Chinese Foreign Policy Needs Major Reform

Tao Guang Yang Hui or Fen Fa You Wei? This is the question for China.

Chinese Foreign Policy Needs Major Reform
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps the most important question facing China and the rest of the world in coming decades is how China will use its increasing power at the global level (this is assuming that China’s power will continue to increase in the future). Is China ready to act like a global leader? If so, how does China need to reform to play this new role? Currently there is a fierce debate within China that focuses on this exact issue.

To simplify it a bit, the debate is between those who emphasize “Tao Guang Yang Hui (韬光养晦, or “keep a low profile”) and those who emphasize “Fen Fa You Wei (奋发有为, or “striving for achievement”). The debate itself is not new, as it has been going on for several years already, but the level of intensity is new. Of course, the TGYH school will not completely neglect elements of the FFYW school and vice versa. Nonetheless, the main difference between these two schools of thought in Chinese foreign policy is that the emphasis is on either TGYH or FFYW. We might say that the TGYH strategists put 70 percent of their energy into TGYH and 30 percent on FFYW whereas the FFYW strategists do the opposite.

The debate can get quite intense, as a recent televised debate between General Luo Yuan and formal ambassador Wu Jianming demonstrates. Luo and Wu’s main debating point is whether China’s international security environment has fundamentally changed. Wu believes that today is still the era of “peace and development” whereas Luo believes that China’s security environment is deteriorating. Luo’s main argument is that China should prepare for a war. Wu meanwhile doesn’t think war is approaching and thus China should still focus on development.  There is a certain degree of truth in both Wu and Luo’s arguments, but the key here is to determine how to correctly assess China’s security environment and act accordingly. The balance between being overly aggressive and overly aloof to threats is always hard to find.

One related issue is how China’s foreign policy should be reformed. As Yan Xuetong from Tsinghua University points out, China’s foreign policy now needs major reform for a number of reasons. Yan thinks that China should embark on reforms in the following areas: 1) as the probability of conflict with other countries increases, China’s foreign policy should directly confront rather than avoid the issue of conflict; 2) China should try to develop rather than just maintain its “strategic opportunity period” because waiting for a strategic opportunity period is always passive; 3) China should begin to shape rather than just integrate into international society because China now has the capacity to do so; and 4) China should change its non-alignment approach and make efforts to establish a “community of common destiny.”

To echo Yan’s reform proposal, another Chinese scholar Xu Jin from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences also calls for debunking several dominant myths in Chinese foreign policy. Xu lists six myths: 1) China should keep a low profile; 2) China should not seek alliances; 3) China should not seek leadership; 4) China will not become a superpower; 5) the Sino-American relationship is the most important one; and 6) China’s foreign policy should serve China’s economic development. Xu believes that all these six myths should be discarded as a new era calls for new ideas. Like Professor Yan, Xu also sees President Xi Jinping’s use of the term “FFYW” as a signal of China’s new foreign policy, though he also acknowledges that within China other scholars disagree with this interpretation. Xu predicts that in the next 10 years all these six myths will gradually be replaced by new ideas.

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One thing is clear about these debates: whether or not China adopts a new and more active approach to its foreign policy, the international environment and China’s own capacities have changed. China does need a new grand strategy, and this is increasingly a consensus. What is debatable is the content of this new grand strategy. Tough questions still face China, such as how much of the international burden it should bear. It will surely be beneficial for outsiders to pay attention to such domestic debates in China.