) in September 2013. Despite having no clear aim other than “to forge closer economic ties, deepen cooperation and expand development space in the Eurasian region” (Witte 2013), China became Eurasia’s most attractive foreign development and investment partner (Olcott 2013; Szczudlik-Tatar 2013, 4; Gabuev 2017). A report by McKinsey (Tian 2016), a large auditing firm, summarised the aim of BRI as connectivity, which will create a stronger economic ecosystem and a “community of common destiny.” Whatever this common destiny may be, by May 2017, 58 state representatives (including 29 heads-of-state) attended the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, which laid out President Xi’s USD$900 billion vision to build a modern-day version of the ancient Silk Road (Phillips 2017; The Diplomat 2017).

Beijing’s reluctance to outline a clear raison d’etre for the BRI has led to speculation among scholars. A brief overview of non-Chinese characterisations of the BRI shows a broad, but cautious array of views. Most often, the BRI is explained as part of a wider Chinese effort reinvigorate its cooling economy by finding external markets for its excess industrial capacity (Dollar 2015; Gill 2017). These scholars tend to see the BRI as a feature of Xi Jinping’s wider Chinese Dream (中国梦, Zhōngguó Mèng) agenda for national rejuvenation (Gennari 2017, 44). Others warn the BRI is, in fact, a cunning plot to take advantage of globalisation and international connectivity to advance its own geopolitical agenda (Madan 2016). Some, such as Francis Fukuyama (2016), take a more direct approach to argue the BRI “represents a striking departure in Chinese policy. For the first time, China is seeking to export its development model to other countries.” This carries the potential illiberal threat of greater state involvement in the BRI-partners’ economies. In a call back to Mackinder’s (1904) heartland theory—that China seeks to control the “pivot area” of Eurasia for global hegemony—others argue the BRI is a tool of capitalist imperialism to re-establish China’s Asian empire (Clover and Hornby 2015).

In a detailed review of Chinese academic conceptions of the BRI, Sidaway and Woon (2017, 593–596) show domestic scholars tend to argue against many of these foreign barbarian BRI characterisations. One group of scholars argues the BRI is devoid of geopolitical aspirations (Liu 2015, 9; Godement and Kratz 2015, 6). They often contrast the Chinese-led BRI with the US-led, ideology-laden Marshall Fund (Gao 2015; Wang 2015). Another scholarly discussion argues precisely the opposite—that the BRI is, indeed, a tool advance Chinese geopolitical aims (Yuan 2014; Su 2016). Shi (2015) argues the BRI is an example of one China’s “strategic economic tools” (as opposed to hard power tools). Xue and Xu (2015) argue the BRI is a natural reaction to evolving geopolitical realities. The BRI is merely a counterbalance to US-led efforts to rebalance towards Asia. Others, such as Summers (2016), believe the BRI is merely a continuation of China’s 2006 “Go Global” or “Going Global” (走出去, zǒu chūqù) campaign, which was started as a coordinated effort to expand China’s presence internationally. Others see the BRI as a foreign policy tool to maintain access to strategic energy resources (Gao 2014) or to enhance military control of strategic transit hubs (Liang 2015; Erickson and Wuthnow 2016). Yet, the Chinese government continually emphasizes the “win-win” and cooperative nature of the BRI for all parties involed (Huangfu and Wang 2015; Ren 2015).

Despite the cornucopia of characterisations, Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan’s 24–29 May 2018 trip to Russia and Belarus shows the purpose of the BRI is as vague as ever. Addressing the Saint Petersburg Economic Forum, Wang stated the BRI “is a new platform of international cooperation initiated by China. [China is] ready to connect with all-comers for joint-negotiation, joint-construction and joint-use of benefits in order to add momentum to the joint development of the planet” (President of Russia 2018).1Italicised to add emphasis. This statement maintains the lack of clarity surrounding the BRI by implying that through connectivity, it is all things to all stakeholders (see the italicised words in the quote above).

This vague, almost incoherent approach to outlining the BRI’s location and purpose is deliberate. The BRI is essentially a foreign policy tool of strategic ambiguity. The ambiguity over the BRI’s central purpose makes it a highly flexible tool for use in bilateral and multilateral dialogues. In practice, this means Chinese negotiators can position the BRI as a platform to put forward almost any form of bilateral agenda. All manner of projects in all manner of external locations can count as increasing connectivity.

As Professor of Geography at the Chinese Academy of Sciences Liu Weidong stated in 2014, “one of the key ‘misconceptions of [the BRI]’… pertains to the conceptualization of the project as comprising well defined, fixed, and predetermined (maritime and land) routes and transects… Instead… the initiative should be seen as an ‘abstract and metaphorical concept’… to establish a platform for regional and global economic cooperation” (Sidaway and Woon 2017, 592–593). 

Thus, the very point of the BRI is ambiguity. The more possibilities for the BRI, the more flexible and versatile it becomes as a foreign policy tool. A recent opinion piece by Forbes columnist Wade Shepard (2017) reaches the same conclusion:

“If you’re looking for an official, correct map of where China’s Belt and Road actually goes, good luck. If you’re looking for an official explanation of what it really is… you’ve just jumped down into a very deep hole of misinformation, no information, and all out propaganda… The vagueness, lack of institutionalization, and very broad definition of the China’s Belt and Road is probably one of its greatest strengths… This initiative is flexible enough to evolve with the times, blow in the direction of contrasting political winds, and ride out the inevitable cycles of the global economy.”

And so, let the world worry. Whatever purpose the world collectively or individually assigns to it, Chinese policy makers gain from the purpose of the BRI staying abstract. This is precisely the source of caution for the West (the US and traditional US allies) and India. The BRI has so much potential benefit for the participants involved and the realisation of the project is so far in the future, Beijing’s planners will long have flexibility in deciding what the BRI eventually turns out to be. That is to say, as long as the aim of the BRI remains vague and the future gains seem big, China will have will have plenty willing partners.

Ambiguity’s End: What is the Aim of Chinese Strategic Ambiguity?

In both cases of the Ukraine Crisis and the BRI, the purpose of strategic ambiguity has, in fact, been identical. China uses strategic ambiguity to ensure prolonged stability for China’s economy and external relations by providing access to vital markets and strategic resources. This is because market access and strategic resources are vital for China’s stability-obsessed state.

For Chinese officials, legitimacy is born of stability, and stability of domestic economic growth (Zhao 2009). There is a revealing quote attributed to Deng Zhifang, Deng Xiaoping’s son, “My father thinks Gorbachev is an idiot” (Lynch 2012). This reflects a general consensus among officials the Soviet Union collapsed, because Communist Party General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev staged political before economic reform. They believe this led to instability, which in turn broke up the Soviet Union. By contrast, Deng Xiaoping closely observed how Asian neighbours Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan had prioritised economic development and found political stability. Closely following Singapore as a model, 1970s Chinese reforms put agriculture, and light and heavy industry ahead of any political reform (Overholt 2018, 15–17; Ho 2015, 15–17). Like its Asian neighbours, this included integration into the world’s US-led economic system—a process that took long enough “to turn black hair white,” remarked former Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji (Slobodchikoff 2018, 227–233). The result has largely been as Deng had hoped: general domestic stability and gaining political and economic strength.

China is entirely unexceptional in that its foreign policy serves domestic concerns. Chinese economic success—and by extension much of the ruling elite’s legitimacy—is built on open access to world trade and energy markets (Zhao 2009; Taylor 2017; Roberts 2018). A central role of Chinese foreign policy, then, is to maintain access to markets and strategic resources. Publicly accessible government publications on foreign policy highlight economic globalisation as a prominent security issue. “Economic globalisation” is another expression for increasing connectivity to foreign markets and resources. The 2015 outline of China’s military strategy begins with a warning that “economic globalisation [is] intensifying” and “the security of overseas interests concerning energy and resources… as well as institutions, personnel and assets abroad, has become an imminent issue” (PRC State Council 2015). In describing China’s “security situation,” the national security strategy opens with the claim that “progress toward economic globalization and a multi-polar world is irreversible” (PRC State Council 2011). Both these grand strategy documents emphasize increased interconnectedness as a security concern. This shows Chinese foreign policy is geared towards keeping China attached to vital markets and strategic resources.

Strategic ambiguity is a foreign policy tactic to keep foreign trade and strategic resource access open. Ukraine and Russia primarily represent food and energy security respectively. This is evident in the majority of the trade and financing ventures pursued by the Chinese in both countries. In Ukraine, investments have centered around the production and export of grain (Keck and Tiezzi 2015). In Russia, the most substantial financial assistance project involve supplies of natural gas (Gazprom 2017). The BRI represents a tool of strategic ambiguity, which can stretch in all manner of ways to accommodate China’s market and resource based security concerns. The brilliance of the BRI is its abstract nature. As long as China can present it as a project of “joint-negotiation, joint-construction and joint-use of benefits in order to add momentum to the joint development of the planet,” then the BRI will have plenty of partners willing to help China maintain access to markets and resources.

Author: Peter Braga

Word Count: 3672



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