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China:Xi Jinping’s Foreign Policy – Expect No End to Assertiveness

This article approaches the subject using a twofold methodology – first towards tracing the history of foreign policy evolution in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) covering the period till to date, providing the required basic data and the second aiming to assess how the policy worked at each stage and what are its implications for future.

Foreign Policy Evolution

In the PRC, there had always been firm connectivity between the identified domestic goals and foreign policy objectives. At the time of ‘liberation’ in 1949, the founder of the nation, Mao Zedong, concentrated on “ starting anew” and “putting the house in order” as domestic priorities; to serve that purpose, he chose the paths of ‘mass mobilisation’ and nationalisation of industries. To ensure there is no ‘imperialists’ interference in the country’s domestic course, Mao chose an external strategy of ‘leaning to one side’, i.e. seeking the backing of Socialist allies. Internal imperatives underwent a major change in the post-1978 period, with veteran leader Deng Xiaoping initiating a policy of reforms under the framework of ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’; it was matched by an ‘open door’ foreign policy. As a break from Mao-era policy, no alliance with any outside power was envisaged.

The essence of Deng’s line continues till today, albeit with additional conceptual inputs from his successors to suit perceived conditions at different times. To illustrate, Jiang Zemin ( 1989-2002) formulated national policies centering round his theory of “ Three Represents”, aimed at making the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) a representative of majority of the people and codified ‘three major historic tasks’ for China – “Modernisation, National Reunification and Safeguarding World Peace and Common Development”. He selected a matching external line of ‘Independent Foreign Policy of Peace’. Jiang’s successor Hu Jintao ( 2002-2012) brought forth a development model marking a shift in emphasis – from GDP centric growth to ‘balanced development’; it was backed by his own idea of “ Scientific Outlook of Development”, of which creation at home of a ‘Harmonious Socialist Society’ and ‘Sustainable development’ constituted main elements. Designed to suit to the conceived ‘primary stage of socialism’, the model provided for carrying out the country’s ‘own development practice, learning side by side from experiences of other countries’. Correspondingly, Hu put in place a foreign policy line based on the idea of a “Harmonious World” which laid emphasis on accomplishing ‘lasting peace and common prosperity, through a win-win solution in international relations’. It was left to the then Premier Wen Jiabao to pinpoint the links between his country’s domestic goals and external approach. In his words, “what China needs for its development first and foremost are an international environment of long term stability and a stable surrounding environment.”

What should not be missed at the same time is that in the middle of 2009, a new ‘core interests’ element had begun to dominate Hu Juntao’s “Harmonious World” external line; this persists till today. Central to this line is China’s resolve not to make any compromise on issues concerning national sovereignty, with option to use force in carrying it out. Though the ‘core interest’ areas, now being officially listed, are Xinjiang, Tibet and Taiwan, sometimes, South China Sea is also figuring under that category. The Senkaku islands, called Diao Yu by China, are the latest addition of Beijing to these areas (PRC foreign ministry spokesperson, 26 April 2013, as reported by Kyodo). Sino-Indian border has not so far come under China’s “core-interests” category. With equal priority being given to ‘core interests’, China’s external relations are now being marked by a big increase in the level of its territorial assertiveness in its neighborhood, leading to Beijing’s increasing friction with ASEAN nations, Japan and India on its claims in South China Sea, East China Sea and land borders respectively.

The new leader Xi Jinping’s domestic and foreign policy thinking began to take shape soon after his take over from Hu Jintao. He announced (29 November 2012) his internal goal as achieving ‘great renewal or rejuvenation of Chinese nation’ which was not new; the then Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang promoted it in the late 1980s and so did later Xi’s predecessors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. The explanation in China is that the term “renewal” or “rejuvenation” means ‘revival of Chinese glories of the past’. As some overseas scholars (Prof John Lee, Project Syndicate, 1 August 2013) put it, they are glories of the Ming and Qing dynasties periods; experts in China on the other hand explain that the PRC, to achieve ‘rejuvenation’, will not repeat past ‘imperialist’ mentality, have an open attitude to the outside world and try learn from it (Han Baojiang, Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies, CCP central Committee Party School, Global Times, 9 July 2013). Xi has called the goal as reflecting a national aspiration for a ‘China Dream’ about making the country stronger through development; he has contrasted this to the ‘ status of weakness prevailed for 170 years since the Opium War, subjecting China to bullying’ (Global Times, 30 November 2012). His stated targets for development are – (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’ ( Hao Tiechuan, Hongkong Government official, China Daily, 16 January 2013). Full military modernization will also get completed by that time.

Turning attention to Xi Jinping regime’s foreign policy approach, providing context is the Report adopted in the 18th CCP congress in November 2012, which maintained the tradition in the PRC of linking the country’s domestic and foreign policies. It said, “Peaceful development is China’s basic state policy, and win-win cooperation is a banner for China’s friendly relations with other countries. To realise ‘China dream’, we must have a peaceful international environment. At the same time, the country will resolutely safeguard its national sovereignty, security, and core interests. The two policies are two pillars of Chinese diplomacy, and do not conflict with each other” (China Daily, 14 June 2013). For the first time in a party congress report, references to “never yielding to outside pressure” and “protecting legitimate rights and interests overseas’ found a place. Strongly echoing the Congress guideline, Xi Jinping in his speech at a party politburo session held in January 2013 stated that China would remain on a path of peaceful development, yet it will “never give up” legitimate rights or sacrifice ‘core interests’. Observing that China would adhere to an “open, cooperative and win-win” development model, Xi cautioned that “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” (China Daily, 30 January 2013). Statements made by other Chinese leaders reiterated Xi’s stand. As an instance, addressing the Shangrila Dialogue in Singapore on 2 June 2013, Lt Gen Qi Jianguo, the Deputy Chief of General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) observed, “China would adhere to key principles in foreign policy – open development, win-win situations and cooperative relationships. China’s hope for sustained peace and stability in this region and stress on dialogues and consultations for the sake of peace by no means denote unconditional compromise, our resolve and commitment to safeguarding core national interests always stands steadfast”.

In March 2013, Xi formally conceptualized his foreign policy idea of “New Type of International Relations” (NTIR) with “New Type of Great-Power Relations (NTGPR) as its integral part. In his exposition at Moscow Strategic Institute of International Relations (23 March 2013), he stated that the NTIR “will have win cooperation at the core and involve combining of efforts by the people of all nations to safeguard world peace and promote common development”. The following month saw Xi further elaborating the idea. He said at his speech at Boao Forum for Asia (8 April 2013), “China safeguards its sovereignty and territorial interests, but at the same time would work for peace and stability of the region. Countries, whether big or small, strong or weak, rich or poor, should all contribute their share to maintain and enhancing peace. Rather than undercutting each other’s efforts, countries should complement each other and work for joint progress.” It can clearly been seen that Xi’s NTIR idea draws its strength from the basic principles laid down during the party congress, with a central message – a pre-requisite to realization of ‘China dream’ is building of a peaceful and stable international and neighboring environment (State Councilor Yang Jiechi, http;// of 9 June 2013). In strategic terms, interesting was his application of the NTIR framework to China’s relations with Russia; while in Moscow, he called upon the two nations to ‘support each other in protecting their core interests’. Earlier, he laid a similar stress in the case of China-India ties. He said in a press meet (19 March 2013) that both China and India should ‘accommodate core concerns of each other’.

Coming to NTGPR idea, contours of it were visible in February 2012 itself when Xi, then the PRC Vice-President, while in the US, emphasized the need to build “a new type of relationship between major countries in the 21st century” and wished for Beijing and Washington establishing ‘a good example of constructive and cooperative state-to-state relations for countries with different political systems’. A similar theme was taken up by the then President Hu Jintao in June 2012 with a call among others for ‘sharing international responsibilities by China and the US to maintain a healthy interaction in the Asia-Pacific’. Soon, Cui Tiankai, then-Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs and now Chinese Ambassador to the United States, along with co-author Pang Hangzhao , in their essay, made an official elaboration of the NTGPR idea ( July 2012) taking the remarks of Xi and Hu as basis. The essay identified three obstacles to achieving a ‘new vision’ for U.S.-China relations- strategic mistrust, conflicts over China’s “core interests” and competition in the Asia-Pacific. It further observed, “What the United States has done in matters concerning China’s core and important interests and major concerns is unsatisfactory”. This was followed by the PRC Foreign Ministry’s official adoption of the phrase “New Type of Great Power Relations” ( xinxing daguo guanxi, 20 July , 2012). It was included in the November 2012 party congress report.What Xi said of late on NTGPR principle was succinct. He stated (at meeting with US President Obama, 7-8 June 2013), “in great power relations, there should be no conflicts and confrontation; contradictions and divergences should be properly handled through dialogue and cooperation and there should be mutual respect to ‘core interests’ of concerned countries”, besides informing that Senkakus islands are a matter of ‘core interest’ to China.


While evaluating China’s overall foreign policy performance so far, a mixed picture of successes and failures can be seen. In Mao era, land mark events included Beijing’s formulations of “Five Principles of Co-existence” concept, along with India as well as the “three world” theory. Their international impact cannot be doubted. On the other hand, there were setbacks, like the damage to China’s foreign relations from the Cultural Revolution and the virtual marginalization of the PRC in the international system. Coming to Deng Xiaoping period, a prominent achievement was emergence of China as a global economic player, thanks to “reforms” and “Four Modernisations” policies initiated by the veteran leader. On the negative side, the PRC’s global image suffered in the aftermath of Tian An Men square student demonstrations in 1989. Foreign relations challenges arose following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. To set the house in order, Deng invented a strategic course, central to which was a ’24-character” concept demanding the country to ‘observe calmly, cope with the situation cool-headedly, keep a low profile and make a difference in foreign affairs” (taoguang yanghui, yousuo zuowei). Coming to Jiang Zemin era, the accomplishments made were neutralization of the impact of Asian financial crisis, getting the return of Hongkong and Macao to the mainland and introduction of ‘new security concept’ as a step to gain confidence of neighbors. Failures were inability to reduce tensions with Taiwan which arose from Jiang’s aggressive military policy towards the island as well as with Japan. In the subsequent Hu Jintao period, achievements included holding the Summer Olympics, China’s diplomatic reach to Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America and stable ties with the US. The biggest failure in this period arose from the assertive ‘core-interest’- based foreign policy which damaged relations with Asian neighbors.

How the present Xi Jinping administration is performing in the foreign policy front? Standing out while considering this question is the firm indication now that Deng’s principle of ‘keeping a low profile’ in international affairs has undergone a revision. The main reason seems to be the changed perception in China now that the country cannot remain isolated internationally at this time of its rapid growth and increasing inter-dependence among nations. The prescription now is as follows- “To make China Dream a reality, the PRC needs the world. China will shoulder international responsibilities commensurate with its position and development capability “(The PRC vice Foreign Minister Song Tao, speech at Munich Security Conference, 3 February 2013). Demonstrating his regime’s intention to maintain ‘appropriate’ profile, not ‘low profile ’ in foreign relations, Xi Jinping within a short time of his assumption of office, has visited abroad and interacted with foreign leaders , notably in the US, Russia, BRICS nations and countries in Africa and Latin America. There is no doubt that a leadership consensus in China has led to the revision of ‘low profile” approach; while final word has not been said officially so far, there are ongoing foreign policy debates in China , presumably, with official blessings, based on the premise that the US power is on a decline and a multi-polar world is gradually emerging. Two major shades of scholarly opinion are being seen – the ‘realists’ who emphasize sovereignty and reject ‘globalism’ and ‘internationalists’ who focus on the PRC’s relations with other great powers and blocs. Both agree that Deng’s policy is no longer relevant and support China’s active involvement in international affairs; the two groups have fundamental differences over specific diplomatic approaches and strategies. The internationalists disapprove the use of force, urge self-restraint, advocate compliance with international norms, and utilize the international system to participate in global governance while putting emphasis on the role of society – not just sovereign power ( Professor Li Wei, Renmin University China’s School of International Studies , 20 February 2013, Century Business Herald). Xi’s idea of “new type of major power relations” appears closer to the opinions of ‘internationalists’.

The second striking point in Xi Jinping’s policy position is that the country’s development ‘requires a peaceful and stable international and neighboring environment’ and that there can be ‘no compromise on the national core interests’. China sees no conflict among the two, calling them as ‘two pillars’ of diplomacy, Xi’s idea of ‘ new type international /great power relations’ now being implemented, has these pillars as Thus, China, while taking diplomatic initiatives to improve its foreign relations, is also conveying its sensitivity to governments abroad on matters of its ‘core interests’. The primary motive of Xi Jinping seems to be to tell the world through his NTIR idea that China is peacefully rising and that outside powers should respect China’s core interests. As such, the NTIR looks like a conditional Chinese foreign policy initiative .With respect to the US, at this juncture, his basic aim appears to be seeking cooperation of the Obama administration on issues in the Asia-Pacific, so that the impact coming from the American ‘rebalancing’ strategy in that region, where China’s geo-strategic interests are paramount at the moment , can be neutralised. Important indicators are the messages being given by China to the US- “Pacific Ocean is wide enough to incorporate intentions of both the US and China’ ( Xi to Obama) and “ common interests far surpass China-US differences in Asia-Pacific region, the two sides should form a pattern of benign interaction and bring about development opportunities to both China and the US and even whole region” ( PRC Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, on ‘Results of Xi-Obama meeting’, 9 June 2013). Notwithstanding its latest charm offensive in international relations, China is not hesitating to adopt aggressive postures on sovereignty issues, apparently setting an opposite trend. Examples are Beijing’s ongoing sabre rattling with respect to South China Sea and East China sea issues, for e.g establishment of a PLA garrison in Sansha city in Hainan province; conduct of a training exercise in South China Sea and Western Pacific Ocean during March 2013 of the Chinese Navy’s South Fleet, reaching up to Zeng Mu reef, contested by Malaysia, symbolizing demonstration of the PRC’s determination to claim entire South China Sea ; locking of fire control radar by a Chinese frigate at a Japanese destroyer on the high seas near the Senkaku Islands in January 2013 and the PLA intrusion into India’s Ladakh in April 2013. China’s resorting to tough rhetoric, is also equally important.

Xi, under his ‘new type’ external approach , has desired China and Russia ‘to support each other in protecting their core interests’; called upon China and India ‘to accommodate core concerns of each other’ and pleaded for China and the US ‘showing mutual respect to core interests’ of each other. The meaning of different terminologies used by him depending upon which country he is addressing arouses curiosity; India is the only country among the three to still have a border problem with China and hence Xi’s call for ‘mutual accommodation’ looks logical. On the reverse, whether the US, Russia and India, have endorsed Xi’s position on ‘core interests’, remains unclear. To be sure, US President Obama has not done so, during his interaction with Xi. In any case, in an overall sense, one can expect China’s pro-active diplomacy and territorial assertiveness to progress hand in hand for some time to come.

Why China has added assertiveness to its foreign policy approach? The contributing factors , not difficult to identify, are the following – (i) Beijing’s growing confidence internationally especially after its success in holding the Olympics and in maintaining high growth rates despite the global recession, (ii) China’s feeling that an opportunity has arisen for itself to increase its influence globally as the world balance of power shifts from the West to East and a multi-polar world gradually emerges, (iii) the PRC’s growing need to protect land and sea trade routes in the interest of the much needed import of resources from abroad , (iv) deepening Chinese fears concerning stability in Tibet and Xinjiang, (v) suspicions on US strategy towards Taiwan and Asia-Pacific and (vi) perceived aggravation of challenges to China’s claims over territories, especially in South and East China seas.

In what specific areas, China’s assertiveness is going to be felt in the future? In his article , now believed to a study material for the PLA, Lt Gen Qi Jianguo, China’s Deputy Chief of General Staff of the PLA has identified ( Party journal ‘Study Times’, 22 January 2013) five ‘risks and challenges’ for the country – (i) The long term danger coming from Western subversive strategy of penetration and subversion , including use of military ‘ hard strikes’ , (ii) domination of ‘rightists’ in Japanese politics, Japan’s changing self-defence policy into an ‘outside oriented’ policy, which would affect stability in East Asia, (iii) involvement of great powers in South China Sea , (iv) “ neo-interventionaism”, i.e “ neo- colonialism waving the banner of human rights” having implications for national sovereignty and (v) non-traditional security factors including cyber security, terrorism and energy security, also impacting on national sovereignty. Being added to the list are also financial and ‘outer space’ threats ( Maj Gen Luo Yuan, the Hindu, 28 June 2013). These suggest that China’s assertiveness, now centering round already identified ‘ core interest’ matters, may from now on spread to dealing with issues that are assuming new prominence like human rights, energy security etc.

A key question is whether Xi regime will resort to use of force while asserting on territorial claims. It is true that Xi stressed on ‘dialogue’ as a foreign policy option during his talks with President Obama (June 2013), but deserving a close scrutiny are his remarks on the occasion that China ‘would safeguard national sovereignty while adhering to solving relevant issues through dialogue’. Can anyone be sure about Beijing not using the force option? Perhaps the answer is ‘no’, considering the precedence set by China; it launched ‘counter attacks in self-defence’ against Vietnam, India and former Soviet Union in 1979, 1962 and 1969 respectively. Also, the ‘Active Defence’ strategy set for the PLA, tasked with protecting national sovereignty, does not rule out the armed forces resorting to ‘offensive operational postures’. The Chinese traditional idea on peace (heping) contains ‘unity of opposites’ of idealism and realism; the idea while stressing peace, has simultaneously an aggressive connotation implying an option ‘to rule or stabilize the world’ . The PRC is also visualizing ‘local wars under informatisation conditions’. A Chinese military think tank has talked about PRC- Japan clashes on the disputed Senkakus ( Strategic Review 2012 , Academy of Military Sciences, Beijing, 30 May 2013). However, it would be a mistake to think that China’s ‘use of force’ as part of its assertiveness might inevitably lead to ‘wars’, which may jeopardize maintenance of international and neighborhood peace, a sine-qua-non fixed for the country’s development. Discussions in some of the latest writings in China by influential scholars are ruling out a war option. One, written by Liu Yuan, Political commissar, PLA General Logistics Department, says (Huan Qiu Shi Bao, 4 February,2013, “ in the strategic opportunity period ( 16th CCP Congress described it as first 20 years of this century), make sure that war is last option. Economic construction should not be allowed to get interrupted by accidental warfare. But we should not rule out hand for a hand. Deng Xiaoping, at periods of strategic opportunity in 1979 and 1983, had to fight battles. So, in this period, the test is whether we can endure and wait till enemy strikes first blow”.

Besides ‘show of force’, China is also deploying administrative, legal and propaganda means to press its territorial claims. This trend is important for countries in the neighbourhood having unsolved territorial disputes with China. The Chinese government in September 2012 announced base points and baselines in waters near the Senkakus and its affiliated islets, as well as the names and coordinates of 17 base points, after the Japanese government moved to “purchase” part of the Senkakus, islands. Seen in the following November was stamping of Chinese map on passports showing India’s Arunachal Pradesh and disputed Aksai Chin as Chinese territories; including South China Sea with the nine dashed lines to claim Chinese sovereignty and including Taiwan as China’s territory. In January 2013, a law, enacted by China’s Hainan province which empowers the police of this island province to board and control foreign ships which enter the province’s waters without permission, was put in force. Examples of other forms of Chinese assertiveness included upgradation of status of Sansha city in Hainan as a base point to administer the disputed Paracels, opening disputed territories under Chinese control for tourism and broadcast on weather in the contested areas in national TV network.

Xi Jinping has expressed his support to ‘shared security’ in the Asia-Pacific region ( Boao forum speech, April 2012); this needs to be read in the context of the Chinese tendency visible now in favour of conducting a dialogue with ASEAN nations as a group on reaching a legally binding Code of Conduct with respect to South China Sea (Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign minister, Bangkok, 2 August 2013). Is the PRC departing from its existing line of approving only direct bilateral talks with concerned nations on South China Sea and opposing a ‘multilateral’ approach on the issue? It will be too early to comment on this.

(The writer, D.S.Rajan, is Director, Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai, India.Email:

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