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China’s Foreign Policy Debates (Page 2 of 2)

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.

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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.

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