Foreign Policy Under Xi Jinping
Image Credit: Flickr (The Presidency of the Republic of South Africa)

Foreign Policy Under Xi Jinping


Following the conclusion of the 18th Party Congress, a new Politburo Standing Committee, the top leadership body of the Chinese Communist Party, has been named.  Much of the recent commentary has revolved around whether or how China’s new leaders will pursue much-needed economic and political reforms.  An equally important question concerns the future direction of Chinese foreign policy under Xi Jinping.

To repeat Zhou Enlai’s assessment of social upheaval in France in 1968, it is “too early to say.”  Very little – if anything – from the backgrounds of these individuals can illuminate whether China will adopt a new approach to foreign relations in the coming five or ten years. 

An assessment of China’s foreign policy under Xi is “too early” for several other reasons.  Although general secretary of the party, Xi Jinping will not become head of state, or president, until the National People’s Congress in March 2013. 

In addition, who will hold key positions in China’s foreign policy system (waijiao xitong) remains unknown.  The most important vacancy to be filled is the director of the Central Foreign Affairs Office (zhongyang waishi bangongshi).  The post is currently held by Dai Bingguo, who is China’s highest-ranking official in foreign policy after the party’s general secretary.  The CFAO coordinates policy within the party-state bureaucracy, always a challenge, and provides research and advice on foreign affairs to China’s top leaders.  Other key posts to watch are the foreign minister, the head of the Taiwan Affairs Office and the head of the CCP’s International Liaison Department

Finally, Xi and the new Politburo Standing Committee may not launch new initiatives of their own for perhaps one or two years – once key positions are filled, working relationships are formed among the new leaders, and power is consolidated.

In this context, the best clues to Chinese foreign policy under Xi Jinping may be found in the lengthy work report that outgoing general secretary Hu Jintao delivered at the opening of the party congress.   Despite being laden with socialist slogans and Chinese political jargon, the report both sums up what the party believes has been achieved since the last congress and outlines principles to guide the party’s work until the next congress.  Consistent with past practice, Xi Jinping as incoming general secretary oversaw the drafting of this year’s report.

The report has a mixed-message on foreign policy issues. On the one hand, the report underscores that China will continue to press ahead with policies that have raised anxiety and concern in East Asia.  In the section on “ecological progress,” Hu Jintao called for China to become a “maritime power.”  In particular, Hu said that the party “should enhance our capacity for exploiting marine resources, develop the marine economy, protect the marine ecological environment, resolutely safeguard China's maritime rights and interests, and build China into a maritime power.”  In other words, expect greater Chinese activity in maritime Asia, including increased fishing and perhaps hydrocarbon exploration in disputed waters and a growing presence of the civil maritime law enforcement agencies, including the China Marine Surveillance force, the Fisheries Law Enforcement Command and the Maritime Safety Agency.

The section on defense policy indicated that the comprehensive modernization of China’s armed forces will continue.  In this regard, the report called for developing a military “commensurate with China's international standing” to address “interwoven problems affecting its survival and development security as well as traditional and non-traditional security threats.” 

On the other hand, the foreign affairs portion of the report contained a glimmer of potential “new thinking” that might feature more prominently in the next few years.  In particular, the report outlined how China will endeavor “to establish a new type of relations of long-term stability and sound growth with other major countries.” 

The phrase “new type of relations” (xinxing daguo guanxi) echoed language that appeared for the first time in Hu Jintao’s speech at 4th U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in May 2012 (which was swamped by attention to the Cheng Guangchen case.)  The core of the concept is a recognition of the security dilemma and the need to avoid conflict typically associated with power transitions in world politics.  Although it remains a work-in-progress, the inclusion of this new phrase in the work report of the congress indicates the priority that has been attached to developing it.  Given the clear implications of conflict between the U.S. and China for the region, this aspect of the report is noteworthy and encouraging.

Finally, the work report underscores the dominance of the most important factor in China’s foreign policy: domestic politics.  Only about 10 percent of the report addressed externally-related issues (i.e, defense policy, Taiwan and foreign policy).  The remainder emphasized the economic and social challenges that the party must confront – roughly matching perhaps the amount of time that China’s top leaders spend on foreign affairs.  In this sense, Chinese foreign policy under Xi Jinping is likely to remain inherently reactive and not proactive.

M. Taylor Fravel is an Associate Professor of Political Science and member of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He can be followed on Twitter @fravel.

Kim's Uncle
February 6, 2013 at 16:31

China is so unoriginal that it had to copy bad ideas from the West like communism!!! China could not even invent her own bad ideas. Very uncreative and boring! A culture which can’t think of anything original will not lead anyone and no one will ever follow! LOL

December 4, 2012 at 02:26

If you don't wanna China be what you fear Don't be like GB in attitude to rest of the world

December 3, 2012 at 14:33

Well Overseas Chinese, sorry to say but most of the pro China commentators on here wouldn't understand Taoism if it hit them over the head and considering most seem to be PLA/PLAN supporters, I expect that we wont see it on here either.
Do Chinese really think that we hate China and its growth? We only want a nation that doesn't try to create a bi-polar world but will accept a multi-state world. That doesn't claim EEZ belonging to others or use military force to imtimidate.
That can trade with nations without trying to own nations, that can accept its own nations disidents freedom of expression in our own nations. Seriously, the Chinese on here use words such as
Barbarian, Imperialist, White man, etc to discuss us
Does this win any friends? You all seem to be discussing different things while telling us, its all good, just bend over and take it (Sorry Diplomat for crudeness).
I am sorry, but many of the Asian and Pacific nations have an underrstanding of history too and a repeat of 1905 – 1945 is not one we want from China.
So tell your compatriats to mellow.

Overseas Chinese
November 28, 2012 at 19:26

Yes, the Tao, the Way.

Our minds should not be concerned with only trivial phenomenonial matters.

To govern an inevitablly more globally connected and yet culturally diverse world we need to think outside of the “western” squares.

Overseas Chinese
November 28, 2012 at 19:15

The US vs China, Russia, India, Brazil, Iran, Iraq, etc etc and even the EU. The US doesn’t stand a chance. It’s inevitably going to be a better and more multipolar world, where global issues and decisions are consulted with more involving nations rather than a few powerful ones, our world is going to more democratic in a post US hegemon world.

The true enemy of the US is the enemy within, like Hilary Clinton once pointed out, the US foreign policy doesn’t always align with the country’s national interest. In other words, the more the US governmetnt allows itself to be “used” as a tool by the parasitic global wealthy elites to achieve their fantasy of absolute global dominance, the deeper it will sink. The war in Iraq and the 2008 global financial crisis is the proof.

Overseas Chinese
November 28, 2012 at 18:59

I wish you have the inteligence to understand China doesn’t need your praise to survive, we can live with all different kinds of BS you throw at us.

November 28, 2012 at 06:32

Sounds very good, really. The problem is that is never true our experience in michief reef would be a case point, and the one of India and the Dalai Lama would be another.

November 28, 2012 at 06:27

Real work? Like failing in Diplomacy? At the expense of China US is getting on the good graces of ASEAN save Burma.

November 27, 2012 at 19:28

Bankotsu wrote: ""Chinese believe the ultimate way to sucessful and stable world governance is to Not Rule It"
Not many people from the west can understand this Tao concept. These abstract concepts from asian philosophy is extremely difficult for western minds to grasp."
Have you asked the Philippines or the Vietnamese, maybe the Indonesians or Brunei how they feel about this so called "don't rule attitude" you promote about China.
Its a great story, though not much truth in the matter. Just like Chinese claims about building a Fishermens shelter on Mischief Reef that just so happened to turn into a Military Naval Resupply Base. Yes, the anti-aircraft weaponary is because the Chinese are scared of flying fish.
So if China doesn't intend to rule the SCS/WPS then why are they militarising it?
Oh, I know. Because they are B/S everyone.

November 27, 2012 at 15:21

The Death Of US
What a fantastic post name (sarcasm)
Anything you say after your name is probably ignored by anyone with a smidgen of intelligence.
By the way, I would likely argue that the USA will be here for another hundred years, but hey, keep on wishing hard. Oh, by the way, I am not an American but if you are Chinese then it just gives me another reason to question the education system of that nation.
As its obviously failing.

November 26, 2012 at 12:40

"Chinese believe the ultimate way to sucessful and stable world governance is to Not Rule It"
Not many people from the west can understand this Tao concept. These abstract concepts from asian philosophy is extremely difficult for western minds to grasp.

Overseas Chinese
November 24, 2012 at 21:16

Even if one day when China becomes the most powerful superpower on earth, she is very unlikely and reluctant to pursue the same self-serving interventionist foreign policy adopted by the US. This is a deep rooted cultural thing in Chinese civilization, that Chinese believe, no matter who is the leader, or notwithstanding which party is in power, Chinese believe the ultimate way to sucessful and stable world governance is to Not Rule It. This consensus is being understood on a philosophical level, instead of a mere geopolitical or nationalistic or ideological perspective. And perhaps this is the most fundamental difference between the east and the west – how to govern the world and solve global issues.

Leonard R.
November 23, 2012 at 20:18

No doubt Xi will be an improvement over Hu Jintao. It Is hard to imagine how he could botch things up any worse. But ultimately, it should not matter. China is a military problem for America. it is no longer a political or a diplomatic problem. That's my view. 
Politicians and diplomats rarely solve problems. Eonomists never do. They only prolong the agony. So all this sound and fury may ultimately be about nothing. The West has seen great powers come and go. China is nothing new — except that its foreign policy has been unusually stupid – historically speaking. 

The Death Of US
November 23, 2012 at 18:48

Aye, let the US play games while China knuckles down and do the serious work to get things done.  Maybe that's why the US is sinking and China rising.  Just look at the flying elephants – the F-22 and the F-35.  If that is a reflection of what rot has been going on in the US, and what scam it is perpetrating/propagandizing now on the global community, and what con-games it is planning to visit upon the global sucker-governments, the US is indeed in a sad state.  Come everybody, 5 minutes of silence for the good America past.  Sad.

November 23, 2012 at 13:40

"In this sense, Chinese foreign policy under Xi Jinping is likely to remain inherently reactive and not proactive."
That should be good news for the U.S. Any proactive move on the international stage by China is ultimately aimed against the U.S unipolar hegemonic system.
You people from the U.S supporting the current hegemonic order can relax. Xi Jinping won't be making any big moves or manoeuvers to destroy your unipolar order. His main concern is domestic affairs.

November 23, 2012 at 01:42

China is China, this wasn’t a revolution, it was just a sort of promotion.

talking points
November 23, 2012 at 01:36

to add to it, China will appoint a foreign policy adivisor, or national security advisor. according to internet rumors, will be a person without any foreign policy experience. this tells China's priorities.
really, let Obama pivot and dance, hugging and kissing aisan women while on trip, China has more important things to do, like improve itself, making business deals.

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