Chinese President Xi Jinping addressed the Central Conference on Work Relating to Foreign Affairs recently, with his speech offering important insights into Chinese foreign policy philosophy, objectives and approaches. Xi defined his philosophical program as “diplomacy of socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era,” outlining 10 key aspects of this thought.
Examining these, it isn’t surprising that Xi’s first and foremost priority in foreign affairs is to uphold the “authority of the CPC Central Committee” and strengthen “its centralised, unified leadership on external work.” This has a domestic and international component. Domestically, it refers to the emergence and role of a diverse set of actors in Chinese foreign affairs – from the top leadership, diplomatic corps, representatives at international institutions, party members in the judiciary, the trade and commerce bureaucracy, local governments, the military to financial institutions and state-owned enterprises. Externally, it implies an expansion in the role of party organs and ensuring that events outside do not jeopardise the Communist Party’s rule.
Analysing the state media readout of the speech, one can identify that the fundamental objective of Xi’s foreign policy is to “facilitate a favourable external environment for realising the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation.” This is an expression of Xi’s shift from Deng Xiaoping’s tao guang yang hui (roughly translated to hide your strengths and bide your time) in favour of the strategy of fen fa you wei (roughly translated to striving for achievement.)
What this implies is that one can expect China to continue with an assertive foreign policy to actively shape events, attitudes and institutions in order to achieve its objectives. However, this round of assertion will be different from the nationalistic kind that has been witnessed since 2008, say in the South China Sea or with regard to Senkaku/Diaoyu islands dispute since 2012.
For starters, Xi acknowledges that China’s rise is “intertwined” and interacts with “the most profound and unprecedented changes (that the world is currently undergoing) in a century.” In such an environment, he is placing priority on developing “global partnerships while advancing diplomatic agenda.” This ranks two spaces above “national core interests as the bottom line” in the list of ten aspects of the new diplomatic thought. Also, ranking higher than core interests are the goals of “building of a community with a shared future for humanity” and “reform of the global governance system with the concept of fairness and justice.”
This indicates that Beijing is keen to actively “advance major country diplomacy” to reduce friction and work with partners, particularly developing countries, to expand its global influence and play a greater role in norm setting. For potential partners, this signifies an important window of opportunity, as China is likely be more amenable to addressing sources of tensions and flexible towards accommodating their concerns. One can view events like December’s South-South Human Rights Forum, Beijing’s outreach to New Delhi and Tokyo over the past few months, its deepening ties with Moscow, its attempts at negotiating a new South China Sea Code of Conduct with ASEAN and its efforts to gather support against Donald Trump’s protectionist policies in this context. This subtle change does not imply an infusion of universalistic or idealistic notions in Chinese foreign policy but is rather driven by pragmatism.
A final noteworthy aspect of Xi’s speech was the constant reference to history. The repeated emphasis on having “an accurate understanding of history,” the need to “review the past, summarise historical laws,” understand “the trend of history” and the identification of present times as a particularly significant “historical juncture” operate at multiple levels. First, it signifies a sense of manifest destiny that has characterised Xi’s leadership. Second, it is an example of personal narrative building, whereby Xi has appropriated for himself the goal of making China strong, after it has stood up and grown rich. This once again places Xi in the league of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, above his predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. And third, it is a nudge to the party rank and file to maintain “strategic confidence” and not be disoriented by “ever-changing international chaos.”
Effectively what Xi appears to be telling Party cadres and the world at large is that while the tide of realpolitik may ebb and flow, China is here to play the long game, “keeping in mind both internal and international imperatives.”