China’s economic, financial, and military strength has dramatically increased. It is now the second-most powerful country in the world in some key areas of national power. The country still faces multiple and complex challenges at home. However, it has become much more concerned with external affairs and with its influence on the outside world, because of its internal economic imperatives, its heightened desire for the “geopolitical strategic rights” and national glory that are due to it as a major power, a sharp increase in popular nationalism and “triumphalism” within the country, and its much more militant and ambitious armed forces.
Xi Jinping is proud of his hard-line posture toward China’s rivals, big and small.
China is a “re-awakening lion” under a leader who has centralised power in his hands and who believes in the resurgence of China’s national greatness. Xi Jinping is proud of his hard-line posture toward China’s rivals, big and small, and is keenly aware of the domestic popular support for his stance. He strongly prefers the strategic and operational approach of “pushing towards the bottom-line without breaking it”.
The country is a great power that is undertaking a substantial transformation of its foreign policy. Many things have changed from the country’s previous discourse and practice within a relatively short time-span. This has left both China and its partners under-prepared, somewhat confused, and with increased chances for miscalculation.
Contradictory messages in China’s external relationships
Xi’s leadership has put forward two contradictory sets of messages in its words and actions. The first set, which is probably more fundamental and certainly more impressive to the other major powers, suggests that China is taking a more assertive line. Its elements include:
1) Xi Jinping’s repeated use of the theme of “the great resurgence of the Chinese nation” (more officially referred to as the “Chinese Dream”).
2) The shift in the driving aim of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), from an effort to build up modernised forces to the simpler but more comprehensive and forceful aim of “being capable of fighting, and fighting victoriously”.
3) Extraordinarily frequent official reports of breakthroughs in China’s military build-up, including in advanced weaponry, military technology, and the PLA’s increasing capabilities in terms of its combat readiness.
4) The further hardening of China’s posture on its territorial and maritime disputes with neighbouring countries, especially Japan and the Philippines. However, it should be noted that since Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe launched the formal process of “re-interpreting the Constitution” to give Japan the military rights to collective self-defence, China’s posture towards Japan has quietly begun to show some indications of change towards moderation.
5) China’s sudden establishment of the East China Sea Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in November 2013, a major strategic action that was taken in the context of the intense confrontation with Japan. This represents the first formal expansion of China’s maritime “strategic space” beyond China’s immediate offshore waters since the foundation of the People’s Republic in 1949. Of course, China is fully aware of the implications that this move has for the strategic dominance of the United States in the Western Pacific.
6) A remarkable decline, especially in the months before Xi’s early April 2013 Bo’ao speech on Hainan Island, in the leadership’s number of references to the principle of “peaceful development”. This principle used to be the key element in guiding Chinese foreign policy and in previous years was frequently alluded to by the Chinese government. Another traditional principle of contemporary Chinese foreign policy, Deng Xiaoping’s “keeping a low profile”, also seems to have been put aside.
However, another set of developments has taken place in parallel since the 18th Party Congress in November 2012, and especially since the early summer of 2013. These tend in a different direction than the first set, and reflect the complexity and inner dilemmas of China’s foreign policy under Xi Jinping:
1) Since April 2013, leaders’ statements have often returned to the “peaceful development” orientation.
2) The objective of creating a “new type of great power relationship” between China and the US has been repeated again and again as China’s favoured central concept for the future of China-US relations. Xi himself has insisted on this concept. He has made frequent efforts to gain US President Barack Obama’s acceptance of this characterisation of the China-US relationship. However, Obama has not so far accepted the idea, especially since the declaration of China’s East China Sea ADIZ.
3) China’s cooperation and accommodation with the US has increased on important international security issues, including North Korea, Syria, and Iran. Significant progress has also been made in broadening market access for US service capital in China. In the past, Washington had real trouble getting cooperation in both areas.
4) In October 2013, a “Peripheral Diplomatic Work Conference” was held, attended by all the members of the Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo. This conference forcefully emphasised that the “good neighbour policy” must be the guiding star for China’s behaviour toward neighbouring countries. The strong impression it made at the time was somewhat diluted after the confrontation with Japan intensified following Prime Minister Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in December 2013. However, things changed in the weeks and days before the beginning of the Beijing Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in November 2014, and a China-Japan “Four-Point Consensus” was declared on 7 November 2014. This major and positive development was aimed at mitigating the China-Japan confrontation. It made possible the 25-minute meeting that was held between Xi and Abe three days later, the first high-level political contact between the two countries in two years.
5) China has recently been extremely moderate in its actions regarding the disputes in the South China Sea, up until the sudden outbreak of confrontation with Vietnam over the deployment of a Chinese oil rig in the offshore waters of the Paracel Islands in summer 2014. China has also increased its efforts to improve relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its member states, including Vietnam, one of China’s primary rivals in its territorial disputes. This has taken place in spite of rumours that China may soon declare the establishment of a South China Sea ADIZ.
Text: ECFR BY SHI YINHONG 31-03-2015