Chinese Foreign Policy in the Era of Xi Jinping

Published on 30 August 2020 at 12:54

John King Fairbank of Harvard University and founder of modern Chinese studies in the United States has described Classical Chinese foreign policy of consisting of three key tenets: which was demand for regional "dominance", insistence that contiguous states recognize and respect China's inherent "superiority", and willingness to use this dominance and superiority to orchestrate "harmonious coexistence" with its neighbours". Understanding China's historical foreign policy is crucial for understanding Xi's Jinping’s “China dream”, which aims to build a “moderately well-off China” by 2021 which marks the centenary of the CCP and to be “rich and powerful” by 2049 which is the centenary of the PRC.


Since the founding of the PRC in 1949, China's foreign policy is largely understood through its use of rather vague albeit crucial slogans that helps determine China’s intentions in global politics. Deng Xiaopings “hide your brightness, bide your time”, which emphasised economic development and peaceful cooperation in the service of China’s domestic wellbeing. This was a common theme of Chinese foreign policy with Deng’s Xiapoing’s two successors,  Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, who oversaw rapid economic growth, particularly after joining the WTO in 2001 and subsequently becoming one of the largest economies in the world. Both leaders vowed 'not to take a lead' and instead focused on developing a nation and maintaining “harmonious” relations with the rest of the world. Xi Jinping’s foreign policy has been characterised by Chinese scholars as more “proactive” and that “strives for achievement”, which highlights a new sense of confidence amongst the  Chinese leadership, which is willing to take a more commanding role in regional and international affairs.


Xi Jinping first began his tenure as leader of the CCP by initiating a new National Security Commission, which centralized the security and military apparatus under his own  command. This was in response to what Xi Jinping regarded as weak leadership under his predecessor Hu Jintao, who allowed the coordination of foreign policy to be shared among competing bureaucratic institutions. Thus Xi Jinping’s foreign policy was organized in such a way that subordinated various stakeholders of society from commerce, culture, local government, financial institutions and SOE (State-owned Enterprises). Which therefore enabled Xi Jinping to develop a comprehensive foreign policy that aims to maintain China's growing  pre-eminence.


One can grasp Xi Jinping’s foreign policy from his provocative quote where he called for an “Asia-for-Asians” at the 2013 Work Forum on Peripheral Diplomacy, which arguably takes a nostalgic view to the time of the tributary state system where China was accepted as culturally, politically, and economically supremacist and the centre of all human activity.


"One cannot live in the 21st century with the outdated thinking from the age of the Cold War and zero-sum game. We believe it is necessary to advocate common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security in Asia. We need to innovate our security concept, establish a new regional security cooperation architecture, and jointly build a road for security of Asia that is shared by and win-win to all".


Hence China and Xi Jinping's view of the world is largely influenced and shaped by China’s historical relationship in the past with its neighbours. According to Fairbank, the “fulcrum” of Chinese foreign policy began with its neighbours. Thus, it is not surprising that Xi Jinping’s charm offensive is directed toward its neighbouring states with the development of the AIIB (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank) and the Belt and Road Initiative. In 2013, Xi Jinping announced in Kazakhstan and Indonesia a grand investment strategy that pledged to invest in a series of highways, fast railroads, airports, ports, pipelines, power transmission lines and fiber-optic cables cables across Eurasia and North Africa covering a population of 4.4 billion at a cost of $1.4 trillion with most of it being committed strategically to countries in Southeast and Central Asia.


Moreover, In the security arena, Xi Jinping has made strides to cultivate closer security cooperation amongst its neighbours with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization that focused on states in Central Asia and Russia. Moreover, China has engaged in joint military training with South Korea and countries in Southeast Asia such as Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. However this is arguably going to prove much more of a challenge for China, as many countries in Asia have their security ties inextricably linked to the United States. Therefore, building upon Xi Jinping’s “Asian Security Concept”, will largely depend on the power of its economic craft. Thus, the BRI and AIIB are crucial for Xi Jinping and his overall aim of leavarging peripheral and developing countries into a “community of shared interests”, where norms and institutions revolve around ideals of “sino-centricism”. In the future this entails as Chinese Scholar of Tsinghua University Yan Xuetong says “a mix of carrots and sticks”, where “China will decisively favor those who side with it with economic benefits and even security protections. On the contrary, those who are hostile to China will face much more sustained policies of sanctions and isolation”.

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