China’s foreign policy for a new era

Today, China supports assertive diplomacy, unilateral action, use of force and overseas military presence as means for advancing its interests
Last Updated : 04 April 2023, 03:42 IST

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The grand strategy of China’s foreign policy is orienting itself for a new era. China’s growth has reached a stage where it is a factor in the global economy and geopolitics. It sees a window of opportunity in the run-up to the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), before society ages and the economy slows down. The policy of peaceful rise, which was ambitious yet cautious and pragmatic, has been replaced by an assertive, often robust and transactional approach, after Xi Jinping assumed power. Now, it seeks to assert power globally and to achieve the reunification of Taiwan.

Chinese writings once noted that earlier great powers had asserted their hegemony as they expanded influence but that China would do it differently. However, when China’s GDP surpassed Japan’s a decade ago, Chinese analysts opined that China had come of age and should become a superpower with global reach.

China’s economy integrated with the global economy and grew rapidly to become the second largest. China’s foreign policy priority then was to secure resources, technologies and markets, influence local elites and obtain concessions. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was designed to leverage China’s financial muscle in resource-rich and emerging economies. It promised hope but unproductive projects led to debt crises and political turmoil in recipient countries.

The global economic slowdown impacted China’s development path and the Global South, which China sought to lead, competed for investments and business. Moreover, China’s assertive diplomacy and economic coercion raised concerns and prompted retaliatory measures by the West. Xi, speaking in the Chinese parliament, was critical of America’s attempts to contain, suppress and encircle China, and of western powers seeking economic decoupling or de-risking.

Today, China’s foreign policy is crafted by the CCP’s Commission on Foreign Affairs and influenced by the People’s Liberation Army. The economic priority in foreign policy has expanded to include “core” interests. It supports assertive diplomacy, unilateral action, use of force and overseas military presence as means for advancing its interests. New trends are discernible in China’s articulation of foreign policy for the new era.

Redefine and reposition

China plans to create a new global order, based not on western values and institutions but on Chinese ideas and narratives. Chinese diplomats have been busy at the UN and other forums for rule-making, norm-setting and global governance. They have advanced formulations on diverse issues such as security, cyber, data, high seas, polar regions, protection from sanctions, judicial cooperation, international arbitration, etc. Significantly, China recently advanced three papers on Global Development Initiative, Global Security Initiative and Global Civilisation Initiative as alternative public goods to reshape the global order. Having the blessings of Xi and launched by the CCP, these initiatives form the bedrock of China’s vision for the future.

Consolidate and progress

Traditionally, China did not see itself as part of alliance structures but rather in Confucian hierarchies. The flux in global security and economic distress is an opportunity to influence realignments. China views Russia as a strategic ally that can assist the growth of its comprehensive national strength and global agenda. It seeks to woo Europe with an economy-technology partnership and remains wary of expansion of the trans-Atlantic security alliance. It remains strongly opposed to the Indo-Pacific and the Quad and seeks to soften or delay its impact. China views the rest of the world in terms of Confucian hierarchy -- in Central Asia, its influence runs deep; in ASEAN, it maintains a tough position on territorial claims in the South China Sea; in the Pacific, it is steadily advancing presence to the second-island-chain; in Africa, it is extending further support to BRI to secure resource rights; and in the Middle East, it is seeking a more participative role.

Be active, take initiative

Earlier, China supported regional economic cooperation but seldom got involved in regional politics. It now wishes to signal its willingness to be a peacemaker in troubled theatres, though not at the cost of its bilateral ties. The Saudi-Iran rapprochement is a significant achievement for China. Taking advantage of the desire of both Saudi Arabia and Iran to expand their diplomatic space and the momentum for mediation initiated by Oman, China adroitly positioned itself as the lead mediator and participant in Middle East affairs. Its success will depend on how Saudi and Iran implement the agreement. Interestingly, China did not provide security guarantees but rather posed as a promising economic partner.

In contrast, on the Ukraine issue, China wished to be seen as a peacemaker but its 12-point peace plan, Xi’s interactions with Putin in Moscow, and the proposed talks with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on a peace initiative were rather tepid.

Finally, the Chinese initiative in inviting former Taiwan President Ma Yingjeou to the mainland while the current President Tsai Ing-wen was on a transit visit to the US bears significance. It signals the CCP’s preference for dealing with the Taiwanese opposition party, Kuomintang, for peaceful reunification while it condemns the ruling DPP government and threatens it with the use of force.

Be prepared, and dare to fight

Perhaps the most significant of the new trends is the explicit integration of PLA objectives and deeper civil-military coordination in foreign policy. China recently enacted laws on military mobilisation, wartime regulation, overseas bases and Taiwan reunification. China focused on rapid military modernisation, increased defence budgets, sophisticated intelligence operations and not being averse to the use of force for “core” interests and territorial claims. Interestingly, Xi told delegates during the recent parliamentary session that there was uncertainty in geopolitics, and complications with new alliances emerging. He said China should be prepared and “dare to fight” to realise China’s rejuvenation on the world stage.

India and China have a relationship featuring both cooperation and competition. China benefited from India’s civilisational experience. We can work together on global challenges to benefit humanity. Recently, China violated bilateral agreements and caused incidents in border areas that resulted in loss of lives on both sides for the first time in decades. China will need to find ways to deal with the reality that we are neighbours and that both are ancient civilisations as well as rising global powers.

(The writer is a former ambassador and secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs)

Published 04 April 2023, 03:06 IST

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