New Chinese Foreign Policy Strategy

15. 3. 2017

After the collapse of the Soviet Union the Chinese communists, who had been taught in schools and party courses in the 1950s that “the Soviet Union today is our tomorrow,” realized that their fate also may have been sealed. Concerned about the future and the power of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Deng Xiaoping, the visionary of pro-market reforms and opening to the world, became active again, for the last time in his long life. In his political will from early 1992, he proposed seeking new solutions and development models among the “four economic tigers” (Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore) with a special emphasis on Singapore. Since that time, despite nominally preserving the system called “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” the regime in Beijing is building capitalism with Chinese characteristics, making ample use of the blessings of open markets and globalization.

However, Deng Xiaoping left another will to his successors, called the strategy of 28 Chinese characters. Using old terms fully comprehensible only to the educated native elites, he ordered them, among other things, to “observe and analyze developments calmly, deal which changes patiently and confidently, but especially – be good at keeping a low profile and never try to be a leader.” Hovering above this program was the slogan taoguang yanghui, i.e. conceal (our) capabilities and avoid the limelight.

It was to be that way until the moment that China gathered some strength, became a “relatively strong country, not a major global power yet.” It was assumed that such a moment would come in 2049, on the centenary of the proclamation of the PRC. Even in Bejing nobody had predicted that China would overtake Germany as the largest exporter on the planet as early as 2009. That in 2010 it would overtake Japan and become the second largest economy in the world (with good prospects for becoming the first). And that its foreign-exchange reserves would increase from $1 trillion in 2006 to $4 trillion by late 2014.

The so-called fifth generation of leaders, under the command of party head and President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Keqiang, is adapting to the new realities. Under the ongoing lively debate a change in the Chinese development model (Zhongguo Moshi) is taking place step-by-step. Xi Jinping named “two centenary goals” as his priorities until the end of his (second) five-year term. First, towards 2021 (which is one century since the establishment of CCP) the 2010 GDP per capita of Chinese citizens will be doubled. The idea is to build Xiaokang shehui, “a society of moderate prosperity,” that is—to put it in our terms—a middle-class and a consumer- class end, so that consumption and domestic market, rather than exports, serve as the engine of further growth and development. And the second centenary goal is nothing else than the fulfilment of the Chinese Dream (Zhongguo Meng) of the Great Renaissance of the Chinese Nation (Zhonghua minzu weida fuxing).

The message is more than clear—it is the answer to the American Dream. Between the lines: the last century belonged to America, this one will belong to us. And the renaissance “of the Chinese people” (Zhonghua minzu) applies not only to the Chinese of the Han nationality, but also to minorities living in China and overseas Chinese (hua qiao). This challenge should be combined with the course on consolidating all Chinese lands introduced at the very beginning of the“reform era” (that is as of January 1979). Hong Kong returned under Chinese jurisdiction on 1 July 1997, and Macau/Aomen on 20 December 1999. The next item on the agenda, as the most urgent strategic task, is a peaceful reunification with Taiwan. Only then we will be dealing with Great and Powerful China.

President Xi Jinping announced a new international strategy on November 29, 2014, at a special conference of executives devoted to foreign policy. Such a conference had not taken place for eight years. Although the Chinese propaganda, especially formulated in English for the outside world, reassures us that this does not constitute a major turn, not to mention a revolution, we are still dealing with a fundamental change.

China openly rejected the idea of taoguang yanghui—of passivity and accumulating forces. China is passing on to the phase of activity on the international stage, always keeping the core national interests in mind. It is more than clear that today’s rulers of China are aiming high and want to regain the great power status enjoyed for centuries by the Middle Kingdom, before it was cursed with the traumas of the “Opium Wars” (1839–1860) and other plagues, now called “the century of national humiliation” (bainian guochi).

As part of the newly-proposed “diplomacy with Chinese characteristics,” Beijing will seek to shape a multipolar world. Key elements in this area will be, on the one hand, a new type of great power relations (xin xing daguo guanxi), with China being one of them (which is stated openly), and simultaneously a new neighborhood policy. China wants to enhance its influence in shaping external environment, especially in the immediate neighborhood. Special efforts in this respect have been made to cultivate closer relations with neighboring countries, including the initiatives of the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road.

The PRC would aim at achieving an “amicable, secure and prosperous neighborhood environment” through “win-win cooperation“ and “connectivity.” These aims are to be executed through new investments, mainly in infrastructure (including the great contract on a Chinese railway running through the almost entire territory of Thailand, signed on December 19 and worth $10.5 billion), as well as boosting its naval power. By means of the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” China want to be a maritime power as well, which is a completely new strategy.

Although this is not openly stated in the strategy, we know what this is all about. The biggest threats emerge in maritime areas. There is the unresolved dispute with Japan over the island of Senkaku/Diayudao and nothing is clear in the ongoing territorial disputes in the South China Sea, over their archipelagos Spratley (Xisha) and Paracel (Nansha). In this area tensions with the Philippines and Vietnam are ever-growing, while those with Malaysia and the sultanate of Brunei have not been resolved either, which is in sharp contrast to the stated objectives and strategy. The new strategy suggests that in none of these cases will China allow the tensions to escalate, not to mention an open conflict. Which does not mean that the world can sleep peacefully. On the contrary, we have to prepare for a completely new situation for the West when China starts to put forward and even dictate its terms both to its neighborhood and to the entire world.

Bogdan Góralczyk

is professor in Centre for Europe, University of Warsaw, since September 2016 also a director of the Center. Former Ambassador of Poland to Thailand, the Philippines, and Republic of the Union of Myanmar (Burma). He was also Chief of the Cabinet of Polish Foreign Minister and long-term diplomat in Hungary; a prolific writer, author of many books and articles in Polish, English, and Hungarian.

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