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China:   Xi Jinping’s ‘Diplomatic Strategy under New Conditions’ – D.S.Rajan

C3S Paper No. 2089        

It is natural that the address delivered by Xi Jinping, the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and President of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) at the Central Foreign Affairs Work Conference (Beijing, 28-29 November 2014), is receiving world-wide attention; not being missed in this regard is the description of the PRC Premier Li Keqiang that the address “provides an important guidance for conducting China’s diplomacy both in the current stage and in time to come”. The presence of all members of the CCP politburo standing committee and several other leading party and state officials including from provinces and military, has been a strong indicator to the crucial nature of the conference. The gathering was the first to take place in last 8 years; the last one was in August 2006.  Main tasks spelled out on the occasion   for fulfilling under ‘ new conditions’  are – carrying out an all round analysis of changes happening in international situation and China’s  external environment and  deciding on the guiding ideology, basic principles and strategic goals for foreign affairs work.

Xi’s central point was on the need for his country’s foreign relations to bear a “distinctive Chinese colour , Chinese manner and Chinese attitude”. Relations with neighbors, with ‘major countries’ and with ‘major developing countries’, in that order, were covered by the leader.  As the PRC media suggest, he named no country specifically. The priority given to ‘neighborhood diplomacy’ is worth noting. In Xi’s words, the PRC would aim at achieving an “amicable, secure and prosperous neighborhood environment” through “win-win cooperation “and “connectivity”. On the second, Xi stated that China would strive for a “sound and stable framework” and on the third, the PRC would work to ‘integrate’ China’s development with the countries concerned. Carrying out multilateral diplomacy ,  building Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road and ‘’enhancing central and unified leadership of the party so as to open a new horizon in China’s diplomacy”, were among other themes coming under emphasis in Xi’s address.

Most interesting in Xi Jinping’s speech is his analysis  (Xinhua, Chinese, 29 November 2014) on  the current international situation and demand that China, at a time when its development faces an important period of strategic opportunity, must  gain both a short and long term view of the world development. He has asked  the PRC  to fully estimate the complex nature of changes happening  in every international aspect, but must realize  that conditions of  progress in world multi-polarization cannot change; must fully estimate that transformation of world economy will not be smooth , but must realize that progress in economic globalization will not change;   must  fully estimate the nature of sharpness in international competition and  struggle,  but must realize  that the peaceful development era in the world will not change; must fully  estimate the  long term nature of competition in the international order,  but must realize that  the transformation direction of international system cannot change; must estimate the ‘undetermined’ nature of neighborhood environment, but must be fully aware that the overall situation of ‘glorious’ stability in the Asia-Pacific region  cannot change.

What is the strategic goal fixed for China’s foreign affairs work during the conference?   Xi Jinping’s address clearly deals with this question by stating that the work’s objective is to help fulfilling of “Double Century” goals. Chinese official records describe the goals as (i) building of “moderately prosperous society in all respects” by 2020, the year around 100th anniversary of the CCP’s founding, when in all provinces, the average income of the middle class, will reach international standards, China’s GDP of 2000 will be quadrupled to approximately $4 trillion with a per capita level of some $3,000. Military mechanization and major progress in informatisation will be achieved by this time, and (ii) establishment of an ‘’affluent, strong, civilized, harmonious, socialist modern country’’ by 2050, the year around the PRC’s 100th anniversary, when the annual per capita GDP can reach US$ 40,000, making China one among top 40 countries in the world’. Full military modernization will also get completed by that time. It can be seen that these two goals represent a broader vision for the country than the one so far existed, which had a general stipulation that China’s foreign policy should serve the goal of economic development.

What can be derived from above is that the perceived five ‘unchangeables’ (multi-polarization, economic globalization, peaceful development in the world, international system transformation and Asia-Pacific situation) and the strategic goal, could be contributors to the Xi Jinping leadership becoming more confident internationally than before; the result could  be its implementation of an active diplomacy under ‘ new conditions’,  leaving behind the foreign policy principle of ‘lying low’, enunciated by the veteran leader Deng Xiaoping in early 90s.

Does Xi Jinping’s latest address give any fresh signal with respect to the Chinese foreign policy assertiveness being noticed till now? The answer is yes, but that signal is towards China’s likely continuation of its assertive diplomatic approach.

It may be worthwhile remembering what Xi Jinping said at the speech delivered at a party Politburo Study session convened on 28 January 2013.  He declared that “China will never pursue its development at the cost of sacrificing interests of other countries …. We will never give up our legitimate rights and will never sacrifice our national core interests. No country should presume that we will engage in trade involving our core interests or that we will swallow the ‘bitter fruit’ of harming our sovereignty, security or development interests”. The 18th CCP Congress document echoed the same spirit. It proclaimed that China’s ‘banner is to forge a win-win international cooperation’; at the same time it laid emphasis on making ‘no compromises’ on issues concerning ‘national sovereignty and security of core interests’. Most significant has been the document’s clarification that “the two aspects are pillars of Chinese diplomacy and do not conflict with each other” (People’s Daily, 16 November 2013); of particular interest has been the mention, undoubtedly exhibiting a high sense of assertiveness, that China “will never yield to outside pressure” and “will protect legitimate rights and interests overseas’; this was noticed for the first time in a CCP congress document.

Xi Jinping’s latest address reflects the above mentioned PRC’s assertive position on sovereignty related issues.  There is acknowledgement in it of the good foreign policy work done since the 18th CCP Congress, of which assertiveness has been the hallmark. Also figuring in the address is a pledge to “appropriately resolve China’s territorial and island disputes” with neighbors, while safeguarding the country’s sovereignty”, and to “protect overseas interests and continuing to improve the country’s capabilities to provide such protection”. The address also contains remarks, “We must absolutely not abandon our just rights, cannot sacrifice national core interests and must support the country’s maritime rights and   interests”.

In sum, Xi Jinping’s latest pronouncements on the country’s foreign policy work ‘under new conditions’, particularly on  ties with neighbors, major countries and developing countries, do not seem to mark any substantial change from positions declared in the past. China had given firm messages to world powers that while it would work for win-win relationship with the latter, it would not compromise on matters of core interests. This has been repeated now. Only new elements in Xi’s address, compared to the corresponding one of his predecessor Hu Jintao in 2006, are the former’s mention of ‘connectivity’ with regard to policy towards neighbors and linkage of the foreign affairs work with realization of “Chinese Dream” and “Double Century Goals”; Xi , with claims as originator of the two ideas,  has included them in his domestic vision.  On China’s external ties, Xi’s speech has given a firm message that the country under his leadership will persist with its ‘core-interest’-based foreign policy and that it will continue its assertive position on sovereignty-related issues.  For countries like India, Japan and ASEAN nations,  which have territorial disputes with China and face the latter’s assertiveness, there may thus not be any room for optimism.

(The writer, D.S.Rajan, is Distinguished Fellow, Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai,

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