Where Is China’s Foreign Policy Headed?

A ChinaFile Conversation

In testimony last week before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats asserted that “China’s actions reflect a long-term strategy to achieve global superiority.” With China’s global influence and tensions between Washington and Beijing growing apace, what is the best way to understand how China envisions itself in the world? Some contend China’s leaders seek global preeminence; others, that they are principally focused on restoring China’s dominant position within the Asia-Pacific; and yet others, that the country’s engagement abroad is still primarily rooted in fulfilling domestic imperatives. Which conclusion is correct? Which documents, statements, and actions should observers pay attention to in rendering their judgments? —The Editors


What can China’s long-term foreign policy objectives be? An honest answer ought to be: “only time can tell.” But, for reasons practical and political, that can hardly suffice.

One source for the lack of consensus among observers in and outside China is the vagueness of Chinese expressions, particularly those having to do with grand strategy. For example, what is the geographical scope in “tianxia” (“under heaven”)? The Earth? Stars reachable? Space beyond the solar system? Another example is the great revival of the Chinese civilization. What constitutes “great”? What are benchmarks of revival? Which particular aspects of civilization?

Expressions of policy goals are by nature imprecise, which allows for innovative thinking and adaptation in policymaking. In the United States today, few would take issue with “Make America Great Again” as a rallying expression, although they might differ on specifics.

Then there is the challenge that comes with translation. Attempts to clarify often end up twisting what is understood in the original expression. A case in point is tao guang yang hui, which literally refers to advising a physically weakened person to avoid losing more energy by exposing oneself under the sun. Its popular translation, “hide and bide,” points to a level of deviousness that is absent in the original saying. Such gaps call for more serious efforts to reach shared understandings.

A more serious source of difficulty in dialogues is fundamental disagreement between Chinese and mainstream Western thinking on international politics, particularly concerning the mentally accepted geographical scope of China. For mainstream scholars in China, debates over which party, the United States (and its allies) or China, is working to destroy a rules-based regional/international order must begin with finding common ground on this question.

Westerners have used the concept of “China proper” on the basis of early Sinology—distinguishing what were seen as the core 18 provinces of China, where Han Chinese prevailed, from other parts of the country—and as a subsequent theme in their anthropology and history. For Chinese observers of Western diplomacy, however, differentiation of a “China proper” from the total landmass of the country smacks of a larger geostrategic agenda. Fueling such suspicions is the fact that the key word “united” is missing in Western expressions about the kind of China that Western observers would like to see. It has become standard for presidents of the United States to state that they welcome the rise of a China that is “prosperous, peaceful, and stable.” In the same vein, when it comes to Xinjiang and Tibet, it is not so much that human rights in China should be beyond commentary by foreign entities. Rather, it is the undertones of the view that China is overreaching in discussing those provinces that fuel tensions.

For me—and I believe this judgment has a good deal of resonance across China—therein lies the most tangible goal (which can be very long-term as well) of Chinese foreign policy: to have China accepted as a unified body by the rest of the world.

Some analysts have assumed China’s long-term intentions from structural features of the international system, arguing that as China grows more powerful, it will naturally seek to dominate the Asia-Pacific and exert its influence around the globe. Others argue that it is impossible to discern Chinese long-term intentions from its recent behavior, which U.S. pressure has shaped. These perspectives overlook domestic political factors that have shaped China’s strategic ambitions and tactical choices, helping to explain the variation in China’s cooperation as well as confrontation with the regional and global order.

It is a truism that nationalism and economic performance are the twin justifications for the Chinese Communist Party’s continued rule. But how do these domestic imperatives affect China’s external behavior? Nationalism affects China’s willingness to risk conflict in different issue areas and raises the costs of compromise. The state’s delicate dance with popular nationalism also affects the dynamics of international disputes that are aired publicly rather than privately. Fanning domestic anger in an international dispute is a deliberate choice that signals the government’s resolve and willingness to stand firm, while tamping down these sentiments sends a reassuring signal of the government’s interest in diplomatic flexibility.

Domestic performance matters in other ways that researchers are still disentangling. Although many observers speculate that a slowing economy or domestic crisis could precipitate international conflict as a convenient diversion, economic downturns have often meant less rather than more Chinese adventurism, with the leadership preoccupied with resolving challenges at home. Domestic troubles can also produce more rather than less international cooperation. Intense air pollution and domestic outcry, for example, have galvanized China to leap to the forefront of global efforts to develop green technology and combat climate change.

In short, domestic politics matter in ways that have been insufficiently appreciated and documented. Historical parallels or analogies—whether to the Cold War or the “Thucydides Trap”—provide relatively little analytic traction. It has never been more critical to understand how domestic political dynamics are shaping China’s varied and evolving international behavior.

China’s modern history of division and humiliation at the hands of the West and Japan, along with its deep-rooted cultural pride and long history of centrality within the Asian geopolitical landscape, lead Beijing to place a high premium on restoring China’s greatness and respect through the attainment of high levels of national wealth and power and a heavy emphasis on the sovereignty principle in international affairs. Chinese leaders have confirmed these foreign and domestic goals and views since at least the May Fourth Movement.

In addition, the importance in the modern era of a centralized and singular Leninist Party-army structure and ideology to the creation of a unified Chinese state, the experiences of the Korean War, both real and imagined U.S. efforts to undermine the People’s Republic of China (P.R.C.) regime, and the general absence of a tradition and culture of individual political rights have generated strong and enduring support for foreign policies that facilitate military modernization, close attention to changing power distributions among the great powers, strong suspicion of the United States, and an emphasis on economic rights over individual political rights in the development of global norms. Moreover, the strong Chinese recognition, in the post-revolutionary era, of the crucial importance of global markets and access to global resources to national power have resulted in a strong stress on foreign economic and technological competitiveness through both statist industrial policies and free-market mechanisms.

All of this is fairly straightforward. The difficulties in gauging long-term Chinese foreign policy goals actually relate more to means than ends. None of the above goals and features of P.R.C. foreign policy necessarily require China’s global or even regional preeminence, as opposed to its ability to protect itself against external threats to the attainment of wealth and power and the preservation of domestic stability and elite privileges through the maintenance of the unity and power of the Chinese Communist Party. Of course, if one believes, from the standpoint of theory or a reading of world history, that such goals can only be met through hegemonic control, as opposed to balances of power and mutual reassurances, then China, as any other great nation, will seek preeminence. I do not share that view.

More importantly, there is nothing in authoritative Chinese statements or documents since at least the 1970s and very little in Chinese actions that clearly confirm such a goal. The stated Chinese goals of becoming a world leader in key technologies, protecting or advancing its regional sovereignty claims, and reducing its vulnerability to threats to its homeland do not constitute decisive proof of a desire for global preeminence. That said, China could eventually shift to seek both regional and global preeminence if its leaders were to conclude that the United States and/or other great powers viewed the prevention of China’s national goals as essential to their own security. Although the United States under the Trump foreign policy is moving in this direction, we are not there yet.

Formally articulated goals, such as those set out in the Chinese Communist Party (C.C.P.) Constitution, are a way to start to make sense of China’s long-term foreign policy objectives. Since Deng Xiaoping, national economic development has clearly been the Party’s “central task,” with sustaining China’s economic progress the fundamental ambition of Chinese foreign policy. At the same time, with each successive national leader, the C.C.P. has amended its goals to reflect adjustments to its assessments of the international environment and China’s capabilities. Language introduced to the C.C.P. Constitution by Hu Jintao, for example, included the goals of “peaceful development” and a “harmonious world”; the 2017 revisions reflecting Xi Jinping’s priorities include building “a community with a shared future,” enhancing “our country’s cultural soft power,” and pursuing the Belt and Road Initiative. Among goals sustained across successive constitutional revisions are “opposing hegemonism” and achieving “reunification of the motherland.”

All of these goals have implications for China’s foreign and security policies. China’s actions in the western Pacific suggest that its leaders may be moving toward the view that they must be able to assert themselves as the preeminent power in that region (reflecting China’s already dominant share of regional trade and extensive military capabilities) to achieve reunification and perhaps other objectives tied to “the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation” (another new concept introduced into the 2017 C.C.P. Constitution). Goals laid out in the 2017 C.C.P. constitutional revisions for China’s international role are global in scope, consistent with an assessment by China’s leadership that a shift in the international balance of power away from the West is underway. Xi’s call at a national security meeting in February that year for China to “guide the international community to jointly build a more just and reasonable new world order” made clear that China is both dissatisfied with established international arrangements and is prepared to change them to better serve China’s interests. China has already begun that process, now headquartering two new development banks on its shores, innovating new regional groupings, and challenging prevailing interpretations of international laws. Global power and influence—both material and cultural—are thus goals China clearly pursues, but so far at least, preeminence is not the measure of achievement.

It is always difficult to assess any power’s long-term intentions with confidence, for a set of reasons. A country’s internal decision-making process is a black box, unknown to the outside world, making any accurate assessment almost impossible. Moreover, any country’s future intentions and policies are uncertain as global and domestic circumstances change.

Nonetheless, it is sometimes possible to discern a power’s near- and medium-term policy tendencies because of underlying structural conditions. China is one such example. When it comes to China’s long-term foreign policy goals, there are several misunderstandings. China’s objective—until 2049, at least—is to achieve what Xi Jinping dubbed the “China dream,” which means turning China into a major economic and military power. Everything else comes under this overarching goal. It is wrong to assume that China seeks global hegemony or dominance in Asia. It is also wrong to assume that China wants to drive the United States out of Asia.

Of course, in the process of achieving the China dream, China might end up being the dominant power in Asia. But as this is not China’s goal, might it be called a “collateral benefit”?

China’s main foreign policy goals for the foreseeable future will still be driven by domestic considerations and thus are mostly defensive. China does not have the DNA to be an expansionist power. In today’s new era of globalization, moreover, it is foolish to engage in expansionist policies.

The number one priority for China’s foreign policy is to secure its own political and social system, based on the understanding that the system can still be fragile when things go wrong. The second priority is economic development. By many standards, China is still a developing country or advanced developing country. China may join the club of developed nations by 2035, but until then it will be preoccupied with its domestic challenges. Lastly, China would like to achieve global influence, like any other major power. But this is not a top priority.

The outside world can shape how China interacts with the international order. If it mistakenly views China as an expansionist power and seeks to contain its rise, China will be forced to respond—sometimes violently. In the meantime, China should become more transparent and follow global rules of trade and governance. At the end of the day, it can only prosper in a peaceful and orderly world.

Can we take the Chinese Communist Party (C.C.P.) at its word, when said repeatedly over decades, by successive leaders and in well-coordinated authoritative Party documents? I think the answer is yes.

Leadership speeches, Party Congress and plenary reports, and five-year plans set the parameters of policy discussion and provide the ends and ways to which policy means must be tied. They are the product of numerous official inputs and usually coordinated across the relevant departments of the Party-state. This centralized process should not be confused with rigid control; policy entrepreneurship and experimentation have always been a part of the C.C.P.’s governance. These sources will not tell us about the specific means or predict the tactics that Beijing employs on any given day. They are high-level statements signaling the objectives toward which officials must work.

These statements outline the contours of the world the Party would like to build. Rather than trying to impose world revolution as the Soviets did, the C.C.P. wants to build a world in which Beijing naturally takes a leading role. The world of a “new type of international relations” and the “community of common destiny for mankind” is very different from that of a liberal order. If we use the benchmarks of U.S. and historical U.K. global power to measure the progress of the People’s Republic of China’s foreign policy vision, we will miss what the C.C.P. is doing to shape the world around it. We can no more dismiss these two phrases than we can dismiss formulations like “consultative democracy” and “social governance” in understanding the Party’s domestic politics.

International wealth and power on C.C.P. terms—the so-called “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”—cannot be disentangled from Beijing’s domestic security imperatives. This is not an either/or question. All political parties in power must balance the tensions between pursuing desired policies and remaining in power; the means are what differ across political systems. Part of the C.C.P.’s foreign policy objectives is the acceptability of the Party’s legitimacy, norms, and activities internationally. If the C.C.P. is not around to see China’s wealth and power, then the Party will have failed in half of its objectives.

Just because Beijing’s capabilities are insufficient today does not mean we can dismiss the Party’s stated intentions for tomorrow.