China’s Foreign Policy Debates

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China’s Foreign Policy Debates

Xi Jinping may have grabbed the APEC Summit limelight, but China still needs to resolve some foreign policy questions.

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.

Another major debate is over the values and ethics that China will use to guide its foreign policy. Some Chinese scholars criticize the current government’s foreign policy as lacking values and principles and utilizing pure pragmatism in foreign policy matters. They argue that the lack of values and ethics make it difficult for the government to make policy choices. Without values to guide its policies, these people argue, the government often becomes hesitant and confused, as was the case with the Arab Spring, North Korea, and during the recent Syria crisis.

With communist philosophy and the old principles of the Cold War – such as the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence – no longer practical for the government, Beijing needs to have new principles and guidelines for its foreign policy. The vacuum of these principles and values have become a major barrier to China taking on a greater global role.

The debate over the vacuum of values has also evolved into a debate over whether China should adopt Western principles and values rather than construct its own, and whether there are universal principles and values that all countries should practice. These debates represent a major identity crisis for the regime and China. Beijing still needs time to get used to its new status as a potential global power and to formulate a foreign policy. It is not prepared to take on the bigger role and it is not clear how it intends to wield its newfound power. That is also the reason why Xi’s Chinese Dream narrative is currently predominantly used for domestic rather than foreign audiences.

Since Xi Jinping came to power, he has discussed foreign policy on several occasions and his top diplomat has written articles to introduce his “new” foreign policy. Some China watchers have made the argument that the new administration has adopted a more nationalistic approach to foreign policy. Though it is true the government has issued some strong, even tough statements, a country’s foreign policy should be judged on the basis of its actions rather than its rhetoric.  Slogans and general guidelines cannot replace actual substance. So far, Beijing does not have a well-developed policy on many issues. It also has not provided a clear and detailed explanation of the new administration’s foreign policy orientation. There are also no clear signs that the government has made concrete policy adjustments for its major foreign policy challenges, such as the South China Sea disputes, the territory dispute with Japan in East China Sea, or the North Korea issue.

The recent debates over foreign relations are also closely linked with domestic politics. The rise of nationalism in China has created a new context for Xi’s foreign policy. Beijing has long had to grapple with a dilemma over nationalism; namely, while nationalism is useful for domestic cohesion, it impedes on China’s ability to pursue an advantageous foreign policy.

A fundamental question for Xi Jinping is how to maintain this balance between domestic politics and foreign relations. Also, looking back at the history of China’s foreign policy making, major policy adjustments normally occur following a major political change. In this sense, Xi’s foreign policy will only become clearer after the third plenary session of the 18th Congress, in November, when the Chinese Communist Party will make decisions on its economic and domestic policies for the next four years.