President Obama recently canceled his trips to attend the APEC Summit in Indonesia, the East Asia Summit in Brunei, and his planned visits to the Philippines and Malaysia. In contrast, Chinese President Xi Jinping has concluded visits to Indonesia and Malaysia, and attended the APEC Summit. In Obama’s absence, Xi’s presence at the summit was that much greater.
The Southeast Asian trip was Xi Jinping’s fourth foreign trip since taking over as president in March. That same month, Xi visited Russia, Tanzania, South Africa and the Congo. During his stopover in South Africa, he attended the BRICS Summit in Durban. In late May and early June, he visited Mexico, Costa Rica, and Trinidad and Tobago. At the tail end of that trip, Xi met with Obama in California. Then, last month, Xi went to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kurdistan and Turkmenistan, and attended the Shanghai Corporation Organization summit. Add all of these trips together and Xi has spent 36 days overseas since March of this year.
Obviously, Xi has given a lot of attention to foreign policy, and allocates a substantial portion of his time to diplomacy. So what will Xi Jinping’s diplomacy be – and how will it differ from his predecessor, former President Hu Jintao?
Although China watchers have been discussing these questions, it is probably still too early to give a definitive answer. In fact, China is at a crossroads when it comes to making some important strategic decisions and foreign policy adjustments, and there are major internal debates on these very questions. Although these sorts of debates occurred in the past, they were usually over specific issues. In contrast, today, these debates not only reflect specific issues but also center on the fundamental guidelines, values and identities that should undergird Chinese foreign policy. Understanding the background and context of this debate is essential to comprehending Xi’s diplomatic efforts and any possible future foreign policy adjustments during Xi’s term.
Phenomenally, this time around the Chinese have quite varying ideas on almost all of the most important foreign policy issues. For example, some people propose that China should abandon North Korea while others argue that China should establish closer relations and provide comprehensive security, protection, and even a nuclear umbrella. Some suggest that China should reconcile and find a peaceful solution to the South China Sea disputes, while others strongly believe that China should take a more assertive stance for its national interest including the use of force. These debates over specific issues are represented by differing opinions over several major or fundamental issues guiding the country’s foreign policy.
One of the major debates is over whether China should continue Deng Xiaoping’s policy of taoguangyanghui, commonly translated as “hiding your strength and waiting for your time.” Xiong Guangkai, the former Director of PLA’s General Staff Intelligence Department, also suggests that a more accurate translation of the phrase should be “not to show off one’s capability but to keep a low profile.”
Some believe that China should continue this policy, and argue that a low profile in foreign affairs will advance China’s goals of focusing on economic development and domestic issues. However, others believe it is time to abandon the policy since China is already a global power, and so it should take on more global roles and should not be shy to use its power to pursue and protect its national interests. Some scholars refer to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggressive foreign policy as an example that China should follow.