Book Review: Stuart Harris. 2014. China’s Foreign Policy

Published date01 August 2015
Date01 August 2015
Subject MatterBook Reviews
Book Reviews 225
Stuart Harris. 2014. China’s Foreign Policy. Cambridge, UK: Polity
Press. 236 pp. ISBN: 978-0-7456- 6246-6
DOI: 10.1177/2347797015586130
In a field as packed with contributions as China Studies, it would be easy to dismiss
a sub-250 page work simply titled China’s Foreign Policy as an act of hubris on
the part of the author and publisher. The pressing nature of Western engagement
with China has resulted in a rush to the presses, with works ranging from
neo- realist-inspired tabloid fears of the ‘China threat’, to Chinese Communist
Party apologetics desperate to place the blame for recent tensions solely on US
imperialism. Thankfully, Australian National University professor emeritus and
long-time public servant Stuart Harris manages to avoid the pitfalls of both
approaches, delivering a balanced, broad and eminently readable summary of the
topic. While it is by no means an exhaustive study of the Chinese foreign policy,
and brings very little in the way of new research to the table, it is the ideal introduc-
tion to an often complex subject for those wishing to gain a concise overview.
The central thesis of the work is unambiguous. Chinese policymakers see their
country as being highly vulnerable to a wide range of threats, from both internal to
the external sources (indeed a whole chapter is devoted to ‘Insecurity and
Vulnerability’). Foreign policy, and the debate surrounding it, is therefore based
around attempts to mitigate this vulnerability through various means, ranging
from economic influence to hard power, and attempts to grow China’s influence
within the existing international order. While this thesis is hardly an original one,
the intention of the author seems to be to slot the existing scholarship on elements
of Chinese policy into a larger overall framework, rather than to posit a completely
new theory.
The greatest strength, and drawback, of the book is its ambition and scope; it
covers everything from the internal processes and institutions of Chinese foreign
policy-making to its economic policy and bilateral relations. For the most part it
does an admirable job, drawing on a wide range of both Western and Chinese
sources in order to provide a loosely constructivist-historiographical analysis.
Reflecting the author’s strong background in North Asian geopolitics and institu-
tionalism, the strongest chapters in the book are those that cover China’s integration
into the international system and state foreign policy organs.
Avoiding the common pitfall of presenting the Communist Party as a mono-
lithic entity operating according to decades’ long plans, Harris gives a compelling
outline of a tangled party, government and military bureaucracy frequently at odds
with themselves. By labelling it ‘an endless web of bureaucratic and political con-
stituencies that compete and bargain for power and resources’ (p. 26), the author
is able to better delve into the oblique intricacies of a system based more on
factional patronage and personal relationships than institutions and set policy pro-
cesses. Instead of the autocratic and centralized decision-making associated with
Leninist systems in the West, a picture is formed of a government suffering ‘con-
siderable problems in coordination and policy formulation’ (p. 45). Summarizing
this labyrinthine system in 22 pages is no easy job and the author demonstrates

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT