Striving for power: Chinese foreign policy in Xi Jinping’s ‘new era’
13 Nov 2017|

President Xi Jinping has emerged out of last month’s 19th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party as a new paramount leader of China on a par with Mao Zedong, founder of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and Deng Xiaoping, engineer of the reform policy that has delivered China’s economic rise. It is an extraordinary measure of his dominance in Chinese politics that he is the first living leader to be named as a guide for the party since Mao died in 1976. With ‘Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’ written into the party constitution, he now—along with Marx, Lenin, Mao and Deng—defines the meaning of Chinese Communism. As The Economist puts it, ‘The congress has consolidated his authority not just for five years but, in effect, for life.’

What does Xi’s new authority mean for Chinese foreign policy during his second term and beyond? Although China doesn’t publish ‘grand strategy’ documents as such, the general secretary’s report to the party congress, especially its foreign policy section, comes closest to offering a blueprint for future policy. This year’s report is particularly significant because Xi has a once-in-a-generation message to deliver: his judgement that Chinese socialism ‘has crossed the threshold into a new era’. Declaring that ‘the Chinese nation now stands tall and firm in the East’ and alluding to the three eras the PRC has gone through, Xi announced that China ‘has stood up, grown rich, and is becoming strong’, with ‘brilliant prospects of national rejuvenation’.

In this florid statement is the essence of China’s national policy. Its goal is to achieve the ‘great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’ from the slough of weakness and humiliation over the past two centuries. The process is spread over three stages—the standing-up stage accomplished by Mao, the growing-rich stage achieved by Deng, and the becoming-strong stage that Xi has now promised to deliver. Offering more specificity in this promise, he proposes two cumulative goals in the becoming-strong stage: realising socialist modernisation in 2020–2035 and developing China into ‘a great modern socialist country’ and ‘a global leader in terms of composite national strength and international influence’ in 2035–2050.

Make no mistake: Xi is trying to at once write and make modern Chinese history by appealing to several dominant themes of that history. Ever since the mid-19th century when China’s last imperial dynasty suffered from terminal decline, the search for wealth and power has been a fundamental national mission for Chinese elites, and national independence and sovereignty an overriding goal. For Xi, Mao achieved the goal of independence, Deng that of wealth, and now it’s his task to deliver the goal of power—or ‘composite national strength’ across the political, cultural, diplomatic, economic and military domains. Agreeing with Xi that the mission of power is as historic as those of independence and wealth, the party has no difficulty lining up ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ with ‘Mao Zedong Thought’ and ‘Deng Xiaoping Theory’ in its constitution.

Chinese foreign policy from Xi’s second term on will therefore become a policy of striving for ‘strong’ or ‘great’ power, as opposed to Mao’s independence-based or Deng’s wealth-based policy. Notice the significance: Xi is declaring a sharp break with past traditions and proposing a new era for Chinese foreign policy under his command. Ever since the 2000s, analysts have been debating whether Chinese foreign policy has moved beyond Deng’s dictum of ‘keeping a low profile’—a debate taking on new significance as a result of a more confident or assertive policy during Xi’s first term. Now Xi has resolved this debate by definitively proclaiming the arrival of a new era of foreign policy under the assumption of Chinese power. Although the goal of consummate power is set to be achieved by 2050, Xi has already sentimentally announced the arrival of China as a world power.

Euphoria and triumphalism are a notable feature of Xi’s report to the 19th Party Congress, perhaps unsurprising for a confident leader consolidating unprecedented power and feeling China ‘moving ever closer to the world’s center stage’. The reality of Chinese foreign policy, especially in the immediate Asian region, however, is more challenging than acknowledged. Xi has laid out a mesmerising vision—even a grand strategy—for China’s rise to power in this century, but numerous challenges remain. Despite his claim to diplomatic progress on all fronts, China’s position in Asia—a key measure of success—is in fact less than fully secure. Notably, relationships with leading regional powers including Japan and India, and important middle powers including South Korea and Australia, have suffered setbacks or volatility in recent years. And North Korea, a festering problem of the first order, has been costing China a terrible strategic price since the 1990s.

Chinese foreign policy has entered Xi Jinping’s ‘new era’ of striving for power. Its success will depend on Beijing’s ability to meet various challenges ahead. The first task is to identify the principal contradiction of such a policy and develop appropriate remedies. Will China’s aspiration for greater power come into clash with other countries’ need for their own security and power? In the area of domestic policy, Xi’s report sensibly notes that the new contradiction facing Chinese society has evolved into one ‘between unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life’. What is the new contradiction of Chinese foreign policy in Xi’s ‘new era’?