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Foreign Policy

The Chinese Approach to Diplomacy

Mar 20 , 2019
  • Mikaila Smith

    J.D. Candidate at the University of Chicago Law School

During President Xi Jinping’s first term — from 2013 to 2017 — China’s spending on foreign affairs skyrocketed, even as general government spending and domestic economic growth slowed. Although China’s relative spending in this area (approximately $8 billion annually) remains low compared to nations like the United States ($31 billion) and Germany ($16 billion), China’s increasingly significant role in international affairs has prompted a variety of reactions, ranging from consternation and anxiety to excitement about China as a new development partner. 

Many pundits believe China’s growing foreign affairs budget and accompanying activities reveal a desire to expand extraterritorial influence; these commentators often describe China’s 21st century diplomacy as aggressive and ultra-nationalistic. Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has warned against China’s desire to reshape international governance institutions to better suit the Chinese agenda, and politicians and commentators from all sides have railed against “debt-trap diplomacy”, wherein China offers loans to partners in international development projects and then collects heavily when these nations default on said loans. 

Whether or not one agrees that China’s 21st century diplomatic activities warrant heightened perturbation in the international community, it is certainly useful to closely examine the evolution of Chinese diplomacy. Scholars like Chen Dingding and Wang Jianwei explore the significance of China’s perceived breakaway from prior foreign affairs policy—such as former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s famous “lie low” dictum, often referred to as TGYH, the acronym for the original Chinese phrase tao guang yang hui (韬光养晦). 

Deng first articulated this maxim during the international fallout resulting from the 1989 Tiananmen incident. The TGYH phrase is most often translated as “keep a low profile” but also sometimes as “hide our capabilities and bide our time.” In the decades since Deng first introduced TGYH the concept has become relatively controversial, sparking arguments over the correct translation and context for the strategy. The U.S. Pentagon’s annual reports on the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have described TGYH as intentionally deceptive, while noteworthy Chinese figures have argued that the U.S. consistently mistranslates TGYH into something more insidious than was ever originally intended—insisting that it was meant to reassure the world that China was focused on its own development and did not have imperialist or colonialist aims. 

Contemporary political commentators and China observers now argue over the correct context for TGYH in an effort to categorize President Xi’s policies and answer a fundamental question about Chinese diplomacy in the 21st century: has Xi completely foregone Deng’s low profile dictum, and thus turned his back on precedent? The alternative is that Xi’s current agenda was always implicitly built into China’s long-term strategy, including into Deng’s TGYH maxim. Commentators hope that answering this question about the TGYH dictum could shed light on how far China’s ambitions might reach in the globalized world. 

Perhaps a contemporary case study can ground this debate: China’s relations with Venezuela. For those who could use a primer on current events in Venezuela, this article serves as an excellent starting point. China became an active partner of Venezuela in the early 2000s eager to import Venezuelan oil as part of its mission to diversify and meet growing Chinese energy needs. 

From 2007 to 2016 the China Development Bank lent more than $55 billion to Venezuela, as the China-Venezuela relationship increasingly followed a loans-for-oil structure. China decreased loans to Venezuela following the 2014 oil price drop and rise in political instability; however, China has continued to insist that its relationship with Venezuela is built upon a solid, mutually beneficial commercial foundation, and refuses to recognize Juan Guaidó as the democratically elected leader of Venezuela—despite international pressure to do so. Matt Ferchen of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy describes the China-Venezuela relationship as one of “superlatives”: Venezuela has the most oil, China needs it the most, and China lends more money to Venezuela than any other nation. 

China’s relationship with Venezuela is telltale of China’s larger diplomatic strategy, especially as it diverges from the United States’. In his 2015 piece on Chinese business owners in Egypt, Peter Hessler recalled a conversation with a diplomat who astutely observed, “The Americans think, ‘if everybody is like me, they’re less likely to attack me.’ The Chinese don’t think like that. They don’t try to make the world be like them. Their strategy is to make economic linkages, so if you break these...it’s going to hurt you as much as it hurts them.” Venezuela has in many ways become a battleground for these disparate diplomatic approaches as both the U.S. and China strive to maintain and strengthen influence and power in Latin America. 

China’s ‘economic linkages’ strategy, which is part of its overall commitment to peaceful development, certainly bears further examination, and there is an argument to be made that China’s strategy is less substantively different from the United States than it initially appears (in that it is also driven by a strong ideological agenda and has increased hegemony and power as a central goal). China’s strong investment in presenting its diplomatic and international development efforts as a logical ‘win-win’ situation is based off of a logic regarding China’s identity as a Southern developing nation, implying an unqualified mutual understanding, and this must be closely examined

The world order is rapidly changing, and China is a significant player on the international stage. Many scholars point out that the framework governing China’s diplomatic strategy is not novel, and originated well before President Xi’s leadership. The scale of China’s diplomatic activities is new, however, as well as the global political, economic and social context within which China is acting. Policy makers and observers both in China and outside of China must make an effort to critically examine China’s strategy and act upon lessons that have already been learned from China’s activities in nations like Venezuela.

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