China’s Changing Foreign Policy

March 1, 2017 | 11:13 am
Gregory Kulacki
China Project Manager

The global security community is worried about President Trump. The report of the 53rd annual Munich Security Conference suggests his election may lead to a “post truth, post west, post order” world. Vice President Pence and other US government representatives failed to convince the conference otherwise.

That same day, Chinese President Xi Jinping, commenting on the meeting in Munich, confirmed his controversial defense of globalization at the World Economic Forum in Davos was not just an opportune swipe at the nationalist atavism of the new US administration.

It may mark the beginning of a new era in Chinese foreign policy.

Deng-Era Approach to Chinese Foreign Policy Outdated

Chinese Vice-Premier Deng Xiaoping speaks about the “third world” in his address to the United Nations in 1974.

During a February 17 meeting of China’s National Security Committee,  Xi, paraphrasing the Confucian classics, said, “The sage remains modest about his or her abilities, but exercises them when the time comes.” (君子藏器于身,待时而动) “At this moment,” Xi argued, China must “move past the policy of ‘keeping a low profile and nurturing ourselves’ (韬光养晦) to become more involved in international affairs, not only as a participant and contributor, but also as a benefactor and leader of the international system.”

Deng Xiaoping, who initiated and led the economic reforms that jumpstarted China’s economy in the 1980s, used the term “keeping a low profile and nurturing ourselves” to describe his approach to Chinese foreign policy. Although some US observers came to see the policy as coy, or sinister, many Chinese understood Deng’s description as a shift away from the anti-capitalist revolutionary activism of Mao Zedong toward a temporary accommodation with international capitalism in the interest of domestic economic development. President Jiang Zemin (1989-2002) and President Hu Jintao (2002-2012) conducted Chinese foreign affairs in the same general spirit with the same basic objective. International capital and technical expertise poured into China and its GDP grew from US$ 178 billion in 1979 to US$ 11 trillion in 2015.

Xi prefaced his argument for changing China’s approach to the world by noting, “After 38 years of rapid development, our country is now first in the world in manufacturing, first in trade, the second largest economy, and third in the use of foreign capital and in foreign investment. Our overall national capability has increased considerably. What was said about it in the past can no longer be said in the present day.”

The World is Changing

Deng worried how China might behave at this moment. He expressed concern that once China modernized it might forget about socialism and its allegiance to the “third world”, which, to him, was the large bloc of developing nations not aligned with either the Soviet Union or the United States. The pioneer of China’s opening to international trade loathed the idea that economic development might transform China into another major power that exploited and oppressed smaller and weaker nations. If it did, according to Deng, China would no longer be socialist.

Xi seems determined not only to preserve China’s socialist ideals but to put them into practice internationally. The world may be changing, as the Munich report suggests, but Xi is optimistic that a new and better international order is on the horizon.

“Today’s world is a changing world. It is a world of endless new opportunities and challenges, a world where the international system and international order are undergoing deep revision, and where comparative international strengths are undergoing profound change. Moreover, it is a world advancing towards change that is beneficial to peace and development.”

The Soviet Union has already collapsed. Now the second pole of the old Cold War order is wobbling. The authors of the Munich report fear US abdication of its role as “a provider of public goods and international security” impends a descent into nationalism, chaos and war. Xi, on the other hand, seems to be imagining that the time may have come for the leaders of the developing nations to reshape the international order.

A Global Anti-corruption Campaign?

Curiously, Xi reached back to a 2014 speech on Chinese domestic legal reform for a phrase to describe the principles that should guide the emerging new international system. Xi said, “The keys to governing a country are fairness and integrity.” (理国要道,在于公平正直). In 2014 Xi used this semi-classical Chinese idiom to explain his anti-corruption drive, which aimed to save Chinese socialism from the negative influences of opening China’s economy to international capitalism.  Xi used the exact same phrase in his February speech to China’s National Security Council. His speech echoes the critique of the global economy Xi articulated in his address to the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Fairness and justice are the objectives of global governance, as well as the common pursuit of all humanity. As humanity becomes more developed and the world becomes more civilized, the expectations of the people for fairness and justice become higher.”

The US economic crisis of 2008 was a turning point for China: a moment when its leaders realized they could no longer depend on the United States for responsible global economic governance. Xi appears to have concluded that the corruption plaguing China could not be remedied with reforms that imitate or adapt the practices of the United States. As the Chinese leader approaches his second five-year term in office, he also seems to have concluded that the flaws in US-led global economic system—what critics in the US disparagingly refer to as “neoliberalism“—are inherent in the way the United States has shaped the international order.

In this sense Xi may be embracing the populism, and anti-corporatism, of both the left and the right in the United States and in Europe. But instead of seeking a retreat to pre-globalization era nationalism, Xi embraces the essence of globalization: the practical reality that the individual national fates of the various peoples of the world are inherently interconnected. As Xi told China’s National Security Council,

Each nation coexists in the same world, humanity lives in the same village Earth, the same space and time where history and reality flow together, a community where you are part of my fate and I am part of yours. This is the inevitable trend of global development and an inexorable law of human development. The world needs a new order where cooperation leads to collective success and shared development; the construction of a community where humanity’s fate is shared.” 

The Road Ahead

Xi, unlike President Trump, does not want to tear apart or abandon the international institutions that already exist. In his words, “Reforming and perfecting the exiting international system does not require tearing up the kitchen and making a fresh start.” The nature of the reforms China may suggest is still unclear. Xi points to China’s own initiatives to finance and build basic infrastructure throughout Asia as an example. China’s continued support for the Paris Agreement on climate change is another important indicator.

If Xi is attempting to initiate a new era in Chinese foreign policy, the concepts in his speech in Davos and his speech to China’s National Security Council on the occasion of the Munich Security Conference should be codified in the final report of the Chinese Community Party Congress later this year. Depending on the outcome of what is anticipated to be a contentious fight over China’s political future, Xi may emerge as a significant force for change not only at home but internationally as well.

About the author

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Gregory Kulacki is an expert on cross-cultural communication between the United States and China. Since joining UCS in 2002, he has promoted dialogue between experts from both countries on nuclear arms control and space security and has consulted with Chinese and U.S. governmental and non-governmental organizations, including the U.S. House China Working Group, the Senate Armed Services Committee, the U.S. National Academies, NASA, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy.