In a speech before the Reichstag in 1897, German Foreign Minister Bernhard von Bülow declared that the Germans “do not want to put anyone in our shadow, but we also demand our place in the sun.” This quote can be applied to China’s foreign policy with varying degrees of accuracy. China’s assertive and more aggressive contemporary foreign policy shows that it is pursuing regional hegemony. China’s rise on the world stage following a period of “national humiliation” is thus a return to its “place in the sun,” one which it had possessed for much of its long and rich history. China disclaims desires to dominate or interfere in other states’ affairs, showing that, at least rhetorically, it does not want to “put anyone in its shadow.” Of course, in reality, China’s rise entails doing exactly that.
The Chinese civilization is one of the oldest in the world. With a rich, diverse history and culture, the Chinese rightfully have much about which they can be proud. For most of its history, China had enjoyed its “place in the sun.” Indeed, the Chinese thought that they were the center of the world. Yet the era of European imperialism dealt a striking blow to the Chinese state and psyche. Forced to capitulate to unfair trade deals, forced to relinquish significant amounts of sovereignty to foreign powers, and split apart into various factions of warlords, China was experiencing a period of “national humiliation.” It has only been in the more recent past that China has cast off foreign powers and begun to reassert itself on the world stage. As it does so, the Chinese frame their rise as “overcoming” that humiliation and reestablishing their rightful “place in the sun.” They see that “place in the sun” as being the hegemon of the Asia-Pacific region, and China’s more assertive contemporary foreign policy, marked by military saber-rattling and the building of deeper regional ties, would appear as though its pursuant of that hegemony.
At least rhetorically, China pursues a foreign policy of non-interference in other states’ sovereign affairs. Indeed, two of China’s “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence” are non-interference in others’ affairs and respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty. In this way, China hopes to reassure its neighbors and other countries that its rise will not “put them in its shadow.” This is largely borne out of recognition that China needs a stable, peaceful, cooperative international environment to continue to rise. China’s growing hegemony is built around its rapid economic development; in this deeply interconnected region, economic growth would be greatly threatened and would perhaps stagnate if conflict broke out. Chinese policymakers understand that “putting others in its shadow” would cause them to balance or “hedge” against China by seeking new security and economic arrangements. As such, the most strategically beneficial option is to reassure neighbors that they have nothing to fear in China, and this is indeed the diplomatic strategy China is currently pursuing.
Of course, in reality China’s rise does entail “putting others in its shadow.” As China’s military and economic strength develops, it is increasingly pursuing policies that seek to assert hegemony in regional institutions and balances of power. Chinese policymakers, it seems, have begun to expect smaller states to defer to its wishes. The modernization and expansion of its military and its nuclear arsenal force other states to tread carefully when dealing with points of contention with China. Territorial disputes and military saber-rattling, especially with Japan, demonstrate that China is willing to disregard its principles of respect for territorial sovereignty and peaceful coexistence. Furthermore, it hopes to displace the United States as the regional leader. China’s rise corresponds with a more aggressive and assertive foreign policy. Its “shadow” is looming ever wider.
The irony of von Bülow’s statement was that he was hoping for Germany to build a stronger navy and its own colonial, imperial empire. The statement is a contradiction, its two parts mutually exclusive. Regions are shaped and defined by their hegemons, and lesser powers in those regions either defer to or balance against that hegemon. Such is the nature of the international system and environment we have created. No country can find its rightful “place in the sun” without “casting a shadow” over others. China’s foreign policy can accordingly be seen as a delicate balance between the two, one that ensures enough stability to allow China’s unparalleled growth to continue while also asserting China’s newfound dominance.