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Foreign Policy

China’s New Leadership: Balancing Tensions in Foreign Policy

Mar 19 , 2014

China’s new leaders need to shape Chinese foreign policy in a very different context from that of their predecessors. While Chinese national power is much stronger than it was, the international environment is both more complicated and less beneficial to the country’s goals. 

The new leaders have to contend with two internal tensions that are effecting the creation and implementation of foreign policy. First of all, the leadership needs to balance China’s different strategic goals, especially those that are military and economic in nature, against the country’s diplomatic interests. Secondly, and more importantly, it has increasingly become the case that national strategic requirements are at odds with domestic and international constraints. As usual, the prospects for Chinese foreign policy are uncertain. 

As of yet, there is no grand strategy that can provide answers to the fundamental questions facing China’s policy-makers: How can China deal with the tensions that have resulted from increased national strength, rising popular nationalism and other complex domestic forces? What should China’s response to the military and geo-strategic rivalry with the U.S. look like? How can China respond to the territorial and maritime disputes with its Asian neighbors? Is there a way to make “China the giant” acceptable to its neighbors both strategically and diplomatically? How can the further aggravation of the China as “military threat” thesis and the corresponding arms race be prevented in the context of a dramatic buildup of power-projection capabilities of the Chinese military? Over the longer term, considering the vigorous expansion of China’s overseas economic presence, how can China avoid the situation resulting from a protection of legitimate interests but pursued through arms and coercion? How can China’s leaders simultaneously contribute to global governance as well as to China’s domestic governance? And how will China deal with the e-world, NGO’s and various other issues of soft-power? 

There is also a more immediate issue to tackle: the nature of the operational mode for managing intensive and protracted confrontation with Japan, having remarkable potential to escalate into military conflict. China faces a dilemma between managing its “theatre of operation” and its broader strategic preferences. 

In attempting to predict where Chinese foreign policy is headed, there are two major reference points that should be considered. First of all, in the foreign policy section of his report to the 18th Party Congress, then-President Hu Jintao reflected on China’s sense of its national strategic requirements over the longer term in highlighting the oft-repeated principle of “peaceful development”. A less important, but more immediately relevant, reference point is the current emphasis on maritime power, sovereign rights and sustained dramatic military build-up which, while partially reflecting domestic pressures including militant opinions from the public and armed forces, is also a response to the U.S. “pivot” to Asia, and the East and South China Sea disputes. If the strategic outlook which President Hu put forward prevails, then the U.S.-China rivalry will be mitigated and well-controlled, but if domestic and international pressures prevail then we can expect an increasingly tense bilateral relationship between the two powers. 

The strategic outlook that Hu outlined could be regarded as a soft fist to be used against the hard fist of the U.S. strategic “pivot” and military preponderance. The intention would be that over time the hard fist would be softened as a result of this asymmetrical interaction between the soft and the hard. If China were to instead deploy a hard fist, this thesis would suggest that the outcome would instead be a mutual hardening, making conflict inevitable. However, the problem is that the opposite thesis, that China’s hard fist could, in due course, press back against the U.S., or force it to become softer if the U.S. “bottom line” was not too seriously challenged is also plausible and, at the moment, a more popular line of thinking in China. 

The experiences of the last few years suggest that the former prospect is not very likely, as do the main developments since the 18th Party Congress, held in November 2013, which produced the new leadership of China. On the latter, one can refer to as follows: 

1) Xi Jinping’s repeated use of the theme of “the great resurgence of the Chinese nation” (referred to more officially as “China’s Dream”);
2) A shift in the driving aim of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) from an effort to just build up modernized force to the simpler but more comprehensive and forceful aim of “being capable of fighting, and fighting victoriously”;
3) Extraordinarily frequent official reports of breakthroughs in China’s military build-up, including advanced weaponry, military technology and the increasing capability of the PLA’s combat readiness, mainly in a few months around the 18th Party Congress and in the context of extraordinarily intense confrontation with Japan;
4) The further hardening of China’s posture toward territorial and maritime disputes with some neighboring countries, especially Japan and the Philippines;

5) The declaration of establishing China’s East China Sea Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ), a major strategic action taken in the context of the intensive confrontation with Japan, while in the longer term represents the first formal expansion of China’s maritime “strategic space” since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, much beyond China’s offshore water, which of course has fully self-conscious implication to the strategic dominance of the United States in the western Pacific; 

6) The decline, especially in the months before President Xi’s Boau speech in early April 2013 in Hannan Island, in the number of references to the principle of “peaceful development” that used to guide Chinese foreign policy and declared so frequently by the Chinese government in the previous years. “Taking a low profile”, another traditional principle in contemporary Chinese foreign policy, is not much referred to either. 

However, on the other hand, one can also and must refer to another set of developments since the 18th Party Congress, especially since the early summer of 2013, which remarkably reflects the complexity and inner dilemmas of China’s foreign policy under the new leadership headed by Xi Jinping if one compares them with the above: 

1) Repeated confirmation of “peaceful development” orientation in the leaders’ statements since April 2013, which has been traditional in the contemporary Chinese foreign policy;

2) The much emphasized objective of China-U.S. “new typed great power relationship”, advocated again and again as China’s favored central concept for the future China-U.S. relations with Xi Jinping’s personal insistence, and with his repeated efforts for President Obama’s acceptance;

3) Muchincreased cooperation and accommodation with the United State in the prominent international security issues of North Korea, Syria, and Iran, together with prominent progress in the field of broadening China’s market access to the U.S. service capital, both of which were so difficult to be obtained by Washington in the past in such degree;

4) Extraordinary “Peripheral Diplomatic Work Conference” held in October 2013 and attended by all the members of the Standing Committee of the CCP Politburo, which emphasized forcefully that the general line of “good neighbour policy” must be the guarding star of China’s behaviour at large toward her neighbouring countries, though the strong impression it made at the time has been somewhat diluted since the intensifying of the confrontation with Japan primarily due to Prime Minister Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine.

5) Remarkable moderation of China’s acts in general in the recent past over South China Sea disputes, together with increased efforts to improve China’s relations with ASEAN and its member states including Vietnam, a rival of China in the disputes, in spite of the rumour that China might soon declare the establishment of a South China Sea ADIZ.  

The prospects of China’s foreign policy is still uncertain, conditioned by various domestic and international elements that will continue to be dynamic and often mutually contradictory. The critical issue is: How can China strike the difficult balance between its different strategic requirements? And how can those strategic requirements overcome the domestic and international pressures and restraints? These will be the primary challenges for China’s new leadership as it grapples with shaping policy toward the United States and its neighboring countries. While the challenge is already acute, China’s response remains under-prepared and far from sufficiently integrated, in her struggle with various new complexities domestic and international which in a greater part brought about by her own dramatic growth in the past few decades. 

Shi Yinhong, Professor of International Relations, Renmin University of China.

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