In Xi’s new era, Chinese diplomacy will be a display of hard power

Deng Yuwen says China’s communist leaders signalled at their 19th party congress that a muscular foreign policy, seen as vital for the country’s peaceful development, will guide decisions on core interests

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 31 October, 2017, 5:15pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 31 October, 2017, 7:24pm

What kind of foreign policies will China adopt following the 19th party congress? Will Beijing maintain the hardline stance it has adopted in its disputes with others, or take a softer and more flexible approach? These are questions that the international community is asking, especially China’s neighbours.

President Xi Jinping’s work report at the party congress offers a clue. Among his 14 points of how to develop “socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era” is a commitment to “build a community with a shared future for humanity”. Xi pledged that China would pursue peaceful development, and adopt an open-minded, win-win approach to matters of shared concern; abandon cold-war ideologies and power politics, and choose dialogue over confrontation; and, contribute to world peace and global development, while defending the international order.

These words appear to signal that China is preparing to soften its forceful, sometimes aggressive, diplomacy. However, if we were to compare what was said in the 18th party congress report to what China actually did in the five years hence, there is reason to believe that what Beijing says may not be what it will do.

Chinese diplomacy over the past five years has largely left the international community with the impression of a tough China. Today as Beijing tries to counter the “China threat” theory, it may try to exercise some restraint in words, if not in deeds. Still, it is unlikely to back down over issues seen as encroaching on its “core interests”, such as territorial integrity and national security. In short, China could be soft in words, but tough in action.

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It’s important to understand Xi’s “new era”, a term that reflects his judgment of where China stands today. In this new era, “China must become strong” – a different goal from Mao Zedong’s time (“China must stand up”) and in Deng Xiaoping’s time (China must “get rich”).

Strength is built on wealth. If China is not rich, it could not become strong, or its strength would not be sustainable. Thus, even in this new era, a stable and peaceful global environment is crucial for its continued economic development. Accordingly, in the party congress report, one of China’s missions is to pursue a path of peaceful development. Given that China is today fully engaged in the global order, it has a huge stake in maintaining peace.

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But unlike in Deng’s time, Xi’s China must not just grow rich, but also strong. From Xi’s perspective, such strength should be reflected not just in Chinese people’s confidence in themselves, but also an elevation of China’s global status. Such a change in realpolitik is important.

To grow strong, China needs to be more proactive in its diplomacy

To grow strong, China needs to be more proactive in its diplomacy. Based on past examples in international relations, there are generally two approaches to securing a peaceful environment for development. One is to be more accommodating and make concessions, to stay out of trouble. The other way is to fight for one’s rights and dues. The philosophical underpinnings of the Chinese Communist Party make it a party of struggle. Given this, its inclination is to fight, rather than settle.

In Deng’s time, China was weak, not least in military strength. So, it largely kept a low profile in international relations, at times choosing to back down and compromise rather than meet a conflict head-on. This kind of diplomacy worked well at a time when the country was only just developing, technology was less advanced and people had limited access to information.

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China today is different. Official rhetoric about China’s “inevitable rise” has contributed to an inflation of national pride. Plus, information is much more widely available. If China’s diplomats tried to secure peaceful relations through compromise, it would not go down well with the Chinese people. This is the reason Chinese diplomacy has hardened in the past five years.

Therefore, expect to see China adopt an uncompromising attitude on all matters of core interests. There is a popular saying in Chinese diplomatic circles: To fight for peace, peace will prevail; to compromise for peace, peace will disappear. This will be China’s motto following the 19th party congress. The way the party sees it, a hardline approach will not only protect the country’s interests, but also meet the people’s expectations of how a great power should behave.

This does not mean, of course, that there is no room for compromise. However, such “weakness” may be considered only when the matter at hand does not involve China’s core interests, and if it is used strategically to further advance the country’s interests.

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According to the party congress, “China will never pursue development at the expense of others’ interests, nor will China ever give up its legitimate rights and interests. No one should expect China to swallow anything that undermines its interests”. This emphasis on “never” is typical of Xi’s linguistic style, and comes across as being more proactive than the language used in the 18th party congress report, which states: “We should firmly uphold national sovereignty, security and development interests. We should not yield to any external pressure.”

In short, Chinese diplomacy is likely to be unyielding following 19th party congress, with no compromise at all in matters involving its core interests. Given its sizeable capital and strength, and rising nationalism at home, the Communist Party will no longer back down on many issues.

The international community should be prepared to face a “strong” China.

Deng Yuwen is a researcher at the Charhar Institute think tank. The views expressed in this article are his own