China Charts a More Assertive Foreign Policy

Xi Jinping with top CCP leadership at the 19th Congress (China.gov)

By The Lowy Interpreter 10-27-2017 10:04:19

[By Bonnie Glaser and Matthew P. Funaiole]

In a landmark address that kicked off the 19th Party Congress, President Xi Jinping articulated his vision for China's future. The three-and-a-half-hour reading of the work report saw Xi wax poetic about the priorities of rejuvenating Chinese power and realising the Chinese Dream. Though Xi's primary focus was on domestic achievements, goals and challenges, his speech provides crucial insights into how China's strongman leader seeks to advance his country's role in the world.

The main takeaway for the international community is that Xi Jinping is extremely confident in China's growing national power and sees international trends working in China's favor. Against the background of China's expanding global interests, these assessments suggest that the international community may face an even more assertive China in the years to come.   

At the heart of Xi's vision for China's future is a two-stage plan he put forward to achieve China's second centennial goal of becoming a “fully developed nation” by 2049, the centenary of the founding of the People's Republic.

The objectives laid out by Xi for the first stage, from 2020 to 2035, are primarily domestic, with the end goal of “basically realizing” socialist modernization. The only reference by Xi to China's international role during this stage is that the country will become a “global leader in innovation.” However, in the second stage, from 2035 to 2045, Xi set forth a more outward-looking agenda. By the middle of the 21st century, Xi asserted, China will have become “a global leader in terms of comprehensive national power and international influence.”

Xi maintained that his articulation of China's future derives from an assessment of the international situation that is favorable to China. He drew attention to what he described as “trends of global multi-polarity” that are “surging forward” and “relative international forces are becoming more balanced.” He declared that “the Chinese nation . . . now stands tall and firm in the East.” These statements collectively suggest that Beijing is optimistic that the global balance of power is trending in its direction. China's judgment that the US is in decline (which can be traced to the onset of the global financial crisis in 2009) is even more certain today, as it sees U.S. global leadership eroding under President Donald Trump.

China's prediction of U.S. decline, combined with Xi's confidence in China's future, likely inspired Xi's unprecedented espousal of China's development path as a model for the world, especially developing countries. According to Xi, socialism with Chinese characteristics has “blazed a new trail for other developing countries to achieve modernisation” and offers “Chinese wisdom and a Chinese approach to solving the problems facing mankind.” Such statements express an apparent belief that China presents a credible alternative to liberal democracy.

While not explicitly tied to advancing concrete foreign policy objectives, Xi's message to the People's Liberation Army (PLA) regarding Chinese military priorities suggests a perceived need to be prepared to employ military power and hints at a greater willingness to do so in the future.

Underscoring that “a military is built to fight,” Xi called on the PLA to “regard combat capability as the criterion to meet in all its work” and to focus on “winning wars” if called upon to fight. By the end of the first stage in 2035, “modernization of our national defense and our forces” will be “basically completed,” Xi declared.

Such desires are not unusual – rising powers often seek to reinforce their expanding security needs with military might. However, the pairing of these objectives with Xi's ambition to increase China's international influence and serve as a development model reinforces the widely-held assessment that China harbours a deep-seated desire to displace the US as the dominant power in Asia. 

Additionally, Xi opted to boldly highlight the “steady progress” in the construction of islands and reefs in the South China Sea as a major achievement of his first term. That characterisation may suggest that China will prioritise strengthening its control over the contested waterway at the cost of rising friction with its neighbours and the U.S.

Although Xi assured the world that China won't seek hegemony and will “continue to play its part as a major and responsible country,” the overarching vision he laid out should raise alarm bells in Asian and Western capitals.

The problem isn't the implicit rejection of Deng Xiaoping's guideline of keeping a low profile. China as a proactive leader would be welcomed if it worked alongside other nations to strengthen international rules and norms. But throughout his first term, Xi has sent conflicting signals about whether he intends to support a rules-based international order. China's growing participation in global governance measures, such as UN peacekeeping operations, have largely been overshadowed by Xi's other policies. Observers need only look to China's declaration of an air defence identification zone in the East China Sea and rejection of the UNCLOS tribunal's ruling in the South China Sea for examples of how Beijing responds when confronted by international norms and practices it finds unsavory.

The portrayal of China as a governance model for other nations is especially worrisome, as it suggests a newfound willingness to offer an alternative to the Western liberal international order and directly confront the U.S., which has previously been eschewed.

As articulated in the Party Congress work report, Xi's vision for the future may signal an intention to double down on challenging elements of the prevailing world order that Beijing sees as contrary to Chinese interests. Should this come to pass, the international community might look back at the 19th Party Congress as the moment when China's long march toward reclaiming its great-power status was matched with the confidence needed to present China as a buttress against Western liberalism.

Bonnie Glaser is a Nonresident Fellow at the Lowy Institute. Bonnie works on issues related to Chinese foreign and security policy, and is a senior adviser for Asia in the Freeman Chair in China Studies, at Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).  She is concomitantly a senior associate with CSIS Pacific Forum and a consultant for the U.S. government on East Asia. From 2003 to mid-2008, she was a senior associate in the CSIS International Security Program.

Matthew P. Funaiole is a fellow with the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). His research focuses on power relationships and alliance structures in the Asia Pacific. Prior to joining CSIS, Dr Funaiole taught international relations and foreign policy at the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland, where he also completed his doctoral research. He currently holds an adjunct research position with the Foreign Policy Centre in London, where he has published several policy briefings.

This article appears courtesy of the Lowy Interpreter, and appears here in abbreviated form. It may be found in its original format at https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/19th-party-congress-more-assertive-chinese-foreign-policy.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.