Foreign Policy Blogs

10 Characteristics of Chinese Diplomacy in the Xi Jinping Era

Xi Jinping

President Xi Jinping at a summit in Shanghai. (Getty Images)

Since Xi Jinping became the supreme leader of the People’s Republic of China, the country’s foreign policy has shown greater proactivity and confidence, with more emphasis being placed on constructive engagement with international institutions. Although the rebalancing strategy adopted by the US may not be hugely effective, the Central government has been threatened by the strategy in a way similar to that posed by the USSR during the late-Cold War.

The strategy thus offers a rare chance for China to construct a “sense of threats”. Since the Asian financial crisis, China’s capability has continued to increase while that of the US has gradually diminished. As a result, not only does this growth encourage China to forfeit the strategy of “hide one’s capacities and bide one’s time, but also get some things done,” but it also undermines the significance of tJiang Zemin’s “to act in accordance with the situation in order to maximize benefits” and Hu Jintao’s “Peaceful development”.

The abandonment of these strategies can be attributed to several factors. China under Xi does not wish to wait for favorable international conditions. The increase in China’s national capabilities implies that it is not necessary for China to act strictly in accordance with the existing international situation. Instead, China now possesses the confidence to construct its own favorable international conditions to maximize benefits to itself. As a consequence, its foreign policies show a number of transformations:

  1. The idea of “Socialism core value” was introduced in the 18th National Congress when power was transferred to Xi. “Socialism core value” advocates “prosperity, democracy, civilization, harmony, freedom, equality, fairness, rule of law, patriotism, dedication, honesty and friendliness”. Though this is simply official rhetoric, the concept of “China’s value” is being used to indoctrinate the next generation. As a result, Xi’s governance can be characterized as molding Western values, such as democracy, human rights and “rule of law”, to meet China’s current needs. By doing this, China is demonstrating that it is capable of competing with the West in terms of power of discourse. Two examples can be used to illustrate these arguments: firstly, China tried to adopt “universal suffrage with Chinese characteristics” in Hong Kong, and secondly, Xi used the term “rule by law” in his speeches to the British Parliament.
  2. After the Iraq War, China abandoned its tendency to abstain from voting in United Nations Security Council meetings. Now in the Xi era, China has become even more reluctant to abstain. For example, China expressed its “limited support” for US airstrikes targeting ISIS immediately, while the West remained hesitant to show its support. China had previously always emphasized its role as a “responsible stakeholder” in expressing its international ideology, while at the same time criticizing the US for being an irresponsible nation, in an attempt to gain the moral high ground.
  3. The “Chinese Dream” proposed by Xi Jinping is actually a dream typified by capitalism. However, constructing the “Chinese Dream” places emphasis on equality of social development in the hope that this model will prove superior to the American Dream. When we look back to the time of Hu Jintao, we recall that Hu repeatedly emphasized that China would not export its “Chinese model”, acknowledging that the development paths taken by different countries are not the same. Hu’s reluctance to be more assertive can be seen as a response towards the “China Threats Theory”. However, China under Xi shows a more proactive strategy: official propaganda inviting other nations to use the “China Model” as a reference. This is evidence that Chinese foreign policy has become more outward looking.
  4. The National Security Commission of the Communist Party of China set up by Xi has unified the country’s external and internal security policies. The People’s Liberation Army, Ministry of State Security, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Public Security, the Armed Police Force, the Propaganda Department, the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office and the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government are all subordinated to the commission. In this way, foreign and domestic affairs are driven by the logic of “national security”, cloaked in the idea of “patriotism” as a device to catch the public’s attention and create a systematic increase in the number of patriotic activities.
  5. In order to preemptively protect the sovereignty of the South China Sea, Xi’s administration has adopted a hardline approach towards the disputed territories. Two typical examples are the territorial disputes in the East Sea (notably the Senkaku Islands) and in the South China Sea (notably the Spratly Islands). China has unilaterally set up an East Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East Sea which raises the suspicion of Western Powers that China plans to create another ADIZ in the South China Sea. Also, the setting up of Sansha City from which to administer the Paracel Islands, Spratly Islands and Zhongsha Islands followed by reclamation to produce artificial islands (the official explanation being that it is to consolidate the land extension of the continental shelf) can clearly be interpreted as a new approach to “sovereign diplomacy”.
  6. China under Xi has also been actively engaged in the construction of new global economic and financial institutions. In 2013, the BRICS Development Bank was established and headquartered in Shanghai. China contributes to almost half of the emergency reserve fund of the bank. Following this, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank was set up in 2014. Its official aims are to facilitate regional integration in Asia and to act as a substitute for the Asian Development Bank. Also in 2014, Xi proposed the idea of establishing an “APEC Free Trade Area” during the APEC Summit hosted by China. This has been seen as a conservative extension of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and to contest the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). If this kind of mechanism continues to emerge, the Bretton Woods System established by US and the macroscopic international economic order will undergo a severe challenge.
  7. “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) has become a popular term during Xi’s office. It is not only used as a strategy to oppose the US’s rebalancing tactics, but also to balance Russia’s influence in Central Asia. OBOR is also designed to resolve the structural imbalance between the development of coastal and inland cities, as well as an over-dependence on capital from Europe, the US, and Japan. However, its core strategic interests are probably more significant: China’s export of infrastructure, investment, and human resources will promote the “China Model” and see it assimilated by neighboring economic entities. In this way, Asia-Pacific nations will gradually become structurally dependent on the economy of China, leading to an effect similar to America’s Marshall Plan after World War II. Moreover, the “infrastructure diplomacy” used by the Chinese government or Chinese enterprises has geopolitical meaning. For example, Nicaragua’s canal project, Thailand’s Kra canal, South America’s Twin Ocean Railroad Connection project, and Djibouti’s naval base all carry significant geopolitical meaning regardless of their success or failure.
  8. In May 2015, Xi announced China’s advocated “Asian Security Concept”. The concept covers “collective security”, “integrative security”, “cooperative security” and “sustainable security” and is aimed at opposing the concept of security currently endorsed by the West. The “Asian Security Concept” is an extension of the “China model” and “Chinese values” and offers “three conclusions”: “Asian affairs should be ultimately resolved by Asians… Problems in Asia should be ultimately solved by Asians… and Asia’s Security should be ultimately protected by Asians”. It is not dissimilar to the US’s “Monroe Doctrine”, emphasizing China’s attitude that Asian issues should be solved by Asians.
  9. Xi’s demonstration of China as a major power in the world can also be seen in the field of soft power enhancement, even though most of the strategies require mass mobilization on a nationwide scale. China has been more enthusiastic than before in promoting its own image, and uses both government and private enterprise that is closely related to the government to start global public opinion wars. The country also promotes itself through major media outlets, and has marshalled its diplomats and pro-Beijing scholars to explain its policies to Western media. The most patent example of this was rallying more than 40 diplomats worldwide to publish critical articles about Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to a controversial war shrine in January 2014.
  10. Lastly, as most corruption-related cases among Chinese officials involve foreign money laundering, Xi hopes to link domestic and foreign policies in demonstration of China’s willingness to extend its executive power globally. By introducing an “anti-monopoly movement”, it is explicitly undermining the ability of large-scale enterprises to force up prices. The corporations most affected by this are very large foreign companies such as Microsoft and Mercedes-Benz. This strategy of integrating anti-corruption and nationalism against foreign concerns has its predecessor in the simultaneous adoption of the “Three-anti and Five-anti Campaigns” and the “Korean War against the US” in the early days of Mao’s China. As a leader believing in mass mobilization, Xi will undoubtedly implement similar tactics.

Note: Some of the material for this article has been taken from the author’s “Deconstructing the Chinese Dream”.



Simon Shen

Dr. Simon Shen is an Associate Professor & Director of Global Studies Program, Faculty of Social Science and Co-Director of International Affairs Research Center, Hong Kong Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is the chairman of Hong Kong International Relations Research Association (HKIRRA). He also serves as the lead writer of a Chinese newspaper called Hong Kong Economic Journal (Global). He is a graduate of Oxford and Yale University.