In his report to the 19th Chinese Communist Party National Congress that opened on October 18, 2017, President Xi Jinping declared that “socialism with Chinese characteristics has ushered in a new era.”
So, what is new about this new era as far as Chinese foreign policy is concerned? One way to answer this question is to look at Xi’s foreign policy activities since 2012, when he first became China’s top leader.
No Chinese leader, ancient or contemporary, has attracted so many foreign leaders to the Middle Kingdom. Over the course of just five years, Xi hosted five major summits: the fourth summit of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (May 2014), the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit (November 2014), the G20 Hangzhou summit (September 2016), the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation (May 2017), and the ninth BRICS summit (September 2017). On top of these meetings, thirty heads of state and government gathered in Beijing on September 3, 2015, to view a special military parade that commemorated the seventieth anniversary of victory over Japan in World War II.
What’s more, no Chinese leader has done more globe-trotting within such a short time. Since 2013, Xi has logged twenty-eight overseas trips that brought him to fifty-six countries across five continents, as well as the headquarters of major international and regional organizations.
At least in terms of two of China’s policies—bringing in (qingjinlai) and going out (zouchuqu)—Xi’s first term already marks a new era in Chinese foreign policy. But there is much more to the new era than the flurry of diplomatic visits. Xi introduced four new concepts into Chinese foreign policy: a new type of major country relations, major country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics, a global community of common destiny, and a new type of international relations. No Chinese leader has been more successful in keeping foreign observers busy analyzing the meaning and implications of these concepts.
In addition, never before has the Middle Kingdom had such a profound impact on global economic development. Under Xi’s leadership, Beijing initiated the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the Silk Road Fund, and the New Development Bank, three multilateral financial institutions with a combined total of more than $200 billion in authorized capital. Meanwhile, he launched the Belt and Road Initiative, a massive, unprecedented plan to improve connectivity across the vast Eurasian continent.
What all these efforts add up to is Chinese foreign policy with Xi Jinping characteristics. No Chinese leader in the past two millennia has played such a prominent role “under heaven.”1 Never before, it is probably safe to say, have the Chinese people felt so proud of their country.
The Future of Chinese Foreign Policy
So much for what was new about the past five years. What about Chinese foreign policy during the next five years or the coming decade? Xi’s report to the 19th Party Congress offers some hints. This important document not only reviews the accomplishments of the past but also lays out in broad terms the priorities for the future.
The “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” received twenty-seven mentions in the document, while a “global community of common destiny” and the “Belt and Road Initiative” received six and five, respectively. More importantly, these three terms are now enshrined in the Chinese Communist Party’s constitution through amendments adopted at the national congress. Meanwhile, the term “major country” was mentioned seven times, but there were no references to a “new type of major country relations.” Nevertheless, a “new type of international relations” received two mentions.
Taken together, these signs suggest that the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation will be Beijing’s top priority until 2049—the hundredth anniversary of the founding of Communist China. By then, as promised in Xi’s report, China will have become a “socialist, modern, and powerful country.” As Xi put it, “Socialism with Chinese characteristics in a new era means that the Chinese nation has stood up and become wealthy and that it is undergoing a great leap toward a powerful country.”
But the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation apparently goes beyond making China great again. Instead, Beijing appears to have committed itself to remaking the whole world—via the Belt and Road Initiative and a new type of international relations, in particular—into a global community of common destiny. This is no longer a blueprint for a single nation—admittedly the most populous one on earth—but an unprecedentedly sweeping and bold vision for humankind. No government—including the Roman Empire, the British Empire, or the United States of America—has ever proposed such a vision. This is nothing less than a Chinese manifesto for its global leadership. Thus, a wealthy and powerful China will usher in a new era in international politics too.
Or will it? Between vision and reality there can be a significant—and sometimes insurmountable—gap.
First and foremost, though a new type of major country relations (especially with the United States) vanished from Xi’s report, that doesn’t mean Washington is no longer relevant. On the contrary, as the preeminent power in the current international order, the United States is arguably the only other country in the world that can fundamentally shape the future of China. If Washington refuses to share power with Beijing, or if it insists on the universality of liberal democracy rather than concede to “diversity in harmony”—a phrase reportedly first proposed by former Chinese premier Wen Jiabao during his 2003 visit to the United States—then the two countries may very well end up succumbing to the tragedy of great power politics.2
Second, China’s relations with many of its neighbors—such as Japan and Myanmar—are fraught with problems. The Korean Peninsula in particular illustrates the challenges ahead for Chinese leaders. While North Korea appears to have changed from a fake friend to a real enemy, South Korea seems to have shifted from a potential friend to a potential enemy. Beijing can choose its friends and enemies, but it cannot choose its neighbors. When surrounded by unfriendly neighbors, China—or any country for that matter—can hardly afford to entertain global ambitions.
Third, Chinese foreign policy makers appear to have been operating under the assumption that close economic ties will naturally lead to close political ties. But Beijing’s relations with Washington, Tokyo, and Brussels, to name some notables, have proved this assumption terribly wrong. To borrow from the late Samuel P. Huntington’s critique of U.S. foreign policy in the 1960s, economic cooperation and political trust “are two independent goals and progress toward the one has no necessary connection with progress toward the other.” Imports, investments, loans, and aid from China can make recipient countries more economically dependent on the Middle Kingdom, but such dependency often produces political resentment instead of strategic trust. If Beijing cannot break the curse of hot economics, cold politics—that is, close economic ties but difficult political relations—it may end up being a lonely great power: isolated, suspected, and resented.
Perhaps President Xi is willing and able to effectively address these challenges and many others in the next five years. If so, world politics will truly be entering a new era.
Xie Tao is a professor at the School of English and International Studies, Beijing Foreign Studies University.
1“Under heaven” is the literal translation of “tianxia,” a Chinese concept that refers to the world. See Zhao Tingyang, The Tianxia System: An Introduction to the Philosophy of World Institution (Beijing: Renmin University Press, 2011); and Howard W. French, Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2017).
2For a detailed discussion of the concept of “diversity in harmony,” see Wei Zhaopeng, Diversity in Harmony and Chinese Foreign Policy (Beijing, Contemporary World Publishing House, 2009).