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Chinese foreign policy under Xi Jinping

Author: Neil Thomas, University of Chicago

There is a risk of a ‘new Cold War’ between the United States and China. After decades of bilateral engagement and multilateral collaboration, the Trump administration’s first National Security Strategy (NSS) branded China a ‘revisionist power’ that seeks to ‘displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region’ and ‘shape a world antithetical to [US] values and interests’ in an age of renewed ‘great power competition’.

Rising powers like China rattle ruling powers like the United States because their ascendance creates tension within existing structures of global power. US power lies in its unmatched military capabilities and the ‘international order’ of multilateral institutions, interstate rules and global norms that promote economic openness and rules-based dispute resolution. The charges of ‘revisionism’ levelled in the NSS show that the Trump administration fears that China will replace the United States as global hegemon and threaten the basic tenets of international order.

China has indeed become a more active participant in global affairs under the leadership of Xi Jinping, who took office in November 2012. Signs of China’s rising power, though, are a natural result of its growth. More important is what China intends to do with its newfound capabilities. Does Xi want to revolutionise Chinese foreign policy? Stop opening China’s economy? Overturn the international order?

International policymakers must study Xi’s words because he, as the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) General-Secretary and head of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission, is pivotal in setting the overarching orientations and strategies of China’s foreign policy. The most authoritative articulation of Xi’s policy agenda is his ‘Report’ to the 19th CCP National Congress in October 2017.

An analysis of Xi’s foreign policy discourse suggests that there may exist more continuity than often assumed between the strategies of Xi and his predecessors. This intersection between past and present is captured neatly in the foreign policy section of Xi’s Report: ‘Following a path of peaceful development and working to build a community of common destiny for humankind’.

What’s new is that Xi stamped his authority on CCP foreign policy under his signature formulation of ‘building a community of common destiny for humankind’ — although Hu Jintao had used the phrase previously. The ‘community of common destiny’ is basically an international system in which deeper economic integration and political dialogue eases conflict and bolsters security. Xi is proactively ‘building’ this future through an intense focus on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and global governance.

What’s not new is that Xi retains the ‘peaceful development’ strategy articulated by Hu in the mid-2000s, which derives from the CCP’s ‘basic line’ of ‘peace and development’ in international relations that Deng Xiaoping introduced in 1985. In the Report, Xi framed the foreign policy achievements of his first five-year term, including the BRI and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, as ‘new contributions to global peace and development’. He has told Party leaders that the ‘peace and development’ strategy is ‘aligned with the fundamental interest of the country’ and is a ‘fundamental foreign policy goal’.

This ‘peace and development’ strategy reflects the belief that China’s economic development requires a peaceful external environment and cooperative relations with major powers. It replaced the Maoist creed of inevitable conflict between the capitalist and socialist worlds as the CCP’s official ‘assessment of the international situation’. Deng believed this strategy would help China ‘exert a much greater influence’ in a global system that the CCP perceived as dominated by Western powers.

Xi’s policy statements imply that the overarching concern of China’s foreign policy remains the creation of a ‘more enabling international environment’ for China’s continued development. As China’s interests continue to expand, so too does its desire to participate in global affairs.

But contrary to some recent commentary, it seems unlikely that ‘world power’ or ‘world domination’ are China’s priorities. The CCP observed the Soviet errors of external overreach and antagonism toward the US-led system during the Cold War. China now interacts with the international order like other major states: it complies with the order because to do so serves its interests and tries to influence this order where it does not.

Xi’s Report also reaffirmed Deng’s ‘opening to the outside world’ as a ‘basic national policy’. ‘Opening’ for Deng meant China would integrate into the global economy, enter international institutions and improve living standards in a manner that sustained CCP control.

Xi has insisted that China ‘absolutely must not waver’ from ‘reform and opening’ because it is the ‘propelling force’ behind China’s ‘international status’. He even framed his signature economic policy — a ‘new normal’ focused on consumption, services and markets — as a ‘new structure’ of reform and opening that ‘improves its quality and level’.

Xi’s continuation of key strategies like ‘peace and development’ and ‘reform and opening’ suggest he may not have changed China’s objectives so much as the means by which the CCP pursues them. Xi’s China is ‘revisionist’ in the narrow sense of hoping for changes that reflect new realities but not in the existential sense of wanting to supplant the current order or global hegemon.

Until recently, White House views on China were quite consistent: the United States would ‘welcome the rise of a stable, peaceful, and prosperous China’ and ‘reject the inevitability’ of ‘confrontation’ if China acted within the international order. But the latest NSS said the ‘engagement’ strategy had ‘failed’.

The endurance of ‘reform and opening’ and of ‘peace and development’ in Xi’s foreign policy discourse imply that engagement is not such a failure. The continuance of these two key foreign policy concepts intimate that, while Xi’s CCP does want to project China’s power, it is still constrained by a belief in the benefit to China of global order and stability.

US relative power in global affairs is declining, but this trend is mostly the result of other countries’ embrace of the international order built by the United States, which nonetheless retains significant advantages in military, diplomatic, commercial, technological and cultural power. It would best advance its national interests by accepting but proactively managing China’s rise within an improved iteration of this order. We should avoid a ‘new Cold War’.

Neil Thomas is Research Associate in the Think Tank of The Paulson Institute at the University of Chicago.

This article appeared in the most recent edition of East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Asian crisis, ready or not’.

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