International Analysis — Mixed Signals: China’s Unpredictable Foreign Policy

By Shi Yinhong — Op-Ed for The Mark News

As China continues to gain economic and political power, professor of international relations Shi Yinhong argues that its new leaders must balance competing and often contradictory interests in foreign policy.

The 18th Party Congress in November 2012 produced new leadership for China, but it did not produce much optimism for the future of China’s relationship with its East Asian neighbors or the United States.

Chinese President Xi Jinping frequently refers to the “Chinese Dream,” or “the great resurgence of the Chinese nation.”Coinciding with this, the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) goal to build up modernized forces has shiftedto the simpler but more comprehensive and forceful aim of “being capable of fighting, and fighting victoriously.”

There have also been extraordinarily frequent official reports of breakthroughs in China’s military buildup, including advanced weaponry, military technology, and the increasing capability of the PLA’s combat readiness.

China’s posture in territorial and maritime disputes with neighboring countries, especially Japan and the Philippines, has also hardened. (Although, since Japanese Prime Minister ShinzōAbe recently launched the formal process of “reinterpreting the constitution” to give Japan military rights of collective self-defense, China’s posture towards Japan has quietly begun a delicate change towards moderation.)

China’s sudden declaration that it had established the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) was a major strategic action taken in the context of an intense confrontation with Japan. It also represents the first formal expansion of China’s maritime “strategic space” beyond China’s immediate offshore waterssince the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. Of course, this has clear implications for the strategic dominance of the United States in the Western Pacific.

Another shift in Chinese foreign policy was the remarkable decline – especially in the months before President Xi Jinping’s speech at the Bo’ao Forum for Asia in April 2013 – in the number of references to “peaceful development,” a principle that has long been used to guide Chinese foreign policy, and that the Chinese government had mentioned frequently in previous years. Deng Xiaoping’s principle of “taking a low profile,” also key to contemporary Chinese foreign policy, is no longer referred to either.

While these developments would seem to indicate a clear shift in Chinese foreign policy, another set of developments since the 18th Party Congress– especially since the summer of 2013 – tells a different story.

Since April 2013, Chinese leaders have once again been highlighting the importance of “peaceful development.”Theyhave also been emphasizing theobjective of creating a “new type of great power relationship” with the United States. Xi Jinping has repeatedly attempted to gain U.S. President Barack Obama’s acceptance of this characterization of the future of China-U.S. relations.

In recent years, China has increased its cooperation with the United States on prominent international security issues (including North Korea, Syria, and Iran), and has taken steps towards broadening market access for the United States.

The Peripheral Diplomacy Work Conference that was held in Beijing in October 2013 forcefully emphasized that the “good neighbor policy” must guide China’s behavior towards neighboring countries. (However, the strong impression it made at the time has been somewhat diluted since the confrontation with Japan intensified after Prime Minister Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine.)

In the months before the sudden outbreak of conflict between China and Vietnam over the establishment of a Chinese oil rig in the offshore waters of the Paracel Islands, China showed remarkable moderation in the South China Sea disputes.China has also increased its efforts to improve relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its member states, including Vietnam, one of China’s primary rivals in the disputes.

The future of China’s foreign policy isthusuncertain, as it depends on dynamic and often contradictory domestic and international elements. Beijing’s policy posture towards the Ukraine crisis provides a remarkable example of the self-contradictory nature of Chinese foreign policy.

Before Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Beijingappealed again and again to principles of non-intervention, peaceful settlement of international disputes through diplomatic dialogue and negotiation, and respect forstates’ sovereignty and territorial integration.

It made these appealsduring the crisisdespite the importance of its relations with Russia – its major strategic partner –and the personal relationship that Xi Jinping had developed with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

However, China’s public appeal to the above principles has diminishedsince Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and Beijing would give significant financial assistance to Russia (in the disguise of commercial payment) to help it overcome the economic difficulties largely brought about by the U.S./EU sanctions.

How can China strike a balance between its competingstrategic requirements? And how can those strategic requirements overcome domestic and international pressures and constraints? These will be the primary challenges for China’s new leadership as it grapples with shaping policy towards its neighboring countries and the United States.

While these challenges are already acute, China remains underprepared to address them. It is struggling to respond to new domestic and international complexities, which have largely been brought about by the country’s dramatic growth in the past few decades.

Shi Yinhong is a professor of international relations and director of the Center on American Studies at Renmin University of China in Beijing. He has served as a Counselor of the State Council of People’s Republic of China since February 2011.

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