In terms of content, Xi Jinping's foreign policy speech on Tuesday was a dud.
His first since assuming the leadership of the Communist Party, Xinhua's account (the English version is slightly abbreviated but accurate) of the speech reads like a laundry list of the Party's foreign policy buzzwords – if anything, it was closer to a Hu Jintao speech than the relatively frank and outspoken language that characterized Xi’s first public appearances. This is probably to be expected, since it was delivered at a study session of the Central Committee. Study sessions are a context in which leaders tend to address the Party rather than the public and usually use more Party jargon.
I don't think the speech really tells us anything new about Xi's plans for Chinese foreign policy, but it does seem like a poor fit for the “reformist nationalism” narrative that a lot of commentators have been using to interpret Xi's actions so far. It is certainly true that China has been unusually aggressive over its territorial disputes lately, but it remains an open question whether Xi is a factor in driving this behavior. Given his recent meeting with a member of the Japanese government, I think it is more likely than not that he is laying the groundwork for a compromise with Tokyo that defers resolving the territorial dispute to later.
Xi began his Tuesday speech by name-checking his predecessors' trademark theories – Deng Xiaoping Thought, Jiang Zemin's “Three Represents,” and Hu's “Scientific Development.” The balance covers three well-accepted foreign policy ideas – the concept of “peaceful rise,” criticism of hegemonism, and a promise not to negotiate about China's “core national interests.”
Xi's language about “core national interests” does sound tough – “Foreign countries should not expect that we will trade on our own core interests, not expect that we will eat the bitter fruits of damaging our country's sovereignty, security, and development benefits.” It has been the subject of a few stories about Chinese aggression. But “core national interests” are a pretty tightly defined category – as Michael Swaine argued in China Leadership Monitor (PDF), Chinese officials have been careful to include only the territories of Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang in the category, and they have long said that they are not up for negotiation.
Given their place in the account and Xi's evident interest in a deal with Japan, I think the right way to read this comment is as an attempt to defuse accusations that Xi is too weak to defend China's core interests. Xinhua has more or less confirmed this interpretation:
"Some have responded sharply to Xi's statement, as he declared that China will not compromise when it comes to its core interests.
But Xi's statement was far from being a hardline declaration. It showed that peaceful development is indeed a working strategy that not only has a blueprint and a goal, but also a bottom line."
If Xi's statement was intended as a strong warning, it would be very odd for official media to undercut it the following day.
That said, I would not put too much weight on the language about world peace – this is intended to make a contrast with foreign hegemonism, and is frequently used as a basis for criticizing American actions which China views as meddling in its internal affairs, such as arms sales to Taiwan. The language of “peaceful rise” does suggest the policies of Deng Xiaoping, whose policies focused on deferring resolution of territorial disputes and focusing on trade, calculating that China's growing strength means that in the future it will likely be able to get a better final deal.
Still, it is surprising how little aggressive language we have seen from Xi in the last few months. We usually expect Chinese leaders to take hawkish stances as they attempt to establish their legitimacy – as Asahi Shimbun has explained quite well – and Xi's interest in forging his public image could give him an especially strong concern about popular nationalism. With that as a baseline, it is worth being open to the possibility that Xi is looking for something like Hu's Anti-Secession Law (PDF), a strong gesture with which he can buy off the hawks without committing himself to actions which could seriously damage China's international relations.
It is, then, possible that the more aggressive parts of China's recent behavior are “freelance” work by hawks in the PLA Navy, as Susan Shirk has noted over at Chinafile. The main story to follow in the coming weeks will probably be relations with Japan – if Xi is able to make a deal with the new Japanese government that ends the current round of escalation, and pays for it by giving hawks at home a few fiery speeches about currently quiet issues like Taiwan, I think we have reason to be pretty optimistic about his approach to foreign policy.