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Foreign Policy

The Logic of China’s Diplomacy

Oct 25, 2022
  • Zhong Yin

    Research Professor, Research Institute of Global Chinese and Area Studies, Beijing Language and Culture University

China’s foreign policy has seen both continuity and change in the decade since the current generation of leaders took office. Some of the basic principles governing the country’s foreign relationships have remained intact, including mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, peaceful coexistence and mutual benefit.

China has also persistently stuck to a diplomacy commensurate with its nature as a socialist country with Chinese characteristics. It has sought to maintain world peace and prosperity, promoted free trade and inclusive development and worked to take the global order in a more just and reasonable direction.

It’s only natural that since China’s national strength is growing, its way of dealing with the world is also developing and shifting to suit new conditions and cope with new challenges. President Xi Jinping’s report made at the 20th Party Congress provides a good way to understand China’s diplomatic stance in the new era, as well as the nuances wherein it differs with the past. Xi’s words illuminate the direction of China’s foreign policy development in the years to come.

Clearly, China has been pursuing a more proactive foreign policy across all fields — from economy and security to norms in the global order and governance. For a long time, China had kept a low-profile in foreign affairs, putting domestic development as its top priority, with foreign policy coming second and mostly to serve domestic needs. This low-profile approach has served the country well during times of rapid economic growth; however, some contradictions and conflicts of interest have always existed and may be growing.

During the Obama administration in the United States, China put forward the idea of building a new type of great power relationship based on the principles of no-conflict/no-confrontation and  mutual respect for each other’s core interests, which the U.S. has never accepted. This makes it obvious that America disregards China’s core interests, especially when it comes to the question of sovereignty and territorial integrity regarding Taiwan.

Actually, it is the U.S., not China, that has changed the relationship. China’s GDP rising to global No. 2 shocked the U.S., which followed swiftly with its “pivot” toward Asia. The U.S. paradigm shift on China coincides with a China that is ever more confident, with growing power. Thus, China is naturally asking for more say on the world stage. Domestic matters go without saying, including the Taiwan issue, in which outside powers have regularly interfered.

With tinted glasses, the U.S. has played up normal progress in China’s foreign policy development in the new era. The Belt and Road Initiative, which is welcomed by the world at large and aims to promote infrastructure building in a win-win manner, has been smeared as a threat. It is alleged that China is transplanting overcapacity and pollution, while creating debt traps through opaque finance.

When President Xi declared that China would “move closer to center stage in the world,” rather than incorporating China into the world leaders’ club, the U.S. exaggerated China’s ambition to supplant it and establish a China-ruled order.

To China’s disappointment, U.S. President Joe Biden has not abandoned Trump’s China policy in the least, but rather inherited the basic framework of constraining China in an all-around way. Apart from security and ideology, Biden especially emphasizes the importance of economic competition. From the time he took office until today, he has maintained Trump’s notorious tariff penalties against China. He has also been busy carrying out a plan to cripple China’s economic upgrading. Biden’s attempt to fabricate an international order that excludes China is the last straw. It is because of such fierce U.S. pressure that China has been forced to readjust its foreign policy.

First, the focus of China’s foreign policy has shifted away from promoting economic development solely to safeguard its economy and national security. Facing daunting challenges by outside forces that want to suffocate it before it can rise — through a combination of strategic encirclement, economic containment and ideological isolation — China can no longer afford to rely too much on the overseas market, Western high-tech, and the dollar system. It cannot assume that a peaceful, stable and friendly external environment exists.

President Xi has repeatedly emphasized the importance of ensuring both development and security in the country’s economic and social development. The implication is that China’s diplomacy will be more adamant in defending both its economic and security interests.

Second, unlike its past in which it sought to seamlessly integrate with the world, today’s China has is paying more attention to its domestic market, trying to strike a balance between domestic consumption and foreign trade. To revitalize domestic demand, however, the country also needs to upgrade its economy: High-tech is the necessary backbone. That’s why President Xi emphasizes the importance of self-reliance, innovation and intellectual property rights protection based on the idea of a “dual circulation” pattern that builds up strength in both domestic demand and foreign trade.

Third, China’s military is more alert and ready to protect the nation’s core interests. U.S actions on Taiwan and Ukraine have taught China the lesson that only when a country’s military is strong enough can it safeguard its security and territorial integrity. That’s why the report stressed establishing “a strong system of strategic deterrence.”

Last but not least, China must be more proactive in reforming global governance. Together with other nations, it needs to reshape the world order into something that is more just and reasonable.

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