By Sauro Dasgupta
The Chinese State has a worldview that is much different from other nations like India and the US in the sense that its foreign policy is based entirely on how to how to survive and prosper in a world that has always been extremely hostile to China. Unlike others, China has only a few allies like Russia, Pakistan, North Korea, etc. However, China has a few objectives in mind while conducting its foreign policy. These objectives have remained unchanged. They are fostering economic development, reassurance, countering constraints, diversifying access to natural resources and reducing international space of Taiwan.
The main agency in charge of determining Chinese foreign policy is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. However, it is subservient to the Central Foreign Affairs Commission, the foreign affairs wing of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party.
China’s foreign policy interests rapidly expanded well beyond the Asia-Pacific region and can now be observed worldwide. This process has been accelerated under the government of President Xi Jinping who assumed the presidency of China in March 2013 and was reappointed to that position in early 2018. With the removal of presidential term limits within the Chinese constitution in March of that year, President Xi will remain in office indefinitely and continue to personally shape both domestic and foreign policy in many ways. China set up new foreign policy initiatives, ranging from enhanced state-to-state relations to the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative or BRI, trade networks set to expand into Africa, Asia, Eurasia, Europe, and Russia and to other regions.
China is now facing many challenges, including an aggressive United States government, as illustrated by a trade war between China and the United States starting in mid-2018 when both countries began to levy tariffs on each others’ goods and now with President Biden demanding an investigation into the origins of COVID-19, relations have been at an all-time low.Ever since the Communist Revolution of 1949 and the flight of National Party President General Chiang Kai-Shek to Taiwan (then known as Formosa), relations between PRC and Taiwan have been cold. This period of détente began to fade with the election in 2016 of Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which has traditionally called for greater Taiwanese sovereignty and potential independence. By the beginning of 2019, only seventeen governments recognised Taipei.
In Ancient China, relations with foreign states like Greece, Rome, India flourished, with rulers like Kublai Khan managing diplomatic relations with all. Explorers like Fa Hein, Hueing Tsang, and Marco Polo toured worldwide and made new discoveries. From the 17th to 20th Centuries, China was totally 3 devastated by a series of conflicts with Europe via the three Opium Wars, which it lost and to Japanese imperialism. After the last empress was forced to abdicate in 1911, China fell under the control of the warlords controlling different territories of China.
In 1919, the Communist Party of China was formed to bring about a Communist government in China on the lines of the Soviet Revolution. After the death of its leader Dr Sun Yat Sen, a conflict developed between his moderate son-in-law General Chiang Kai-Shek and the hardliner newer generation led by Mao Zedong. A terrible Civil War lasted from 1929 to 1949, ending in the victory of Mao Zedong and the flight of General Chiang Kai-Shek to Taiwan. Mao as the first President of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) convinced India and Russia to recognize it. PM Nehru also convinced the US to give India’s Permanent Seat in the UN to China. In 1972, US recognized PRC and it finally became a permanent member of the UN. Deng Xiaoping made PRC closer to the West and similar reforms was carried out by his successors and China now had memberships of top international organizations like WTO, BRICS, NSG, etc.
Since the 1990s, in the wake of international outcry over the Tiananmen Incident in June 1989, China sought to improve relations with as many of its neighbours as possible. These policies included settling leftover cold war border disputes with Russia and Central Asian states. However, China remains involved in ongoing land and maritime border disputes, including contested territorial claims with India, and claims to the majority of the South China Sea (SCS), which since 2010 have resulted in a cooling of diplomatic relations between China on one side and parts of Southeast Asia on the other.
China’s security challenges have moved well beyond traditional concerns, becoming much more multifaceted and now include issues such as border and maritime security. Non-traditional issues, including terrorism, economics, health, trade security, access to resources and energy, and transnational crime, have assumed a higher level of priority.
However, that does not diminish the more traditional security concerns, including maritime boundaries, nuclear weapons, and potential great power competition with the United States. As well, the Taiwan question, despite it being considered by the Chinese government as a domestic issue, retains many international dimensions given the potential role of the United States in determining Taiwan security concerns. This list of security concerns, many of which have become more urgent as China settles into great power status, have resulted in President Xi Jinping seeking to reform the People’s Liberation Army or PLA, and other Chinese security agencies to address a much more complicated security picture both near Chinese borders and internationally.4 Despite the growing number of foreign policy actors in China, the role of the PLA in crafting foreign policy in the country has not diminished. The modern Chinese military is still in the process of moving beyond its limited, ideologically based ideas of “people’s war” advocated by Mao Zedong, and has been focusing on modernisation and adaptation to modern strategic issues in an increasingly wider arena, including addressing issues which extend well-beyond East Asia. As Chinese foreign policy becomes more cross-regional in nature, policymakers have placed great hope in the PLA for the fulfilment of Chinese strategic interests.
PLA has been putting more emphasis on understanding security situations, and at times even conflicts, far away from the country’s borders, including in Africa and the Middle East. This can be seen in Chinese decisions to send peacekeepers to ongoing conflict situations, as well as to participate in complex security debates including the nuclear question in Iran and to bringing an end to the long conflict in Syria. The development of the Belt and Road Initiative or BRI, which now stretches far beyond East Asia, has also raised questions about the need to protect Chinese assets and personnel abroad, including in current and potential combat zones. Closer to home, Beijing has also attempted to remain ahead of the everchanging nuclear diplomacy in North Korea (DPRK), which during 2017–9 moved from a near-crisis to a fragile détente. It has been frequently demonstrated that potential great powers frequently experience an increase in their security concerns as they “grow” within the international system.
Under the Xi Jinping government, stronger links have been made between domestic and international security concerns faced by China. This was basis for the creation in 2013 of a National Security Commission or NSC, designed to support other security agencies within China and to better coordinate their activities. The Commission, chaired by President Xi himself, held its founding meeting in Beijing in April 2014, amid calls from the Chinese government for a security apparatus to address various traditional and non-traditional strategic concerns on both local and global levels. The PLA itself has been subject to extensive reforms by the Xi government starting in late 2015, with the goal of preparing the various branches of the Chinese military to fight different types of conflicts while cutting personnel numbers and placing a greater emphasis on technological prowess and power projection.
At the landmark summit of the APEC forum in Beijing in November 2014, President Xi promoted the revival of a Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP), which would jump-start the long-delayed process of developing a free trade zone to encompass the entire Pacific Rim and, if successful, would become the largest such free trade zone in the world. 5 The FTAAP was considered a potential alternative to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), heavily supported by the US administration of President Barack Obama in Washington D.C. China was not invited to join the TPP, but the group included several American partners, including Australia, Canada, Mexico, Japan, New Zealand, and Vietnam. But China spearheaded another potential cross-Pacific free trade regime, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), launched in 2012, which also includes Australia, Japan, South Korea, and several Southeast Asian economies, with India exiting the RCEP in 2019. The TPP hit a major obstacle when the Trump government withdrew from the deal shortly after taking office in early 2017, with critics suggesting the decision may have opened the door in the Pacific Rim for alternative Chinese trade regimes.
First articulated by Xi Jinping in 2013, the idea of BRI included the “Silk Road Economic Belt” which would stretch across Central Asia and the Caucasus and Bosporus regions, with links to Moscow, all the way to Europe, including various transportation projects, including roads and railways as well as communications links to improve economic cooperation. One central component would be the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor or CPEC, worth more than $67 billion, which included projects related to transportation infrastructure, ports and fossil fuels, as well as special economic zones. In addition to trade, the creation of the Belt would involve increased bilateral cooperation between Beijing and Central Asian and Caucasus states along with Russia, and stronger institutional engagement with regional organisations including the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).Conservative estimates place the cost of the BRI at $1 trillion, with at least seventy countries signing on to the initiative by 2018.
On the international level, China is still seeking to expand its international economic interests abroad in a global economy which is still recovering from the post-2008 downturns, but other issues include questions about US isolationism and the developing trade war. China’s economic expansion since the Deng Xiaoping era has been rapid, heady, and has challenged and sometimes upended, commonly held views on how states could and should modernise.
The Xi Jinping government came to power with ambitious plans to move China further into great power status with an enhanced international role, and with President Xi Jinping now becoming President for life, there is much more time for Xi Jinping to add more features to China’s foreign policy. The rise of China continues to be one of the most significant changes to global affairs since the cold war, and it is for that reason that understanding how China interacts with its neighbours in Asia, and the international system, has become so important to the study of modern foreign policy.
China has continued to rise as an economic, political, and military power. It’s rise has been unprecedented. It continues to face challenges. With its capacities, it has remained strong and will be so for a long time to come. It has combat all its foes deftly. It must not lose sight of its security threats and try to prosper.