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Is China more Risk-Averse than earlier thought?

It was in the late 1970s when Deng Xiaoping took power. He knew exactly the reason behind China’s stagnant economic growth. What followed was a series of reforms, both economic and political. On the economic front, the Chinese economy was opened up to foreign investments, and politically Deng Xiaoping was different from Mao Zedong. He was less autocratic compared to Mao. He also knew that power corrupts a person over time. He realized that this was the exact problem with Mao's governance. Therefore he placed a two-term cap for any Chinese president in the future. Under Deng Xiaoping, the core idea that was followed was “Hide your strength, bide your time and never take the lead.” In accordance with this, China never actively got itself involved in global issues; rather, it was just a close watcher of global events. This held true until Hu Jintao’s presidency rule came to an end.

After Hu Jintao’s period, the heir named for the CCP was Xi Jinping, a hardcore nationalist with an aggressive foreign policy. Again, it took about four years for the world to actually piece together shreds of evidence and analyze Xi Jinping’s personality and psyche. It took until 2016 to realize Xi Jinping’s motives and direction of diplomacy. This turn from passive diplomacy to aggressive diplomacy became evident from 2016 onwards. This new form of diplomacy got a new name, “The Wolf Warrior Diplomacy.” China now plays an aggressive game, be it the in the Spratly Islands of the South China Sea or in the Taiwan Strait. China has pursued its land grab policy with almost every neighboring country. While China has 14 neighboring countries, it has border disputes with about 17 nations...

With tensions heating up on issues of Taiwan, the dangers of war in the near future are more than ever. But will China go to war? Is China really that aggressive, or does it just show teeth and not do anything? To understand Chinese leadership’s mindset, it is essential to understand two things, one, Chinese history, and two, Chinese politics. Every Nation has a distinctive culture and behavior which plagues the nation’s history. This can be observed in forms of patterns throughout history. For example, Russia has always been a country with strong Nationalist sentiments and a masculine culture. It has always been ruled by hardcore nationalists, and it is well-known that Russian society doesn't tolerate weak leaders. There are even instances when wives of Tsars have plotted to remove their husbands from power. (Referring to Catherine The Great's coup) These are character traits of Russia observed throughout history. That's Russia. When it comes to the history of China, China has never been an actual ferocious lion to be feared. China wisely chose its battles throughout history, and whenever they fought a war with a foreign invasive force, they mostly lost those wars. But the wars that they chose( i.e. where they were the aggressors) were the ones where they were certain of victory. Be it the invasion of Tibet or the war with India. Both of them were done at a time when the counterparty didn’t have a capable operational military. India, a newly independent nation, had still not figured out a comprehensive structure for the military establishment to neutralize foreign threats. The same goes for Tibet. But there is one exception to this theory, Vietnam. But again, the Sino-Vietnamese war, too resonated with the fact that China was risk averse. The Sino-Vietnamese war was a short-lived war and didn’t last more than a month. When China knew it was difficult to win, China just called it off and claimed that they had won the war. i.e., they had achieved their objective even though there wasn’t any actual success on the ground. Chinese society might continue to have the same risk-averse mentality when it comes to dealing with a foreign power.

The next big thing that influences China’s policies is its political system. The key to understanding this is to understand that the greatest and most powerful enemies of the CCP come from within the country itself. The greatest enemies of the CCP were and will be the people of China itself. And the primary objective of the CCP is to stay in power and maintain a high approval rate. Aggressive Nationalism aids this process by creating a strong nationalist sentiment among the population which in turn creates more supporters for the CCP. But the CCP very well knows that war would damage CCP’s mandate by a huge margin. So, war is something that CCP might try to avoid at all costs. China’s society is based on a mutual partnership between the CCP and the people of China, where people trade their freedom for economic growth and national prosperity. The promise of economic growth and prosperity is what keeps the CCP alive and powerful, and as long as it keeps its end of the bargain, people would swear loyalty to the CCP, but when anyone of these is disturbed(Economic growth and National Prosperity) CCP’s control would be threatened. War creates the right situations for these to happen in China. For these reasons it is apt for the CCP to avoid war. While they might try to pursue an aggressive foreign policy and try to act strong or look tough, China wouldn’t actually go to war over Taiwan or something similar, risking its control over the people of China. Today Taiwan serves the purpose of the CCP; Taiwan serves as a symbol of nationalism because whenever there are clashes on the topic of Taiwan between China and the United States it fuels nationalist sentiments and emboldens CCP’s power and mandate. In order to claim one as good, it is necessary to define another as evil or bad. Therefore China in order to claim themselves as good for the Chinese people, they will have to show how the US is evil in trying to meddle with China’s internal affairs. America’s role in Taiwan or Hongkong provides CCP with the right amount of cannon fodder to fuel nationalist sentiments in the country and embolden CCP’s strength. For these reasons, it's unlikely China would take any step that would alter this situation and place the CCP in a riskier position. In other words, China might be more risk-averse than earlier thought.

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