Chinese Foreign Policy
Pu Xiaoyu (蒲晓宇) is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Nevada, Reno. He is a Public Intellectuals Program Fellow at the National Committee on US-China Relations (NCUSCR). Previously, he was a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Stanton Fellow at the Getulio Vargas Foundation (FGV), and a Post-Doctoral Fellow in the Princeton-Harvard China and the World Program. Dr. Pu is the author of Rebranding China: Contested Status Signaling in the Changing Global Order (Stanford University Press, 2019). He holds a PhD degree from Ohio State University.
Pedro Steenhagen. Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China and, in particular, the launch of its reform and opening-up policies, the country’s foreign policy has become more assertive. It is safe to say, for instance, that President Xi Jinping has moved away from Deng Xiaoping’s low-profile attitude in global affairs, but that does not mean Chinese foreign policy has been completely overhauled. What has remained and what has been changed in China’s approach to international politics over the last 40 years?
Prof. Pu Xiaoyu. Comparing with predecessors, such as Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, Xi Jinping has certainly conducted a much more active and assertive foreign policy. However, there is still much continuity in Xi Jinping’s foreign policy.
First of all, China still wants to maintain a largely peaceful international environment for its domestic growth. Therefore, reassurance is still a necessary component of China’s diplomatic signaling. Second, China has multiple identities, and it is both a rising great power and a large developing country – China will not abandon its developing country identity anytime soon. Finally, domestic politics is a key driving factor of Chinese foreign policy.
Chinese foreign policy has changed in several respects. First, China has become more active and assertive on the international stage. It should be noted that Hu Jintao already emphasized that China should play a more active role internationally, and thus the change is incremental rather than revolutionary. Second, while China has not changed its overall claims in disputed issues, it has increased its capabilities to defend such claims. Finally, as Xi has tightened domestic political control, Chinese diplomats and officials must increasingly stick to the party line rigidly and strictly. Thus, from an international perspective, China’s foreign policy might become less flexible than before.
A more assertive China brings both challenges and opportunities to the international community. Many countries find that it is more difficult to cope with China in a new era, and China’s assertiveness has partially contributed to rising frictions and tensions with some countries. Nevertheless, as China’s foreign policy becomes more active globally, the country might be more willing to share greater responsibilities in dealing with common challenges, such as non-proliferations and climate change.
Pedro Steenhagen. On many occasions, Chinese leaders develop important expressions to convey their ideas and address both domestic and international politics. Hu Jintao, for example, talked about a “harmonious society” and a “harmonious world”, and now Xi Jinping speaks of “national rejuvenation”, the “Chinese dream”, building a “community with a shared future for mankind”. How have President Xi’s slogans and thought impacted China’s domestic and foreign policies?
Prof. Pu Xiaoyu. Xi Jinping’s slogans have reflected both continuity and change in Chinese domestic politics and foreign policy. In a general sense, Chinese leaders typically like to promote two types of ideas: nationalistic idea and internationalist idea. For instance, Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream” simply means the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. This nationalistic theme is not entirely new. In modern Chinese history, all Chinese leaders must find a slogan for domestic mobilization, and the national rejuvenation is a common theme that has been promoted by almost all Chinese national leaders, from Sun Yat-sen to Xi Jinping. Put it simply, almost all Chinese leaders want to promote a slogan along the line of “Make China Great Again.” Their difference is how great is enough and how to achieve national greatness. Xi Jinping’s “community with a shared future for mankind” largely reflects the other side of the story – the continuous internationalist idea. Emphasizing that China and the rest of the world share some common interests, the slogan of “community with a shared future for mankind” reflects another continuous theme in Chinese foreign policy.
Regarding change, Xi Jinping’s slogans double down both nationalistic sentiment and internationalist orientation. By highlighting the slogan of “Chinese Dream”, Xi often emphasizes that China should be more willing to defend its national interests and national honor. By emphasizing China is a part of the global community, Xi indicates that China should contribute with more international public goods to the world.
Pedro Steenhagen. In your book “Rebranding China: Contested Status Signaling in the Changing Global Order”, you mention the country has been sending mixed signals about its status in the international society. What role does Chinese domestic politics play in shaping the country’s international strategy regarding its image? Moreover, in your opinion, what are the main challenges China is facing to achieve its national interests and foreign policy goals, while pivoting between domestic and international audiences in terms of status signaling?
Prof. Pu Xiaoyu. Domestic politics has played a crucial role in shaping China’s foreign policy signaling. Fundamentally, the domestic audience is far more crucial in Chinese leaders’ calculations. In many circumstances, Chinese leaders try to promote a strong and tough international image, but their primary audience is at home. This is because nationalism has been one of the key pillars of the Chinese Communist Party’s domestic legitimacy.
This domestically-oriented foreign policy has posed several challenges for China. First, while a tough international image might be appealing to China’s domestic audience, it has increasingly damaged China’s international image, especially in the West. Many surveys demonstrate that negative opinions of China are rising, particularly in many Western countries. Second, while the Chinese government is often sending messages for domestic consumption, these messages are also perceived by all kinds of international audiences. This might generate international backlashes against China in some parts of the world. Finally, there are increasing gaps between how China sees itself and how other countries perceive China. For instance, many Chinese, including people from elites, consider China’s international image as being more positive than other countries’ real perceptions of China. The perceptional gaps might further contribute to misjudgments in Chinese foreign policy and to rising tensions between China and some countries.
Pedro Steenhagen. You mentioned there is a considerable gap between China’s perceptions about itself and how the international society, particularly Western countries, see China. Meanwhile, President Xi Jinping has stated on various occasions that the country must improve the way it tells its stories to the world. Can the BRICS serve as an important platform to assist China in this endeavor? And, in your view, how have BRICS countries been responding to China’s signals, especially Brazil?
Prof. Pu Xiaoyu. Given all the international backlashes, the Chinese leadership is trying to mitigate China’s image problem. For instance, Xi Jinping proposes that Chinese officials should promote an image of “credible, lovable, respectable China.” There are both limitations and potentials related to this when one considers to which degree China could improve its international image.
International image is fundamentally shaped by a country’s behaviors and policies, not their propaganda. International image is also largely shaped by political and ideological preferences of various audiences. Some contentious issues, such as Hong Kong and Xinjiang, are partially driven by domestic politics, both in China and in the West. Given the political differences between these two, there are limitations how Beijing can really improve its image in the West.
With that said, there are still some areas which Beijing could improve its international image. First, if Beijing is more willing to share more international responsibilities, its foreign policy will contribute to the country’s positive image in some parts of the world. Second, Beijing still has positive legacies in the developing world. Many countries, especially emergent ones, still see China as an important economic ally.
China certainly pays close attention to BRICS countries. Unsatisfied with the domination of the West, almost all BRICS nations want to enhance their voices on the global stage. This anti-hegemonic sentiment might have driven the collective actions of BRICS cooperation. However, BRICS countries also have different political and policy preferences. For instance, India and China compete more often than cooperate in many circumstances. Russia and China are increasingly strengthening their strategic partnership to counterbalance the United States, but they are not building any formal military alliance.
Brazil and China have great potential for cooperation. The two countries have increasingly built up economic ties, as China has been Brazil’s largest trading partner for over 10 years. Moreover, the two countries do not have salient geopolitical and political disputes. The only caveat is that China should pay closer attention to domestic politics and social reality in Brazil. As China has increased its economic presence in Brazil, it might have become a politically polarized topic in the Brazilian society. China must be more aware of how Chinese policies might impact social and economic wellbeing of different groups in Brazil. Despite possible challenges, Sino-Brazilian relations should have many opportunities to flourish even more in the coming years.
Interview conducted by: Pedro Steenhagen Date of publication: October 29th, 2021