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Foreign Policy

Making Sense of China’s Diplomacy

Jan 29, 2024
  • Chen Jimin

    Guest Researcher, Center for Peace and Development Studies, China Association for International Friendly Contact

The Central Conference on Work Relating to Foreign Affairs in Beijing in late December included a systematic review of the theoretical and practical innovations in China’s diplomacy over the past decade, and clarified the development goals, practical paths and fundamental requirements going forward. The themes of the conference — which was also held in 2018 and 2014 — and its course of evolution have led to China’s enhanced interaction, expanding bonds and intertwined interests with the world. The conference has also brought changes to China’s foreign policy, which has improved across the board as it has become more institutionalized.

Since the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2012, the country’s diplomacy has been underpinned by the theme of “serving national rejuvenation and promoting human progress,” which illuminates the twin goals of its major country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics. On the domestic front, the theme serves the fundamental goal of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.

The country takes the resolute defense of its core interests — sovereignty, security and development — as its central mission. In fact, this is also the duty of any sovereign state’s foreign diplomacy. Internationally, China’s foreign policy aims to promote the building of a new type of international relations and, ultimately, the building of a community with a shared future for mankind, a concept that embodies China’s vision for the world.

The foreign policy of any given country first and foremost serves its national interests, but only a select few accommodate the future of humanity and the wider international community in their thinking, and even fewer deliver in practice. This is one way to measure China’s diplomacy.

It has been committed to building a new type of international relations characterized by non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect, fairness, justice and win-win cooperation. It has forged a new type of major country relations based on these principles, which serve as the basis for building a community with a shared future for mankind. 

Guided by the global dimensions of its twin goals, China is actively involved in promoting reforms in the global governance system. As its overall strength grows -- along with that of developing countries as a whole, in the face of mounting challenges to global governance and inadequacies in the system — the global community has increasingly deemed reform of the international governance system as an imperative. As the world's second-largest economy and the largest developing country, China feels obliged to promote this reform as part of its international responsibility.

Regrettably, China’s participation in the reform of global governance has been interpreted by some countries as an attempt to upend the postwar global order. It has been called a “revisionist” country. In essence, this is a reflection of the dominance of Western discourse.

It should be noted that two types of global order have been forged in the postwar years. One is the hegemonic order. During the Cold War, this manifested itself in a bipolar structure in which the United States and the Soviet Union competed for hegemony. Afterward, the bipolar structure gave way to a unipolar structure dominated by the United States, in what is called Pax Americana. The other order is the one with the United Nations at its heart, based on international law, in compliance with the purposes and principles of the UN Charter. This order is universally accepted by the international community and is manifested in the international system and institutional norms through which nations interact.

After the Cold War, the U.S.-centric hegemonic order and the UN-centered order coexisted, but they represented two different visions. The so-called “rules-based” international order advocated by the United States features, to a certain extent, some elements of the UN-centered order, but more often than not the rules are established unilaterally and with a view toward safeguarding the hegemonic interests of the United States. They are simply imposed on the international community.

The United States assumes that its national interests serve the common interests of the international community. It overrides international law and rules and engages in hegemonic, bullying practices and zero-sum competition. This is, in fact, a rebuttal and rejection of the democratization and equity required for healthy international relations and the rule of law. It runs counter to the prevailing trend.

In contrast, China has made clear that it firmly upholds the international system with the UN at its core, the international order underpinned by international law and the basic norms of international relations based on the purposes and principles of the UN Charter. This is a recognition of the postwar order and represents the will of the international community. It follows the historical trend of democratization of international relations.

Therefore, China is by no means attempting to challenge the international order, as some Western countries have claimed. On the contrary, it is a staunch defender and reformer of the postwar order, with the UN at its core. The foreign affairs work conference in December called for the first time for an equal and orderly multipolar world and for universally beneficial and inclusive economic globalization — a clear exposition of China’s stance.

On Jan. 9, Liu Jianchao, minister of the International Department of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, reiterated in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations that China is a creator, beneficiary and defender of the existing international order, and it seeks neither to change it nor to reinvent the wheel or build a so-called new order. That said, in order to uphold the international order with the UN at its core, we must resolutely oppose all forms of power politics and bullying. As a matter of fact, one of the fine traditions and distinctive features of Chinese diplomacy is its opposition to all forms of hegemony and power politics. This will characterize the direction of China’s diplomatic work in the new era.

From this perspective, when one tries to make sense of Chinese diplomacy, it is important to look into what it calls for and what it defends, along with what it opposes and fights against. In fact, both follow a common logic, aimed at creating a more favorable international environment that will serve the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation and contribute to lasting peace and common development in the world. Simply put, China seeks the continuous progress of humanity, along with its own.

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