Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and paramount leader of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), has an “innovative” and “sagacious” way of conducting foreign policy, according to Chinese commentators. Not surprisingly, it’s called “Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy.” Also not surprisingly, like the more basic manifesto known as “Xi Jinping Thought,”
Xi’s views on diplomacy are noteworthy not for their brilliance, but rather as a barometer for what Beijing thinks is appropriate external behavior for China. Although Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy is an exercise in public relations by Beijing intended to win over the international community, a close reading of it still provides plenty of cause for the rest of the world to be concerned about China’s growing global influence and impact.
The main points of Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy are as follows: first, China wants international relations to have “Chinese characteristics.” According to Xi and other Chinese commentators that means a world of fairness, justice, and equality among states, without military alliances or a hegemon (a dominant and overbearing power), and in which economic cooperation is mutually beneficial. This includes replacing traditional Western thinking, which begins with the premise of anarchy and justifies realpolitik, exploitation by great powers, and seeing relationships as a zero-sum competition.
Second, China should have more of a leadership role (and the United States less) in international affairs, both to make the international system more fair and to ensure that China’s preferences are accommodated.
Chinese commentators expounding on Xi Thought argue that “Western theories” of international politics have caused the Western great powers to prey on weaker states and to form alliances that fuel conflict and instability. Xi Thought, however, “debunks” these theories with concepts such as community and common development. China claims to defy the historical pattern of a strong country seeking to dominate its region or the world.
The views attributed to Xi have several ramifications for the rest of the world.
An initial observation is that Xi Thought on Diplomacy reflects the insecurity of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the driving objective of which is keeping itself the permanent and unquestioned ruling regime of China. Xi Thought makes clear that regime security is at least as important as territorial security, as suggested in this statement by Party International Department researcher Ji Si: “China firmly opposes any words and deeds that aim to split China, weaken the CCP’s ruling status, or change its socialism with Chinese characteristics.”
Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy retains the pre-Xi mantra of “mutual noninterference in internal affairs,” an emphasis that grows out of two fundamental CCP domestic political fears. The first fear is of subversion organized by the U.S. government, a danger imprinted upon the Party leadership by U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’ speeches in the 1950s advocating “peaceful evolution” in China. The second fear is the loss of disputed territory claimed by China, which would invoke one of the CCP’s own criteria for a government’s unfitness to rule China. Beijing routinely employs the argument that a foreigner questioning China’s sovereignty (even implicitly, such as by hosting a talk by the Dalai Lama or allowing display of the Republic of China flag) is foreign interference in China’s domestic affairs.
Promising the home audience that Chinese foreign policy will serve the interests of the people of China is reasonable. For the outside world, however, the expectation that Chinese foreign policy will project Party insecurities into China’s relations with other governments is hardly reassuring.
Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy further demonstrates the extent of Xi’s personality cult in China. Xi Jinping Thought is striking in its banality and lack of originality, almost all of it rehashing ideas already in public circulation in China before Xi assumed paramount leadership in 2012. Yet the Chinese government amended the Party’s constitution in 2017 to mention Xi Jinping Thought. Its significance, therefore, is not in the meaningfulness (or lack thereof) of its content, but rather that it signals Xi’s achievement of an extraordinary concentration of political power.
Consequently, Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy is an invitation to PRC senior officials to express their fealty to Xi through effusive praise. They have responded by calling Xi’s thinking on international relations “epoch-making,” “a breakthrough and a leap forward,” and “a scientific theoretical system which is rich, comprehensive and profound.”
Diverting China’s international relations professionals from their substantive work to engage in toadying is unlikely to help advance China’s reputation or other interests abroad. Within this atmosphere, it will be exceptionally difficult to hammer out pragmatic and cold-blooded solutions to sensitive problems that push the nationalism button or involve face-saving for China and the Party.
Xi Thought reinforces the notions that Beijing expects to be the strategic leader of the Asia-Pacific region, wants U.S. regional leadership to diminish, and believes China should be at least as influential as the United States and the European Union in shaping the character of international norms, rules and institutions. Outside analysts wonder how anxious Xi is to push U.S. influence out of China’s neighborhood. Xi’s government quoted him as saying in 2014, “it is for the people of Asia to run the affairs of Asia, solve the problems of Asia and uphold the security of Asia.”
Many Chinese analysts of international affairs have privately argued, however, that China is in no hurry to take over the responsibility of regional leadership from a retreating United States. They note that China still faces serious domestic challenges, especially economic reform and restructuring; that China still lacks the military force-projection capability of a superpower; and that at least some of what the United States does in the region, such as precluding a militarily independent Japan, is helpful to China. The pronouncements on diplomacy made in Xi’s name do not resolve the questions of timing, urgency, or what costs Beijing would be willing to pay to speed up the transition from U.S. to Chinese regional leadership. At minimum, the new discourse reflects the shift from the Deng era, when China less openly propounded its aspirations, to a Xi era that encourages expressions of China’s “confidence.”
History should make us skeptical of Beijing’s claim, repeated in Xi Thought, that China will break the pattern of great powers using their relative strength and influence to exploit other states. Blaming the domineering behavior of past great powers on “Western theories” is problematic. First, along with realism and neo-realism, “Western” theorists have also formulated liberalist and constructivist theories, which, like the vision attributed to Xi, deny that the structure of international politics locks states into conflict and mercantilism. Second, predation is not limited to strong states with a Western philosophical tradition. Chinese should be well aware of this given their experience with fascist Japan in the 20th century. Most importantly, China’s actual foreign policy behavior in both pre-modern and modern times looks a lot like the realpolitik that Xi and his helpers decry.
Two major parts of Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy are in potential conflict, and a third part explicitly denies that conflict. On one hand, Xi affirms that China will uncompromisingly insist that the world accommodates China’s sovereignty, security, and development interests. Bear in mind that the Chinese government tends to define “security” broadly, and that “developmental interests” presumably include Chinese access to important resources such as food, water, and energy. “Sovereignty,” of course, means China getting its way in territorial disputes, including the China-India border, the East China Sea, Taiwan, and the South China Sea. On the other hand, Xi Thought asserts Chinese support for justice, fairness, equality, and non-bullying in international relations. The obvious issue is what happens when a smaller, weaker country objects to some aspect of China’s agenda — e.g., opposing what it considers Chinese encroachment on its territory, entering into an alliance with a country not friendly to China, or demanding that Beijing stop damming or draining rivers out of consideration for the harm done to the countries downstream.
The notion that the Chinese government sees no contradictions here is reminiscent of China’s domestic political system under the CCP. The PRC constitution guarantees “human rights”; individual privacy; the freedoms of speech, liberty, and assembly; a free press; and the freedom to criticize government officials. The same constitution, however, also states that individual “freedom and rights may not infringe upon the interests of the State,” nor can citizens engage in acts that “disrupt public order.” The tension between these two competing sets of interests is largely reconciled by the lion eating the lamb, as indicated by the findings of organizations such as Freedom House that the Chinese government generally denies its people civil and political liberties. Xi’s statement that “All countries, regardless of their size, strength, or level of development, are equal members of the international community” looks like rhetorical window dressing when the actual practice of Chinese diplomacy includes PRC Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi lecturing senior officials of Southeast Asian states that “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that is just a fact.”
Chinese exceptionalism creates a disconnect between Chinese officials who uncritically accept their country’s self-image and foreign governments that see Chinese external behavior as all-too-typical domineering great power behavior. Under these circumstances, Beijing will lack empathy for regional states that say they feel threatened by Chinese behavior. Chinese leaders will also find it relatively difficult to make pragmatic compromises over difficult issues such as disputed territory if they consistently internalize the rhetoric that their own county’s stance is always morally superior to that of their negotiating partner.
Another danger of international relations with Chinese characteristics is that in practice it amounts to merely a cover for CCP authoritarianism. The Chinese ideal of noninterference in “internal affairs” obviously stiff-arms not only the efforts of many countries (including but not limited to Western countries) to promote democracy and political liberalization globally, but also the United Nations doctrine of “responsibility to protect” the populations of states beset by egregiously poor governance. Xi Thought not only does not promote but rather implicitly downplays the value of civil and political rights. Chinese commentators claim, for example, that despite the clamor of Western activists, the BRI will do more than the Western countries have done to deliver “human rights” to the developing world, given that the Western powers exploited their colonies rather than helping overseas populations “obtain dignity and alleviate poverty.” This is a reprise of the Chinese government argument that economic rights are more important than civil and political rights, along with its implication that achieving the former is not possible without suppressing the latter.
Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy fails to offer a persuasive rationale for why a strong China won’t use its relative power to force its self-interested agenda upon weaker states, just like the historical great powers that Beijing criticizes. The emphasis on making sure that China’s interests are fulfilled and that the Party looks good in the eyes of Chinese citizens further diminishes the likelihood that Beijing will bring about the golden age in international relations to which Xi claims to aspire. Beijing continues to demonstrate a divergence between words and deeds, professing Chinese moral superiority while simultaneously telling its operatives to play hardball to advance PRC preferences with actions such as ramming ships, shining lasers at pilots, and freezing Taiwan out of the World Health Organization during a pandemic.
Denny Roy is a Senior Fellow at the East-West Center based in Honolulu, Hawaii, United States.