China’s decision to elevate in priority its relationship with its neighbors over that with the United States and other great powers, confirmed at the recently concluded Central Work Conference on Foreign Relations, heralds a major shift in its diplomacy. The decision reflects Beijing’s assessment that relations with countries in Asia and with rising powers will grow more important role in facilitating the nation’s revitalization than relations with the developed world. This suggests that over time, China may grow even less tolerant of Western interference in PRC interests and more confident in consolidating control of its core interests and pressing demands to reform the international order. Washington may need to step up coordination with its Asian partners to encourage Chinese behavior that upholds, rather than challenges, the principle tenets of the international order.
“General Framework for Foreign Relations”
At the Central Work Conference, Xi Jinping changed the order of the general framework for foreign relations (zongti waijiao buju). The general framework is a simple, but authoritative, list of broad categories of countries. It provides the conceptual schema upon which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) hangs general instructions on how to approach foreign policy. In itself, the general framework says very little about how to conduct foreign policy. It does, however, provide one important clue- the list’s order has long been understood to suggest a sense of priority, especially in the reform era. Relations with country types at the top of the list, in other words, are understood to have a stronger bearing on China’s prospects than those at the bottom of the list. The general framework frames virtually all official analyses, documents, and policy directives related to diplomacy. This schema thus provides a simple, easily identifiable layout to help officials and bureaucrats prioritize foreign policy work and interpret directives from central leaders.
The order of the framework has remained consistent, having undergone changes only a few times since the PRC’s founding. In its original revolutionary incarnation, Mao proposed a framework of “first world, second world, and third world,” which referred to the capitalist, communist, and developing worlds. At the start of reform and opening up, Deng redefined this framework to “great powers (daguo), neighboring countries (zhoubian – also called the “periphery”), and “developing countries” (fazhan zhong de guojia). The only change since 1979 has been the addition of new categories. Jiang Zemin added “multilateral organizations,” by the time of the 16th Party Congress in 2002. Hu added “domains” (lingyu) or “public diplomacy” a few years later, as can be seen in the 18th Party Congress report.
Thus, the general framework as of 2012 consisted of: great powers (understood to include principally the United States, EU, Japan, and Russia), periphery (all countries along China’s borders), developing countries (all lower income countries in the world, including China), multilateral organizations (UN, APEC, ASEAN, etc.), and public diplomacy. The simple set up does invite some confusion, as some countries can appear in more than one category. Poor Asian countries like Cambodia, for example, are regarded as part of both the periphery and developing world. Nevertheless, the framework remains widely in use.
An example of how PRC officials organize directives on foreign policy to fit the general framework can be seen in the 18th Party Congress report. It called for policy work towards great powers to “establish long term, stable, and healthy new type great power relationships.” For the periphery, the report stated China should “consolidate good neighborly and friendly relations.” For developing countries, the report called for supporting their “representation and voice” in international affairs. The report called on China to adjust policy towards multilateral organizations to “advance the development of an international order and system in a just and reasonable direction.” For public diplomacy, China should “promote people to people exchanges and protect China’s rights and interests overseas.”
Elevation of the Periphery, Downgrading of Great Powers
In 2013, new developments suggested that major changes were afoot. Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated in September 2013, that the periphery had become the “priority direction” (youxian fangxiang) for foreign relations work. A month later, the Central Committee held an unprecedented Central Work Forum on Diplomacy to the Periphery to review policy towards countries on the periphery. Xinhua highlighted appropriate policy changes at the start of 2014 and Xi Jinping listed the periphery first when he outlined guidance in the format of the general framework at the recently concluded Central Work Conference on Foreign Relations.
As with the most important changes to the party’s directives, the main drivers are assessments of long-term economic and geo-political trends. Beijing recognizes that the region is increasingly vital to China’s future. China’s Vice Foreign Minister stated in April that the country’s trade with East and Southeast Asia totaled “$1.4 trillion, more than China’s trade with the United States and European Union combined.” He noted “half of China’s top ten trade partners are in Asia,” and that 70 percent of its outbound investment is in Asia. The trend towards regional integration will likely continue. The IMF judges that the Asia-Pacific region remains best poised to drive future global growth if it implements structural reform and infrastructure investment. PRC leaders seek to achieve this potential through the Silk Road, Maritime Silk Road, Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and other initiatives.
Moreover, China realizes it must secure its geostrategic flanks to prepare the country’s ascent into the upper echelons of global power. Chinese leaders are deeply aware of historical precedents in which aspirants to regional dominance in Asia and Europe fell victim to wars kicked off by clashes involving neighboring powers. The persistence of disputes and flashpoints in the East and South China Seas makes this danger vividly real for Chinese policymakers. Finding ways to consolidate China’s influence and weaken potentially threats, such as the U.S. alliance system, offers for China hope of greater security. In the words of Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin, the “imbalance between Asia’s political security and economic development has become an increasingly prominent issue.” China’s proposal to create an Asian “community of shared destiny” aims to resolve this imbalance.
The elevation of the periphery in priority necessarily means a downgrading in strategic priority of China’s relations to the United States and other great powers. Although access to Western markets and technology has long played a critical role in powering China’s economic growth, trends decades in the making have eroded considerably the importance to Beijing of the industrial West. The global financial crisis has left much of the developed world reeling in economic and political stagnation. Technologically, China has narrowed considerably the gap in knowledge and capability, although its ability to innovate remains weak. Emerging markets appear poised to possibly outpace the developed world as engines of demand and growth. And a still rapidly modernizing PLA continues to narrow the gap in capability with modern militaries, especially in China’s surrounding waters.
The conference showed one other possible modification in the general framework. Xi highlighted a sub-category of developing countries: “major developing powers (kuoda fazhanzhong de guojia), for which Xi called on China to “expand cooperation” and “closely integrate our country’s development.” identify these as especially important partners to support reform of the international order. PRC media has linked this label to countries including Russia, Brazil, South Africa, India, Indonesia, and Mexico. Official reporting also now describes China in this way, apparently abandoning the traditional self-designation as a “developing country.”
The Growing Importance of U.S. Allies and Partners
The downgrading of relations with the developed world in priority may appear surprising, given the recent breakthroughs in cooperation between China and the United States on issues such as climate change. The two sides have even agreed to step up military cooperation. These developments show that the relationship with the United States remains the single most important for China. The extraordinary economic, military, political, and cultural power of the United States has always made it the most consequential nation for China’s rise, and this remains true today.
Nevertheless, the conclusion by Chinese analysts that the periphery and developing nations will overshadow in importance the developed world carries major implications for international politics. The change in the general framework shows just how much this assessment now informs PRC foreign policy. European countries have already discovered how little Beijing cares for their views of PRC policies. China has not only rejected criticisms on human rights issues, it has retaliated with punitive measures against EU nations, as it did to the United Kingdom over meetings with the Dalai Lama and to Norway over its recognition of dissident Liu Xiaobo. Similarly, China has shown itself increasingly resistant to U.S. criticisms of its behavior. Beijing has dismissed Washington’s criticism of its reclamation and other efforts to consolidate its claims in the South China Sea. Nor is China slowing down its efforts to build alternative institutions and mechanisms to assert its regional leadership of Asia. U.S. demands that China curb its cyber espionage have similarly yielded little fruit.
As Chinese power grows, and should its efforts to consolidate its leadership of the Asia-Pacific region succeed, China’s tolerance for Western “interference” on sensitive policy topics will decline even further. Beijing will also likely push harder to consolidate its leadership of Asia and step up demands for reforms in the international order to more fairly reflect the changing distribution of power. Should Beijing lose confidence in cooperation as the means to secure such accommodation, the temptation to explore more coercive options could prove difficult to resist. In a situation of intensifying rivalry and distrust, an exasperated United States could well find itself driven to increasingly escalatory measures to ward off PRC behavior it finds threatening to its interests.
To forestall this possibility, the United States will need to step up policy coordination with its Asian allies and a growing array of partner countries, especially the major developing powers in China’s vicinity. The U.S. will continue to play a critical role in ensuring stable ties and deterring Chinese misbehavior, but coordination with regional powers will become an increasingly vital avenue for encouraging China in a direction that supports, rather than challenges, the fundamental tenets of the international order. The growing strength of the developing world and projected flat growth trajectory of the developed world carries huge consequences for the future of global politics. Chinese leaders grasp this potential keenly. Washington and its allies must anticipate this trajectory just as thoroughly to sustain a stable and peaceful world order.
Tim Heath is a Senior Defense and International Analyst at the RAND Corporation. Mr. Heath has over fifteen years of experience as a China analyst in the US government. He is the author of the book, China’s New Governing Party Paradigm: Political Renewal and the Pursuit of National Rejuvenation, published by Ashgate (2014).