Evolutions in Chinese Foreign Policy Under Xi Jinping

by Minh Joo Yi
MA Candidate, Johns Hopkins University – SAIS


Since Xi Jinping’s assumption of the presidency of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in late 2012, Chinese foreign policy-making processes have become noticeably more centralized. Increasingly confident of its national capabilities and elevated international stature, China now seems to have adopted a more assertive foreign policy stance in order to pursue its core national interests around the world and to reshape the Western-led global governance structure. This policy memorandum proceeds to outline evolutions in China’s foreign policy-making processes and objectives, as well as their implications for China’s relations with the U.S. and the world at large. This analysis closes with a consideration of the durability of China’s foreign policy positioning under Xi Jinping.


Chinese foreign policy-making process from Mao to Xi

Shortly after the founding of the PRC in 1949, Mao Zedong and his cult of personality concentrated political power in one individual, resulting in top-down foreign policy decision-making. As a result, foreign policy formulation and implementation procedures throughout the Mao era were less a result of institutionalized and systematized
processes than a direct reflection of Mao’s own personality and idiosyncrasies.

Compared to his successor Deng Xiaoping, who studied in both France and the Soviet Union, Mao had little exposure to foreign culture and institutions. This background may explain China’s relatively self-reliant foreign policy during the Mao era. Additionally, Mao readily mobilized a “century of humiliation” national narrative, emphasizing China’s losses and concessions to foreign “imperialist aggressors.” This deep-seated animosity toward foreign powers was reflected in China’s severance of relations with the United States, and even in the deterioration of its relations with the Soviet Union, its fellow socialist comrade.

Chinese foreign policy positioning changed significantly after Deng Xiaoping became China’s paramount leader in the late 1970s. One of the most prominent changes was the gradual emergence of rule by consensus, whereby Deng collaborated with colleagues in the Politburo Standing Committee to formulate and implement policy. This was a noted departure from Mao’s leadership style, wherein policy decisions were perilously dependent on the actions and judgments of one individual. These new consensus-driven practices involved a “collective system of checks and balances that spanned a variety of bureaucratic institutions and included a substantial number of party elites,” which “shunned Maoist cults of personality and embraced the studied staidness of leaders like Hu Jintao.”(1)

Under the subsequent administrations led by Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, China’s foreign policy-making process grew increasingly diffuse.(2) China’s process of merging into the international political and economic order required the construction of new domestic agencies, as well as interagency groups (“Leading Small Groups”) responsible for reconciling divergent interests among them.(3) As these new political actors became a part of the foreign policy-making nexus, coordination problems arose, most clearly illustrated by the extended negotiations over China’s entry into the World Trade Organization from 1986 to 2001.

Xi Jinping’s leadership style strives to consolidate decision-making power against this backdrop of a fragmented Chinese bureaucracy, and recent political trends in China suggest that Xi is likely to exert more influence over the country’s foreign policy than either of his two predecessors. These trends include Xi’s holding of top positions in “Central Leading Groups,” supra-ministerial organs established by the party that “supersede all other government agencies in the power structure.”(4) Since 2013, Xi has assumed leadership of the Central Leading Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reforms and the Central Leading Group for Internet Security and Informatization, and perhaps more importantly, the National Security Commission and the Central Military Commission. These positions ensure his ability to control internal security, foreign, and military policies to a degree that Hu Jintao did not enjoy.(5) The Chinese media and party officials’ recent references to Xi as the “core (hexin 核心) leader” may also be an indication of his indisputable dominance in leadership.(6)


China’s central foreign policy objectives

Since Xi Jinping’s accession to power, China seems to have altered its principal foreign policy objective to take a more assertive stance in order to pursue its core national interests around the world. Scholars generally agree that the principles of “creating a good external environment to maintain development” and “keeping a low profile (tao guang yang hui 韬光养晦)” have guided Chinese foreign policy since the reform era, at least until the Hu Jintao administration.(7) However, Xi Jinping’s bolder intentions were clearly articulated in his speech at the Conference of Diplomatic Work Toward Surrounding Countries on October 24, 2013, in which he formally presented the strategy of “striving for achievement (fen fa you wei 奋发有为).”(8) According to Blackwill and Campbell, Xi’s assertive foreign policy has been carried out most explicitly in the South China Sea.(9) Chinese coast guard vessels’ harassment of Philippine and Vietnamese fishermen and repeated encroachment into Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) all illustrate China’s determination to secure its claim to this maritime territory.(10)

As a part of this new active foreign policy strategy, China has also started to establish multilateral institutions and regimes excluding the U.S. in an attempt to inject Chinese elements into the existing international order. These include the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the New Development Bank – the Chinese equivalents of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the World Bank, respectively – as well as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. China can utilize these multilateral organizations as a means of exerting political leverage on participating Asian countries, just as it did when it withdrew approval for a multilateral development plan for India because of its protracted territorial disputes with the country.(11)

Several factors account for this shift toward more audacious foreign policy behavior. Xi’s own nationalistic inclinations are almost certainly one of them, and especially make sense in the context of his increased personal influence over China’s foreign policy-making process. On the other hand, because China’s economic growth has begun to slow down, the Chinese Communist Party seems to be relying more heavily on nationalism to preserve its political legitimacy. Moreover, the fact that China weathered the 2008 global financial crisis better than many other countries may have boosted its leaders’ confidence in their country’s potential and capabilities, convincing them that China is powerful enough to become the rule-maker, rather than a passive participant, of the international order.(12)


Implications for the United States, China, and the World

As China makes bolder attempts to protect its national interests and increase its political clout in Asia through its own multilateral institutions, one of the most viable and appropriate policy options for the U.S. would be to continue its “rebalance” to Asia. By strengthening its diplomatic, military, and economic relations with Asian countries, the U.S. should seek to prevent China from winning strategic ground and strive to maintain its primacy in the region.(13) Some may argue that this process would involve an escalation of conflict that would result in a major confrontation between the two countries, but this outcome is highly unlikely, given that the U.S. and China are highly dependent on each other for sustainable economic growth.(14)

This foreign policy shift also has implications for China. Unfortunately, the new assertive foreign policy does not seem to have generated favorable outcomes for China, as can be seen from: the nullification of Chinese “historical rights” within the “Nine-Dash Line” by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague; South Korea’s decision to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-ballistic missile system (THAAD); Japan’s reinterpretation of its constitution to allow for collective self-defense; and the 2015 U.S.-Japan defense guidelines that assigned a wider regional security role to Japan.(15) These repeated foreign policy failures may prompt Chinese leaders to examine whether their assertive behavior is harming China’s national interests by intimidating or provoking its neighbors, leading them to militarize and to align more closely to the U.S. Thus, the durability of this new policy stance remains to be seen.

1 Robert D. Blackwill and Kurt M. Campbell, Xi Jinping on the Global Stage: Chinese Foreign Policy Under a Powerful but Exposed Leader, Council Special Report No. 74, February 2016, New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 6.
2 David M. Lampton, Following the Leader (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2014), 106.
3 David M. Lampton, ed., The Making of Chinese Foreign and Security Policy in the Era of Reform (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001), 16.
4 Comment by Zhiqun Zhu, mentioned in Cary Huang, “How Leading Small Groups Help Xi Jinping and Other Party Leaders Exert Power,” South China Morning Post, January 20, 2014, http://www.scmp.com/news/china/ article/1409118/how-leading-small-groupshelp-xi-jinping-and-other-party-leaders-exert.
5 David M. Lampton, “Xi Jinping and the National Security Commission: Policy Coordination and Political Power,” Journal of Contemporary China, 24:95 (2015): 759-777, 775.
6 “Xu Shousheng pays his condolences to the National Defense Branch, the officers of the Hunan military corps“ [徐守盛看望慰问国防 科大、武警湖南总队官兵], Hunan Channel 湖 南频道,February 2, 2016, http://hn.rednet. cn/c/2016/02/02/3903156.htm; “Xi Jinping presides over meeting of the Central Political Bureau” 习近平主持中央政治局会议, people. cn, January 30, 2016, http://paper.people.
com.cn/rmrbhwb/html/2016-01/30/ content_1651531.htm.
7 Da Wei, “Has China Become Tough?,” China Security, Vol. 6, No. 3 (2010): 97-104, 98.
8 “Xi Jinping Delivers an Important Speech at the Conference of Diplomatic Work Toward Surrounding Countries” 习近平在周边外交 工作座谈会上发表重要讲话, Renmin ribao (People’s Daily), October 25, 2013, http:// politics.people.com.cn/n/2013/1025/c102423332318.html.
9 Blackwill and Campbell, 17.
10 Ankit Panda, “China Steps Up Harassment of Vietnamese Fishermen,” The Diplomat, July 13, 2015, http://thediplomat.com/2015/07/ china-steps-up-harassment-of-vietnamesefishermen; Prashanth Parameswaran, “How Is Malaysia Responding to China’s South China Sea Intrusion?” The Diplomat, November 3, 2015, http://thediplomat.com/2015/11/howis-malaysia-responding-to-chinas-south-chinasea-intrusion/.
11 Raphael Minder, Jamil Anderlini and James Lamont, “China Blocks ADB India Loan Plan,” Financial Times, April 10, 2009, https://www. ft.com/content/033935c2-25e4-11de-be5700144feabdc0.
12 Suisheng Zhao, “Core Interests and Great Power Responsibilities: the Evolving Pattern of China’s Foreign Policy” in China and the International System: Becoming a World Power, eds. Xiaoming Huang and Robert G. Patman (Routledge, 2013), 32-56 and 39.
13 Blackwill and Campbell, 30.
14 Stephen Roach, “the US and China are trapped in a web of economic co-dependency,” Business Insider, October 1, 2015, http:// http://www.businessinsider.com/the-us-and-chinaare-trapped-in-a-web-of-economic-codependency-2015-9.
15 Robert A. Manning and James Przystup, “How to Explain Xi Jinping’s Mounting ForeignPolicy Failures,” Foreign Policy, July 21, 2016, http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/07/21/how-toexplain-xi-jinpings-mounting-foreign-policyfailures/?wp_login_redirect=0

About the author:
Minh Joo Yi is a second-year SAIS M.A. student concentrating in China Studies and Quantitative Methods and Economic Theory. Prior to enrolling at SAIS, she was an editor at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, a Seoul-based think tank affiliated with South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In the summer of 2017, she interned at the New American Bretton Woods II program.

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