SPF China Observer


No.13 2019/01/07

Discussions in China Regarding Xi Jinping’s Major Power Diplomacy

Ichiro Inoue (Professor, Graduate School of Policy Studies, Kwansei Gakuin University)

1. Xi Jinping’s Major Power Diplomacy

 Concerning China’s major power diplomacy which the Xi Jinping government has been actively promoting, there have been many diverse opinions formulated by scholars of international relations in China. Using the recent tense relationship with the U.S. as an opportunity, criticisms have spread beyond the scope of academic discussions. The attitude of Chinese diplomacy toward major powers was already made apparent at the end of Hu Jintao’s government. When Xi Jinping came to power, the idea resurfaced but became even more serious this time. Establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and active promotion of the “Belt and Road” initiative are a reflection of China’s pursuit of major power diplomacy and proactive global strategies. Xi Jinping repeatedly used the words “major powers” and “superpowers” in his speech at the 19th National Congress in October 2017 before his second term began and emphasized the “new era of China.”[1]
 The increasing influence of China within global society has recently caused a rapid rising sense of vigilance and resentment not only in the U.S. but also in Australia and Europe. One reason for this is, which is often pointed out, that China’s foreign policy attitude became more assertive. However, this was also from the fact that, as a result of China’s presence in the global society has recently increased rapidly, China’s traditional behavior—which has never been compatible with international practice originating from a developing country with a different political system—finally became to be seen as a problem in the global society. China’s approach of controlling its own country as an authoritarian state and trying to strengthen its national power by utilizing the open, free system of the U.S. and Europe provoked vigilance as a “sharp power” against existing international order, together with Russia.[2] After China entered the reform and the open-door policy era, this is the first time when the tension between the U.S. and China became this bad since the 1989 Tiananmen Square Incident. [3] China is currently facing the most serious diplomatic challenges since the beginning of this century. However, even before the tension between the U.S. and China became strained, some Chinese scholars felt that the country should think about its national power and calmly behave accordingly in regard to its recent proactive approach to diplomacy toward major powers.


2. Arguments of International Relations Scholars Concerning China’s “Overstretch”


 Some international relations scholars are comparing Xi Jinping’s major power diplomacy to the concept of “overstretching.” The concept “Imperial Overstretch” was coined by the historian Paul Kennedy. Historically empires had a tendency to extend themselves beyond their capabilities and gradually weakened their national power. [4] In other words, if a country devotes itself to excessive foreign commitments beyond its actual national power, the country will start to suffer long-term economic costs and will then experience a gradual decline in power. The Roman Empire is a good example. As a result of expanding its territories, the empire became unable to maintain its territories, experienced a decrease in power and fell. The idea of “overstretching” has been used against U.S. foreign policies since the beginning of this century, with concern for its overcommitments toward the world while its national power has gradually weakened. I would like to introduce insights from three prominent Chinese scholars of international relations.
 First of all, Shi Yinhong, a critic of realism from Renmin University of China, points out that there is a risk of “strategic overdraft” if China’s overseas expansion of influence continues to drain its existing “deposits” and increase spending. Therefore, he insists that China should maintain a diplomatic approach which restrains its expansion within the limits of “moderate adjustment and reasonable growth,” considering that continuous domestic development is most important and is a difficult issue for China. As for the “Belt and Road” initiative, he insists that China should consider the balance of east and west relations in its foreign policies by not just investing in its resources to the countries west of China one-sidedly but placing importance on the relationship with developed countries to its east— such as the U.S., Japan, Canada and Australia—which own vast technologies which China needs.[6]
 Tsinghua University’s Yan Xuetong is a believer of “power” in international politics and known as a hard-liner. He points out that learning a lesson from the U.S., a country which has been involved in too many international commitments and has expanded its influence overseas beyond its capacity, China should pursue its reasonable strategic goals suitable for its national power as the main foundation of its foreign policies. On the other hand, from a viewpoint of the U.S.-China relationship being a competitive one, he insists on the “Belt and Road” initiative. He feels that China should strengthen its relationship with its neighboring countries and proactively make this relationship a counter-power against the U.S. He also insists that China should make efforts to maintain its relationship with neighboring countries while avoiding overestimating the height of its own national power.[7]
 Peking University’s Wang Jisi, a prominent expert of the U.S.-China relationship and well known for his liberal stance regarding China’s foreign policy, points out that major power diplomacy has been publicly announced in China as if it was a brilliant success. In reality, policy makers in Beijing, researchers and other relevant people are looking at the current situation rather sober-mindedly. According to him, China is stll a developing country and must catch up with the U.S. in many areas. He insists that China should continuously implement Deng Xiaoping’s idea to “hide our capabilities and bide our time”, which means to avoid tensions with other countries, safeguard policies with a priority on economic development and avoid excessive expansion of the country’s resources.[8]
 These men are prominent Chinese scholars of international relations. They have different stances, but they all insist that China needs to look its current situation carefully, avoid excessive expansion and implement a reasonable foreign policy based on its national power, even though China has become a major power. [9] However, one needs to note that “careful diplomacy” here is in the context of keeping its relationship with the U.S. in mind.


3. Criticism of Xi Jinping’s Diplomacy within China


 Recently in China, there have been many opposing opinions expressed concerning the increasing nature of Xi Jinping’s authoritarian policies, as well as his pursuit of major power diplomacy. Criticisms are spreading beyond academic discussions among the scholars of international relations.
   The most remarkable example is the criticism against Xi Jinping’s policy by Deng Pufang, the eldest son of Deng Xiaoping. Deng gave a speech at the meeting in September as the honorary president China Disabled Persons’ Federation with the attendance of all members of the Politburo Standing Committee, including Xi Jinping,. He remarked, “We must strive to seek truth from facts and a clear head. We should be neither overly self-respecting nor overly self-deprecating and plan all activities according to national conditions and based on the reality that China is at a primary stage of socialism.” [10] This was his way of telling China to return to the idea of “hiding our capabilities and biding our time” from his father Deng Xiaoping who placed importance on domestic economic development and aimed to achieve a stable international environment with moderate foreign policy. His speech is an indirect criticism against Xi Jinping’s policies which created tension in the U.S.-China relationship while promoting assertive major power diplomacy and spreading triumphant propaganda. Although Deng Pufang’s speech was removed immediately from the federation’s official website[11], it attracted attention as an oppositional argument against Xi Jinping’s superpower line which is derailing off the diplomatic line based on Deng Xiaoping’s reforms and open-door policy. [12]
 In November, it was reported that Long Yongtu, former vice minister of the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation (currently the Ministry of Commerce) who was the chief representative negotiator in China’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) in the late 1990s, publicly criticized how badly the Chinese government was handling the U.S.-China trade tension. [13] This means that pro-reform ex-elite members who promoted market-oriented economies with reforms and the open-door policy are looking at Xi Jinping’s current diplomatic approach negatively. The opposition against Xi Jinping’s major power policy is also spreading among liberal intellectuals who are not experts in international politics. An open letter from Tsinghua University Professor of Politics Xu Zhangrun was published and attracted public attention in July. In his written criticisms against the government, he not only criticized Xi Jinping’s foreign policy but also remarked that tensions with the western world are getting worse, the government is spending a lot of money on aid to developing countries and that China has been hosting extravagant international conferences due to vanity, while there still remains so many issues to be solved in China. [14]
 In this manner, the separation between Xi Jinping’s government and the liberal and elite groups seems to have become deep and wide. However, it was after Xi Jinping started his second term that heavy criticism against his foreign policy began. Some liberal Chinese individuals point out that the reason that the attitudes of not just President Trump’s government but the entire U.S. against China have dramatically worsened is a result of Xi Jinping promoting policies—such as the removal of presidential terms—which seem to oppose the historical development of Chinese politics.[15]


4. Will China Change its Major Power Diplomacy?


 How far will these concerns and criticisms against China’s major power diplomacy affect reviews of its current diplomatic policy? Expressing opinions of scholars and researchers have been allowed within a certain scope as long as their discussions remain calm and academically oriented. Often well-known international relations scholars have relationships with policy makers. Recently, a system of assimilating the opinions of well-known researchers and think tanks into policies has become a popular trend. The systemization of intellectual communities and actual policy-making bodies has progressed. However, researchers’ discussions are just outsiders’ opinions, and their stances vary greatly. Therefore, researchers cannot directly affect policies, and their opinions cannot be adopted as national policies at this stage.
 There have been times when discussions have heated up between researchers in regard to the international environment surrounding China and the nature of Chinese foreign policy. For example, for NATO’s so-called “humanitarian intervention” in the Kosobo Air Raid in 1999, discussions on whether or not the idea of “peace and development”— which was the thinking behind the idea of Deng Xiaoping’s “hide our capabilities and bide our time”—was valid. By the way, in the middle of the recent tense atmosphere between the U.S. and China, the Chinese government seems to be not allowing researchers to freely discuss China’s relationship with the U.S. and Chinese diplomatic policies. [16] The Party is nervous about mounting negative public opinion, which can prevent the government from doing what it wants.
 In particular, criticisms against China’s major power diplomacy have been made recently in the form of dissent against Xi Jinping’s policy. In addition, intensification of the U.S.-China friction as seen in the Huawei issue and the rising defiance against the U.S. within China are causing negative reviews of the major power diplomacy—which was led by Xi Jinping himself—and have made a return to moderate foreign policy more difficult. On the other hand, it is unlikely for elite officers with ample experience in foreign affairs within the government to suggest a review of China’s diplomatic policy. In China, when dealing with difficult situations where the supreme leader has to make the final judgment, government officers tend to become hesitant to provide dissenting opinions.[17]
 The changes in recent Chinese diplomacy as a part of policy adjustments can be seen from efforts to improve relationships with its neighboring countries, for example when Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited China in October and Xi Jinping visited the Philippines in November. However, these should be seen as tactical diplomatic adjustments rather than a fundamental change to China’s foreign policy. China will not be able to achieve much from these minor adjustments. [18] At the 40th anniversary celebration of the reform and opening-up held in December, Xi Jinping used phrases such as “major powers” and “superpowers” less often in his speech. He insisted that China would be against the hegemonic supremacy and power-oriented politics and would become the country to maintain international order. On the other hand, nothing in the content of his speech suggested that China would review its existing major power policy and return to moderate diplomacy.[19]
 Even if China is considering a review of its foreign policy behind the scenes, in China there has always been quite a time lag after important changes have occurred in the global environment until policy changes have been implemented. In such an environment, although China is facing the most serious diplomatic challenges since the beginning of Xi Jinping’s government, it is difficult for China to review and change its foreign policy significantly at the moment. Therefore, China will most likely leave the issues untouched as long as possible or continue to apply tactic measures while buying time.

1决胜全面建成小康社会、夺取新时代中国特色社会主义伟大胜利, People’s Daily, Second Edition, October 19, 2017.

2Walker, Christopher and Jessica Ludwig. Sharp Power: Rising Authoritarian Influence. National Endowment for Democracy, Washington D.C. 2017.

3The tension between the U.S. and China augmented after NATO’s U.S. Army’s bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia in 1999, the Hainan Island Incident, and the EP-3 Incident when a U.S. military plane and a Chinese fighter jet collided in midair in 2001. However, this was more for risk management over the sudden incident and different from the current institutional conflict.

4Kennedy, Paul. The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500-2000, Vintage Books, New York, 1987.

5时殷弘.传统中国经验与当今中国实践:战略调整、战略透支和伟大复兴问题. 外交评论, Issue #6, 2015, 64-65.

6As above, 60-61.

7阎学通. 外交转型, 利益排序与大国崛起.战略决策研究, Issue #3, 4-12.

8Wang Jisi, “The Views from China”, Foreign Affairs 97:4, 2018, p.184.

9For discussions among international political scholars in China regarding the rise of China and it becoming a major power, refer to: Pu, Xiaoyu and ChengLi Wang. Rethinking China’s Rise: Chinese Scholars Debate Strategic Overstretch. International Affairs 94:5 (2018) pp.1019-1035.

10Takahashi, Hiroshi. Central Committee of the Communist Party of China in Dense Fog. East Asia No.618, December 2018, 84.

11As above, 83.

12Pei, Minxin. Xi Jinping’s Dilemma: Back Down or Double Down. China Leadership Monitor, Winter 2018 Issue, p.7,

13China’s Former Chief Trade Negotiator Criticizes Beijing’s Unwise Tactics in US Tariff
War. South China Morning Post, 18 Nov. 2018,

14许章润: 我们当下的恐惧与期待. 天则观点, Unirule Institute of Economics Website, Uploaded on July 24, 2018

15From interviews of Chinese researchers by the author in October.

16 As above.

17Bush, Richard C, Naomi Moriyama and Takayuki Nishi (Translator). The Reason for Japan-China Crisis (in Japanese). Kashiwa Shobo, 2012, 161.
(Original: Bush, Richard. The Perils of Proximity: China-Japan Security Relations. The Brookings Institution Press, 2010)

18Pei, Minxin. op.cit, p.7

19Xi Jinping. 在庆祝改革开放40周年大会上讲话. People’s Daily, Second Edition, December 19, 2018.

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