Since Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms in the 1980s, Chinese foreign policy has been relatively non-threatening. During its economic rise, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) embraced a Peaceful Development strategy. This strategy emphasized that China’s prosperity depended on a peaceful international environment and, in turn, China’s rise would contribute to global stability. The strategy aimed to assuage the fear that China’s rise was a threat to the current status quo. Instead, the CCP wanted to keep a low profile so it could continue growing its economy. At the same time, it used the Peaceful Development strategy to create the narrative that China’s development would increase peace and cooperation among the countries it worked with. It was framed as a win-win scenario.
However, since President Xi Jinping took power in 2012, there has been an observable shift to a more assertive foreign policy approach. From increasing China’s military presence in the South China Sea to the first border clash with India in decades, the rest of the world is scrambling to figure out how to respond to the increasingly assertive rising power. What is behind this foreign policy shift and why is it happening now? Is it because of Xi Jinping or are there other factors driving the shift as well? There is an ongoing debate to try and answer these questions. This article will unpack a few of them.
The most straightforward explanation is that Xi Jinping himself is pushing China towards a more aggressive stance. In 2018, the CCP went so far as to create the term “Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy.” Xi’s school of thought has three main ideas: first, Xi wants international relations to include “Chinese characteristics” and challenge the current Western-dominated discourse; second, China will need to increase its leadership role in global affairs to ensure the environment is conducive to Chinese development; and third, Chinese foreign policy needs to protect China’s sovereignty and security.
However, despite being termed “Xi Jinping Thought,” many of these themes were evident before Xi took power. In addition, the CCP’s lack of transparency in its decision-making process makes it difficult to know how much agency Xi has – there could be other actors behind the scenes driving China’s foreign policy too. Though Xi has significantly centralized his power and exerts a considerable amount of influence, it is unlikely that in a party of 90 million people he is the only factor pushing forward China’s assertive foreign policy.
A second explanation lies in the fact that, until recently, China’s main goal was economic growth. Now that China is the second-largest economy in the world, the country carries a lot of gravity on the world stage. There is a general expectation with rising powers that as their economies grow, so does their involvement in international politics. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the creation of new economic institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and New Development Bank (NDB), contributions to UN peacekeeping missions, and leading climate change initiatives are all examples of China’s efforts to further involve itself in global affairs. It was easier for China to take a “lie-low” approach before it became one of the biggest economies in the world. Now it has nowhere to hide. A proactive foreign policy approach might be seen by Chinese policymakers as necessary to create a favourable international environment to continue its rise.
Lastly, since Xi Jinping came to power, the CCP has emphasized the need for “national rejuvenation” and to achieve the “China Dream.” This narrative tells the story of how China used to be a strong world power until the mid-1800s, but then endured a century of humiliation by losing wars and having various parts of the country under foreign control. On the domestic side, the failures of the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and the Tiananmen Square Massacre all add to the nation’s sour memories of the 19th and 20th Centuries. Though there is no single definition of the term, Xi sees the “China Dream” as China’s re-ascendance to a global economic, military, and cultural position of power. The CCP’s commitment to achieving national rejuvenation by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, could also be a contributing factor in the country’s growing assertiveness. To fully achieve this goal, China needs to assume its rightful position as a world leader – or so the story goes.
Though these are just three examples, there is most likely a combination of factors driving China’s assertiveness in the international arena. In the past, China’s foreign policy reflected Deng Xiaoping’s motto: “Hide your strength and bide your time.” Today, China has acquired the economic strength to make global change. Despite the country’s attempts to stay out of the spotlight and not appear as a threat to the US, the sheer weight of its economy can no longer be ignored. In the future, if Chinese leaders hope they can lead the country to hegemonic status, they need to focus on more than just the economy: allies, the military, soft power, and engagement in global issues all matter too. Maybe an assertive foreign policy is what the country needs to get there.
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