China’s Foreign Policy under Xi Jinping

Chinas Foreign Policy under President Xi

“He has iron in his soul.” —Lee Kuan Yew (Former Prime Minister of Singapore on Chinese President Xi Jinping)

President Xi Jinping is the most powerful Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping, and with his sweeping actions and ambitious directives, he has fundamentally altered the process by which China’s domestic and foreign policy is formulated and implemented. Xi’s popular anti-corruption campaign has cowed senior party and military officials and allowed him to amass dominating power in a short span of time. With this transcending authority, Xi has ended China’s carefully evolved collective and consensual leadership structure, marginalized the bureaucracy, and put himself at the centre of decision-making on all consequential matters.

Since the establishment of People’s Republic of China, the country has adopted variant foreign policy courses. On the eve of the establishment of New China, Chairman Mao Zedong set forth some policy perceptions in order to formulate the foreign policy of the new country. The Second Plenary Session of the Seventh Central Committee of the Communist Party of China convened in March 1949 and the First Session of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference held in September 1949 made important decisions with regard to foreign policy. So, for its first five years, the PRC followed a “lean to one side” policy which according to Chairman Mao meant that “whoever is not with us” — the socialist-communist camp — “is against us.” Then during 1955-57, it pursued a markedly different and much more accommodative policy called the Bandung Spirit which emanated from the conference of 29 Asian and African states held in Bandung, Indonesia, in April 1955, where the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) was established. In the recent years, President Xi’s dominance of the decision-making process has made him a powerful leader and he is at the driving seat of the Chinese foreign policy.

Xi Jinping became the Secretary General of the Communist Party of China in November 2012 and the President of People’s Republic of China in March 2013. Since he assumed power as the president of the PRC, China’s foreign policy has become both a continuity of the past and a change of the present with a view to the future developments. Here we are going to assess Chinese foreign policy especially under the following four points: 1. Internal and External Contexts; 2. Theories and Strategies; 3. Policies and Actions; and 4. Difficulties and Challenges.

1. Internal and External Contexts

China’s Foreign Policy under President Xi is basically determined by both internal and external contexts. However, different leadership has its different imprints on foreign policy because of different perception, judgement and reaction.

a. Internal drivers

President Xi knows what China wants and he has started a three-pronged strategy to achieve his objectives. In fact three major groups of driving forces are behind his policies. Firstly, it is to strive for China’s rejuvenation and modernization. It includes economic development and defence development. Secondly, it is to pursue a better and fairer society — more of political and social goals. Thirdly, it is to work at a role consistent with China’s history, population and comprehensive national strength.

b. External Drivers

On its own initiative, China’s international positions and roles are greatly increasing. The country has a built-in urge for further reform and is opening up so as to go with, and keep itself abreast of, the ongoing globalization and information age. Moreover, it is more proactive in participating and promoting global governance and regional cooperation.

On the outside pushers, the reconfiguration of world powers is in favour of the emerging powers including China. The international community pins greater hope on China’s contribution to the peace and prosperity of the world. It is because of this fact that the West, especially the United States, has heightened its strategic vigilance on China’s rise and on the so-called China-containment policy.

2. Theories and Strategies

President Xi attaches particular importance to diplomatic theory and strategy. He stresses that China’s foreign policy should be guided by the right theory and strategy. Conversely, China’s foreign policy practice should conscientiously be crystallized into theory and strategy.

a. Diplomatic Theory

President Xi’s diplomatic theory is based on the basic theory of China’s overall political thinking and foreign relations principles.

Firstly, he emphasizes on diplomatic philosophy that is to learn to summarize the laws and rules of developments by right positions and methodologies, especially historical and dialectical materialism. Therefore, China’s diplomatic theory is characterized with long-term vision and broad thinking of the world. China’s overall framework of the world view is the general point of departures and arrivals.

Secondly, he learns hard the fine tradition of Chinese history and cultures and adapts them to the present and future realities. Both late Chairman Mao Zedong and President Xi like to quote Chinese ancient sayings. However, Mao’s quotations are often related to political struggles but Xi’s emphasis is more on good governance and friendly neighbourhood. That President Xi inherits and carries forward the Chinese culture and he wants to build a fairer and better-off Chinese society that consists of peace-loving, peace-defending and orderly human community.

Thirdly, President Xi works out a number of new concepts in line with the new developments, such as right approach between virtue and interests, new type of international relations based on win-win cooperation, new model of major country relations. In a longer run, he also wants to put these pieces of concepts into more systematic theories.

b. Diplomatic Strategies

Strategy is a frequent reference in President Xi’s speeches and statements. Under him, more strategic elements have been added to the domestic, regional and global dimensions of China’s diplomacy.

First of all, President Xi is a man of strategy, partly attributable to his family and personal backgrounds of long evolving in China’s politics and militaries, but more because of China being at a historical turning point. Upon approaching to the center-stage of the world, China needs more strategic thinking, top-level planning and bottom-line clarity. President Xi also put forth a number of strategies of global, regional and bilateral affairs such as Belt and Road Initiative and China-Latin America and the Caribbean relations.

Secondly, President Xi’s strategy is characterized by holistic and dialectic thinking. President Xi puts all the major events and issues under broader framework of thinking, if not globally at least regionally. He also likes to deal with these events and issues in an integrated way. In the past three years, China has already convened two important national conferences on foreign strategies and policies. One is Working Conference on Neighbourhood Diplomacy in October 2013 and the other is Central Working Conference on Foreign Affairs in November 2014. Both of them are of great strategic significance on China’s foreign policy. As a matter of fact, they set the tone and guide the general direction of China’s diplomacy at least for the first term.

Thirdly, President Xi’s strategies are made up by both thematic diplomacy and country/regional one. China used to focus on diplomatic work towards countries and region. They are still the foci. China’s respective diplomacy is now more of global and multilateral, regional and interregional contents. In January 2015, President Xi Jinping attended in Beijing the opening ceremony of the first ministerial meeting of the Forum of China and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), thus giving a final touch to the all-coverage of China’s cooperative mechanisms with all the developing regions. Additionally, China has recently developed thematic strategies in world economy, climate change and new commons. These are the new developments of China’s strategy to global governance and international system.

3. Policies and Actions

Policies are the actual carriers for translating theories and strategies into realities. Foreign policy and actions catch the most attention of the media and the people. Obviously, President Xi’s has already made them prominent among the contemporary ones.

a. Clear and Determined

Compared with his predecessors, President Xi’s foreign policy and actions are more of a global power’s approaches and styles.

Firstly, they are clear in purposes, visions and missions. President Xi repeatedly stresses that China’s foreign policy should show its major power’s responsibilities. He has made many speeches covering almost all the realms of global affairs and China’s diplomacy. Moreover, he is a man of action. Under his leadership, China initiated the BRICS New Development Bank and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, enhanced its support to the UN Peacekeeping and other expenditures, and offered substantive assistance to the developing countries, especially the least developed countries (LDCs).
Secondly, they are firm and determined. Once President Xi and his colleagues have made the decisions, they will relentlessly promote and advance them. China is firm for a relation with the United States on the equal footing. China is determined to safeguard its rights in the South China Sea. China goes all out for maintaining stability. All are very much indicative of these features.

Thirdly, they are more predictable. President Xi is a straightforward person and he calls a spade a spade. According to his Selected Works and Public Speeches, it’s not difficult to conclude what he wants to do and what he opposes to. For instance, President Xi’s attendance of UN Summits and Paris Conference on Climate Change in September 2015 show clearly that China wants to shoulder the responsibilities in global governance.

b. Pragmatic and Economy-oriented

China is still a developing country and its strength mainly lies in the field of economics. However, China has greatly enhanced its economic clouts and upgraded its economic ladders. Therefore, China tries to effectively use the economic leverage to promote its foreign policy. For instance, China’s relations with the Latin American countries are mostly in the economic field. Another instance is China’s four partnerships with Europe for reform, growth, peace and civilization. Mostly they are of economic nature again.

c. Low-Politics and Public Diplomacy

China has attached greater importance to the low politics and public diplomacy. President Xi stresses people-to-people exchanges and calls for greater roles of think tanks.

4. Difficulties and Challenges

Foreign policy goes beyond one’s own country and is affected by both domestic and international factors. President Xi’s foreign policy is also confronted with many difficulties and challenges, some of them are profound ones. Particularly, the following four merit special attention.

a. Limits

There is still a big gap between China’s goals and capabilities in foreign policy. Firstly, it is the hard power. In terms of domestic strength, China is at 75th place in the world according to per capita in 2015. In terms of comprehensive national strength, China still lags behind in many fields such as science, technology and military. In many cases, China ranks high in the production volume but low in the qualitative terms. Secondly, it is the intellectual and cultural power. It is said that Mao Zedong lifted China out of a weak position being beaten, Deng Xiaoping out of the poor position being starvation, and it is still expected that Xi Jinping out of the position being scolded. Thirdly, it is the institutions and mechanisms.

China is a late and newcomer at the institution- and mechanism-building of the international community. It is inexperienced and lacks accumulation of theories, talents and practices. The most obvious example is that China hosts no substantive Asian organizations of the United Nations, although it is the most important Asian country.

b. Priorities

For an administration that is expected to serve for two terms, President Xi has put forward a long list of domestic and foreign agendas for the years between 2013 and 2020. Some are long term and grandiose ones such as China Dream, Two Centennials and Belt and Road Initiative. Some are tough ones such as China-US relations and South China Sea disputes. Therefore, these agendas and goals should be prioritized and focus must be on those that are doable and reachable ones.

c. Capacities

On the one hand, it is important to make full use of the existing and potential capacities. China needs to further modernize its foreign policy institutions and mechanisms so as to transform the ad hoc capacities to institutional ones. On the other hand, China should proceed with its future capacity building, especially on global governance, international system and order, civil society and new science and technologies.

d. Publicities

Publicities here mean in three dimensions. Firstly, China needs to make its own house in good order. Domestic strength is the basis of any country’s diplomacy. China needs to maintain its economic dynamism and social vitalities. Secondly, China needs to work harder and more effectively on the rights of discourses. Chinese narratives should be more understandable to the outside world and Chinese ways of thinking should be more accommodating with the whole world. Last but not least, China needs to adapt itself with the advancing of the times. Only holding the leadership in economics, science and technologies, political thinking and strategic leadership, can China succeed in garnering the global acceptance and support for its diplomacy.


Under Preside Xi Jinping, China has been involved in diplomacy aimed at constraining Iran’s nuclear ambitions, has struck a climate change agreement with the United States, is working to combat piracy on the high seas, and is taking an active role in shaping Afghanistan’s future. Moreover, his mending of ties with Russia and making colossal investments in areas as far as Africa and Latin America and his ‘One Belt, One Road’ have the potential to change the world. In short, he is out to see a made-in-China world.

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