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China: Xi Jinping’s Foreign Policy – From Open Hegemony to Covert Hegemony?


This article assesses the formulation, shifting preferences and changing directions of the foreign policy of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) under the new leadership of Xi Jinping. While tracing the firm connection between the perceptions of the current Chinese leaders as well as the kind of national interests they prioritize, and the evolving country’s external course, it makes an attempt to examine whether Xi has followed or diverted from his predecessors in the pursuit of the country’s foreign policy. It also tries to explain the dilemma which appears to have risen for Xi Jinping in convincing the world about intentions of China to rise peacefully, at a time when Beijing is being seen acting more and more assertively in international affairs.


Internationally, the focus on China has gained depth because of the impact coming from the hype on the world scene with respect to the terminology of ‘Rising China’. The handling of foreign policy matters by the current Chinese government under the leadership of President Xi Jinping which is going to complete its first year of office in 2014 has started attracting increasing attention throughout rest of the world where there is increasing keenness to know about the likely impact of the ‘the rise of China’ on the PRC’s global image, in particular that among neighbors. In the recent Party Plenum, Xi Jinping has outlined China’s direction for economic reforms and foreign policy for the next decade. It is believed that it will be as decisive for China as those of the veteran leader Deng Xiaoping. The article appropriately focuses on the significance of Xi’s Plenum directives.

George Modelski, a scholar in the University of Washington specializing in Global Politics, defines Foreign Policy as “the system of activities evolved by communities for changing the behavior of other states and for adjusting their own activities to the international environment”. The nations thus formulate foreign policies, which are ‘logically consistent whole’ based on selected national interests. The case of China is no different. Its declared fundamental goals are to preserve the country’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity, create a favorable international environment for reforms and opening up, modernize construction, maintaining world peace and propelling common development. Important is China’s emphasis on creating a benevolent and peaceful external environment. To that end, the critical points of Chinese foreign policy are maintaining peaceful relations with other states, particularly neighboring nations, and complying with the principles of fairness and justice. Beijing hopes to build momentum for its domestic development through its external activities, including securing resources overseas. It contends that diplomacy should ensure the country’s prosperity, open up new paths for the nation’s rejuvenation, and create conditions that benefit the Chinese people.

The other Chinese goal relating to territorial integrity is equally important as it is contributing to Beijing’s adoption of a ‘core interest’-based foreign policy. According to Chinese leader Dai Bingguo, the PRC’s first core interest is maintaining its fundamental system and state security, second is the sovereignty and territorial integrity and the third is the continued stable development of the economy and society. China has identified Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan and South China Sea Islands as well as strategic resources and trade routes as belonging to the ‘core interest’ category. The PRC takes a stand that ‘core interest’ cannot be compromised and that it will be protected through military means, if necessary. A fall out of such position is that China’s ties with its neighbors which are involved in territorial disputes are getting complicated. A valid argument seems to be that the PRC may have the intention to hide certain aspects of its foreign policy from world view like its pursuance of extra-regional interests with the objective of the country getting great power status .

One may generally agree that there is foreign policy continuity under Xi Jinping. But at the same time, it can also be seen that in terms of foreign policy behavior, the PRC is showing signs of moving away from the zero-sum based approach of previous regimes; it has now shifted its focus on setting up , as being called by Beijing, ‘cooperative’ external relationships. Whether or not such ‘cooperation’ is in full sense of the term, is for others to see.

In the security arena, the Chinese now insist on other countries to follow a new approach to security based on ‘mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality and collaboration’. This can be called the 3C security approach, namely comprehensive security, cooperative security and common security. For Beijing, the first one means that security is multi-faceted and interconnected. It includes not just military security, but also economic security, financial security and food security. Comprehensive challenges require comprehensive solutions. And no country can act alone. Cooperative security, in China’s thinking, means that security should be realized through cooperation and equal participation of all relevant parties. Disputes should be solved in a peaceful and cooperative manner. China’s articulations of a ‘new security’ concept appear positive, but it has to translate them into actions at ground levels. Other nations, particularly those in Asia, are still less sure of China’s intentions.

In foreign policy, since Xi came to power, China’s aim seems to centre round the desired role for it as a responsible international actor. Recent Chinese articulations show the PRC has started looking at issues from a more global angle, allowing international conditions to shape its external relations. China seems to understand the current order of international relations which has moved from unilateralism to multilaterslsim in all spheres. This was evidenced by the manner in which the Report to the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) was formulated. The Report pointed out that “China will remain committed to peace, development, cooperation and mutual benefit, unswervingly follow the path of peaceful development, get more actively involved in international affairs, play its due role as a major responsible country, and continue to promote friendship and partnership with its neighbors and consolidate amicable relations with them. China and the United States have agreed to build a new model of major-country relationship featuring non- confrontation, non-conflict, mutual respect and win-win cooperation. China and Russia, by vigorously deepening their comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination, have set a good example of mutual trust and cooperation between major countries. Committed to a right approach to morality and interests, China is willing to give greater consideration to the interests of other developing countries. We are also happy to see the developed countries sharing in the dividends of China’s development. In political, economic, cultural, social and ecological fields, we find Europe our important cooperation partner. We hope to see a combination of China’s ongoing program of urbanization, industrialization, IT application and agricultural modernization with Europe’s project of economic recovery. We would also like to see the Chinese and European markets reinforce each other to boost our respective development and provide fresh impetus to a dynamic, sustainable and balanced growth of the world economy. A China that upholds win-win cooperation is providing a strong impetus to global prosperity and development”.

In foreign policy field, the PRC has begun to place greater emphasis on innovation and awareness; it is introducing first-lady diplomacy and renewing contacts with leaders of neighboring countries. China’s unveiling of late of a “ maritime silk road’ for the purpose of establishing connectivity with Asian nations, is another example which the Chinese analysts perceive as an answer to Western inspired “String of Pearls” strategy. Beijing’s recent initiatives, taken as per its new concepts of “ new type of international relations” and “ new type of great power relations” appear meaningful, but the simultaneously continuing Chinese caveat that all powers should “ respect national core interests of each other” , is raising eyebrows of observers with regard to China’s real intentions.

It may not be wrong to say that the foreign policy discourse of the new Chinese leadership and the PRC’s strategic behavior internationally, contradict each other. For example, China’s declared Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea neatly aligns with China’s claims for its maritime exclusive economic zone. The ADIZ announcement came amid ongoing tensions between Beijing and Tokyo over the Senkaku Island, with Japanese and Chinese maritime law enforcement and coast guard vessels regularly operating in close proximity. Beijing appears to be ignoring the potential for miscalculation and inadvertent escalation in the air and waters around the islands. At the same time, by incorporating the disputed undersea mount of Ieyodo within the ADIZ, Beijing brought South Korea into the dispute over the zone. The ADIZ decision may signal a greater willingness to employ military mean to bolster Chinese claims. At the end of 2013, the Chinese dispatched their new aircraft carrier Liaoning to a new carrier facility at Sanya on Hainan island, marking its first operations away from the North Sea Fleet . Coming out is a clear message – the ongoing increase in the level of Chinese “anti-access/area denial” capabilities.


The contradictions in China’s external behavior, as mentioned above, makes one to believe that China’s rise in wealth and power is both a challenge and opportunity to rest of the world. As the proverb goes, there are no permanent friends and enemies for a country, only permanent interests; it is therefore worthwhile to watch how the Chinese thinking on national core interests, is going to unfold in the future. The Tibetan religious leader Dalai Lama has said that “the new Chinese President Xi Jinping seems more realistic in knowing the facts. But hardliner Chinese Communists were bent on suppressing Tibetans and their rich Tibetan Buddhist culture and heritage.” From this assertion one can come to a conclusion that the success of China’s foreign policy under the new leadership depends on the latter’s ability or other wise to effectively deal with the party hardliners. May be, the Dalai Lama is right. In any case, the fact is that Xi has chosen the path of being economically liberal , but politically left, and this makes things uncertain in terms of China’s both domestic and foreign policies.

(The writer, Dr.G.Thanga Rajesh, is Research Officer, Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai, India. Email:

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