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Foreign Policy

Evaluating China’s Challenges

Jul 27, 2022
  • Zhang Baijia

    Former Deputy Director of the Party History Research Center, CPC Central Committee

The biggest change brought by reform and opening-up is China being tightly interwoven with the rest of the world. When reform and opening-up began, Deng Xiaoping judged that peace and development would be the main theme of the time. He proposed that, so long as there is no foreign invasion, China should stick to economic development as its primary national objective.

The main task of Chinese diplomacy was thus defined as creating a favorable and peaceful external environment for the country’s modernization drive, which would support the undertakings of the Communist Party of China and its government. The influence of Deng’s judgment and the subsequent adjustment of Chinese foreign policy has been significant and multifaceted.

The process of reform and opening-up that began in 1978 may be divided into two stages — before and after 2012. The problems the country faced in the first stage had already emerged and accumulated before reform and opening-up, the most important of which were the economic growth mode transition and high growth. Problems in the second stage emerged during reform and opening-up and after China’s economic takeoff, the most outstanding of which were economic and social coordination and sustainable development. The problems in these two stages had different origins and called for different approaches.

To cope with current challenges facing the country, it has been of critical importance to transition from high growth to quality growth, to achieve coordinated economic and social development and to solve various problems accumulated during high growth, such as income distribution, resources and environment, population aging and building consensus against a backdrop of diverse interests.

The rise of an emerging power will inevitably go through a period in which the external environment tends to become tense. Examples of this abound in history. For China, the trend began as early as the 1990s, although such incidents as the Gulf war, the 9/11 attack and the Iraq war postponed it.

China is also a special case because of its tremendous size. It is unprecedented in human history that a country of 1.4 billion people achieved modernity in little more than four decades. The shock of this to the existing international order, resources, market and environment are also unprecedented. Other big countries, such as India, may follow suit. We haven’t directly felt such shocks, but the outside world has felt them strongly.

Changes in China’s external environment in recent years also need to be understood from this perspective. We should view the world not only from a Chinese angle but should also view China from a global angle. This is the only way to handle well the structural contradictions that have emerged.

An important source of the changes in China-U.S. relations is that America’s judgment has turned to identify China as a rival in an all-around strategic competition. While in the 1980s the U.S. had taken China as a friendly non-ally, the U.S. now takes all kinds of measures to press China.

Yet it’s important to see that Chinese and American goals in the wrangling are not at a same level: The U.S. wants to preserve its hegemony; China wants to preserve its own right to development. This means there still is room to maneuver in bilateral relations, and the two countries don’t have to engage in a life-or-death struggle.

The latest round of America’s China policy adjustment has been in the pipeline for a decade and will absolutely not change easily. China-U.S. wrangling will be long-term, for this we must be fully prepared. Our side’s tactic should be “dogfight,” while striving for possible cooperation to prevent all-around decoupling. In the field of high technology, competition has become unavoidable. The outcome of the China-U.S. game will hinge on their respective domestic development and capability for building partnerships.

Prospects for the Russia-Ukraine war remain hard to predict, because the situation is subject to multiple constraints. However, a Chinese perspective is needed in observing and analyzing the war, and we should be railroaded by Western or Russian opinion. China and Russia have different ways of strategic thinking: China takes its policy of good-neighborliness as an important means to preserve national security, while Russia is accustomed to building buffer zones under its control on its periphery.

Russia is actually the country with the greatest strategic depth in Europe. During the Cold War, besides the NATO opposite the Warsaw Pact, there also was the Southeast Asian Alliance. The latter has long since disappeared, largely because China never sought expansion. The two divergent ways of thinking have led to different strategic consequences. The Chinese attitude on the Russia-Ukraine war seeks to balance the needs of national security strategy, the foreign policies the country has consistently followed and standards of international morality and justice.

Chinese and Russian strategic interests don’t align completely. Our country’s connections with the international system are far broader and closer than those of Russia. We should resist being bound with Russia by international forces whose ulterior motive is to “Russianize” China’s image.

To cope with the challenges it faces, China should first do its own things well, balancing reform, development and stability. The most important thing is to realize modernization in a way that the majority of people can enjoy life in green, sustainable ways. This will be a tremendous Chinese contribution to human progress.

Meanwhile, we should observe the world order with a cool head; maintain strategic patience; be careful about balancing goals, strengths and means; and learn to think from others’ perspectives to take advantage of all kinds of contradictions and unite the majority.

There were two major lessons from the Cold War era:

First, there is only one world and no future for attempts to create two systems. It was because China got rid of the Cold War pattern that it achieved development.

Second, facing external pressures, China must make meticulous preparations in various aspects to avoid falling into a vicious circle. As a responsible emerging power, China must pay attention to cultivating a healthy national psyche, get rid of obsessions with the country’s humiliating past, avoid arrogant nationalism and deal with other countries with an open mind.

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