Tension between the US and China, which originated in trade issues, has been deepened by a speech in October of last year by Vice President Pence that comprehensively criticized China, and by a stand-off in various fields, including the Huawei incident in December. Consequently, China unexpectedly finds itself taking a defensive position in its foreign relations. Also, the two US–North Korea summits that were led by the US—in particular, the breakdown of the second summit—seriously contradicted China’s expectation. Although China is now one of the biggest powers in the world, it could not conduct diplomacy as it planned because of the unexpected behavior of the US last year. Has there been any change in China’s perception of the external world as well as its basic foreign policies during this period? The paper explores China’s current perception, drawing from the press conference on Chinese basic foreign policies and China’s relationship with the external world given by Wang Yi, state councilor-cum-foreign minister, at the National People’s Congress (NPC) on March 7.
1. The NPC and China’s diplomacy
Before taking on the question, I would like to give some background information as to where China’s foreign policy is situated in the NPC. The government work report read by the premier of the People’s Republic of China on the opening day of the NPC would usually focus on domestic issues such as the economy and social issues, with very little of it devoted to foreign and security policies—the NPC, which is regularly held in March every year, is not focused on foreign policies. In China, decisions on important foreign policies are made not by government ministries, such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP); consequently, such policies are generally spelled out more clearly in the CCP’s important events, which are used to confirm important decisions on foreign policy.
A typical example is the speech given by Xi Jinping at the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in 2017, in which ideas such as “a new model of international relations” and “a shared future community of mankind” as well as “major country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics” were introduced and emphasized. New foreign policies can also be announced at the Central Foreign Affairs Working Conference, which is held irregularly and is attended by members of the Politburo Standing Committee, including the paramount leader. On the other hand, it is more important than anything else not only to study the rhetoric behind the foreign policies proposed by such a conference, but also to comprehend how China actually behaves in concrete terms in order to analyze change and continuity in China’s foreign policy. In this sense, while attention is drawn to the US–China relationship in thinking about China’s diplomacy today, it is also necessary to focus on what policy China intends to conduct with other regions and countries and, as an extension of this, the actual progress of the “Belt and Road Initiative” and its actual behavior in reference to the South China Sea issue.
Generally—and this is not limited to China—when we think about the origins of the factors that cause a state to create or change important foreign policies, we think of two aspects:domestic and international factors. A standard classification puts the origin of foreign policies at three analytical levels: (1) the level of individual (human) actors as policy decision-makers/leaders; (2) the level of each state, including its own political regime; and (3) the level of the international system, i.e., the international structure. At the most generalized level, the more power the country ownsgets, the more influence it can exercise over the external environment, and as a result, the significance of international factors as a constraining factor becomes relatively small. Also, compared to democracies, authoritarian states tend to give more discretion to the ultimate leader in making decisions about policies.
When we examine China’s foreign policy today in comparison to past behavior, the first thing to point out is that because China’s power has rapidly increased, compared to the past, the hurdle put in place by the international structure as a constraining factor on China’s foreign policy has been lowered. Under Xi Jinping, we often observe aggressive attitudes in China’s diplomacy, specifically that what China thinks needs consideration is not the “liberal international order”—or the individual Western countries that are the major members of that order—but the “power” of the US only.
On the other hand, because power is now more concentrated on an individual (unlike the collective leadership regime of the past), when we turn our attention to domestic factors that exert influence on China’s foreign policy we need to pay more attention to the level of the ultimate leader as an individual, such as Xi Jinping’s personal belief and thought, not to mention his personality. Facing pressure from the US, what does Xi Jinping think, and how does he intend to respond? This article attempts to decipher China’s current perception of the external world from the press conference given by Wang Yi.
2. The press conference given by Wang Yi, the state councilor-cum-foreign minister
The press conference by the foreign minister at the NPC usually lasts about two hours, and many journalists from not only China but also from abroad take part. Naturally, many questions are asked about the latest developments in international affairs and China’s foreign policy. This year, naturally, questions were concentrated on the US–China relationship and the North Korean issue. In addition, wide-ranging challenges that China’s diplomacy currently faces were discussed, including the Belt and Road Initiative, the South China Sea, China’s relationship with Russia, Japan, India/Pakistan, and Latin America, as well as the Foreign Ministry’s activities that are linked to domestic development of China and consulate protection.
What we need to focus on about China’s perception of the external world is the first question asked by a People’s Daily journalist on the basic principles of China’s foreign policy. The journalist asked: “This is the seventieth anniversary year of the establishment of People’s Republic of China. In your view, what are the most important achievements or experiences in China’s diplomacy so far? What significance does it have in the current situation?” In response, having summarized achievements of China’s foreign policy over the past seventy years, Wang Yi concluded as follows: “The 2018 Central Foreign Affairs Working Conference established Xi Jinping’s thought on diplomacy as the leading principle, and this has an epoch-making significance in building theories of diplomacy of new China.” He added further, “Currently, the world is in the middle of once-in-a-century, major change....In order to bring about a national revival, we must not only create more advantageous external conditions but also make a new, larger contribution to protect peace in the world and promote human progress.”
This statement itself appears to repeat the description of the basic stance in China’s foreign policy since the beginning of Xi Jinping era. However, in comparison to the first question by, again, a People’s Daily journalist last year before the US–China tension started to grow, we can see some difference. Last year’s question was: “Since the 18th Party Conference, China’s diplomacy has made unprecedented achievement and was universally praised by the people all over China. What are the major challenges to China’s diplomacy in the first year after the 19th Party Conference?” The wording of the question itself conveys the triumphant and optimistic atmosphere of the time.
In response, Wang Yi replied, “Since the 18th Party Conference, under the correct central leadership led by Comrade Xi Jinping as a core, we have followed the path of major country diplomacy, with its distinctive Chinese characteristics. We have made an historic achievement in protecting state sovereignty and national interest, and in facilitating the important effects brought about by a major new phase in domestic renovation and development....At the 19th Party Conference, Secretary Xi Jinping emphasized the construction of a new model of international relations with other countries, and the building of a shared future community of mankind. This is the goal of major country diplomacy with our Chinese characteristics in the new era.”
Compared to the press conference given by Wang Yi this year, it seems that the pattern of praising oneself for past achievements has not changed. However, while “major country diplomacy” was repeatedly emphasized in both the question and the answer at the beginning of last year’s press conference, this term was carefully avoided this year. As many have already pointed out, the government work report by Premier Li Keqiang avoided mentioning “Made in China 2025,” which clearly suggests that they were taking the US into consideration in the face of rising tension between the two countries. As for its relationship with the US, in contrast to last year’s press conference, which presented the optimistic view that “the proportion of Americans who feel positive towards China exceeds 50%, and this is the highest in the past thirty years,” in this year’s first question, current international affairs were described as the “intertwined and complex international relations of the past year,” which suggests they were bemused by recent changes in the international environment surrounding China.
In examining China’s recent perception of the external world, I would like to look at the speech by Wang Yi at the opening ceremony of the “Symposium on International Affairs and China’s Diplomacy in 2018” held in December of last year as another comparative piece. By then, with Vice President Pence’s speech in October, the conflict between the US and China was no longer a simple trade friction problem but started to show a more structural and serious aspect. However, while showing an understanding that “the most significant feature of international affairs in 2018 is the rise of uncertainty,” Wang Yi referred to “major country diplomacy” in the expression of “major country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics in the new era” as usual, and similarly emphasized keywords of Xi Jinping diplomacy such as “a new model of international relations” and “a shared future community of mankind” in the speech. We can interpret this as follows: while at the symposium, whose main audience was most likely a domestic one, they continued to emphasize “major -country diplomacy,” a true intent of China, but at the NPC press conference, where a large number of foreign media take part, they consciously avoided such expressions in their efforts to give a relatively moderate impression.
3. China’s cautious attitudes towards the US and “major -country diplomacy”
Some have reported that China might have gone back to the “keeping a low profile” policy of the Deng Xiaoping era, focusing on international cooperation due to China’s cautious attitudes toward the US as demonstrated at this year’s NPC, when we review China’s behavior to date, we cannot conclude at this point that any fundamental change is taking place in the basic principles of Xi Jinping’s diplomacy. Certainly, China appears to be maintaining a great degree of restraint toward the US, in stark contrast to the aggressive attitudes it often shows when in conflict with other countries. However, we should understand this not as China’s return to moderate diplomatic policies—in other words, to the “keeping a low profile” policy—but as China showing strategic patience to avoid further escalation of tension in its relationship with the US. At the same time, China has begun to pay more attention to the sense of alarm in many countries brought about by its assertiveactive “major -country diplomacy” and to its own image in developing the Belt and Road Initiative.
As for the relationship with the US, there is an unconfirmed report that as of the end of last year, a new principle was put in place: to not resist the US, so as to avoid a cold war; and to open up the market in an orderly fashion, while never compromising on the state’s core interests. However, what we can see so far is a stance to continue developing the Belt and Road Initiative and to promote major -country diplomacy while managing to avoid conflict with the US. As for the Belt and Road Initiative, when questions were raised about it being “a debt trap,” “a geopolitical tool,” and “new colonialism” at this year’s press conference, Wang Yi flatly denied these accusations and emphasized, “There is no geopolitical intention; it is rather an opportunity for co-development.” Still, it is not hard to imagine that the excessive economic dependency on China from theon countries in Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Central and South America, Eastern Europe, and recently even Southern Europe would result in the strengthening of Chinese influence on these regions.
On the other hand, against this background, a sense of alarm against China’s “checkbook diplomacy” is on the rise, not only in the US but in western European countries such as Germany and France, as well as Australia. What is more important is that the relationship between these western countries and China is again being understood in terms of ideological conflict. So far, it is often explained that unlike the US–Soviet relationship during the Cold War era, because the US and China are deeply interdependent on each other economically, any conflict originating from differences in political regime would be mitigatedcancelled out to a certain degree. However, unlike South Korea and Taiwan, which transitioned from developmental dictatorship to democracy, the authoritarian and state capitalistic Chinese developmental model has started to exert influence on other parts of the world, in particular on countries with a weak democratic base, as a successful model that can counter the Western model based on democracy, the rule of law, and smaller government. In what ways does China understand this situation? At the moment, while they are aware that they need to work on their relationship with the US, it is not fully explained how China, which has become a world power, is going to construct its relationship with the rest of the world. A worldview that attracts much support has not yet been presented. Even “a new modelform of international relations” and “a shared future community of mankind” remain unclear as to what they mean in concrete terms.
As already discussed, in examining how China is going to deal with its current conflict with the US in the long-term, strategically, it is necessary to pay more attention to the personality and beliefs of Xi Jinping as the decision-maker, and his perception of the external world. Obviously, we cannot clearly discern what Xi Jinping is thinking from the outside. Furthermore, a man’speople’ thought change as time passes. However, what we can see from Xi Jinping’s utterances and behavior is deep antagonism toward Western civilization centered on the US, and patriotism, confidence, and pride in China’s culture. Although oOther Chinese leaders have shared these characteristics, and they feature prominently in Xi Jinping’s thought as well. As the tension with the US rises, Xi Jinping has begun to refer to “self-reliance” in his speeches. In addition, China accuses of the US for “bullying” in its attitude towards China, while turning a blind eye to its own attitudes to other smaller power opponents. Judging from this, even if the current trade problem is resolved and the US–China relationship is normalized at least on the surface, Xi Jinping would strengthen his conviction that China cannot get on with the US after all, and that China has to be strong enough not to yield to the US when it comes to the crunch as a lesson from this conflict.
In 1999, during NATO’s air raid campaign on Kosovo, the US bombed the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia, resulting in casualties, which led to significant tension between the US and China. Jiang Zemin, then-general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, made the following statement at the Politburo Standing Committee meeting: “The entire party and the entire country, from top to the bottom, needs to work hard: we need to endure unspeakable hardships for the sake of vengeance, and make sure we improve our social production, overall national strength, and international competitiveness.…When our country has developed, prospered, and become strong, we will gain an even larger leadership role, and will never lose the international struggle.”
Based on the press conference given by Wang Yi, the current article explored change and continuity in China’s current perception of world affairs after a year of rising tension with the US, and speculated how Xi Jinping is making sense of the situation. If we assume that Xi Jinping has similar thought patterns as did Jiang Zemin in the past, when it comes to the current rise of tensions with the US, he would think that unless China becomes stronger and surpasses the US, it cannot be completely secure, which means that the US–China conflict is both deeply rooted and structural.
（Dated Apr 24, 2019）
1“With the prize of a comprehensively well-off society, let us seize the great victory of socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new era,” People’s Daily, October 19th, 2017, 2nd ed. The term “a new model of international relations” had already been used before this.
2Kenneth N. Waltz, Man, the State, and War: A Theoretical Analysis, Columbia University Press, 1959.
5As for China’s attitudes towards the US in the NPC report, see Kazuyuki Suwa, “Xi Jinping wrapped around Trump’s little finger: Cautious attitudes towards the US contained in the National People’s Congress Report,” SPF China Observer (https://www.spf.org/spf-china-observer/, retrieved April 19, 2019).
6“王毅谈新中国外交70年成就和经验（2019－03－08）Wang Yi talks about 70 years of achievements in New China's diplomacy (March 8, 2019),” op. cit.
11Elizabeth Economy, a scholar of Chinese politics, has pointed out that in small countries such as Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Uganda, China is not only acting as a good partner in economic development but spreading ideological standards of its politics, as seen in governmental officials learning how to control media and political opposition through their counterpart in China (Elizabeth C. Economy, “The Problem with Xi’s China Model: Why Its Successes Are Becoming Liabilities,” Foreign Affairs, March 6, 2019 (https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2019-03-06/problem-xis-china-model/, retrieved May 1, 2019).