2015: Li Jiang 李江:  Why should China’s foreign affairs strategy change gear?*

This translation is by a friend of mine who wishes to remain anonymous.  The article appeared on both the Financial Times Chinese language website in July 2015 as well as on the PRC liberal intellectual discussion website Aisixiang.



Li Jiang 李江:  Why should China’s foreign affairs strategy change gear?*

What are the key factors driving China’s foreign policy shift from ‘low’ to ‘assertive’? Deteriorating relations with neighbouring countries or changes in the global power structure explain little: domestic factors are key. Driving change are a problematic economic growth model, political and social instability, and the need to divert patriotism and nationalism from domestic targets. China is on the global periphery; military aggression against the core is unsustainable. Tough foreign policy only makes sense against the background of domestic issues raising the stakes of regime preservation.

Recently, China’s accelerating island reclamation in the South China Sea (SCS) has drawn strong reactions from Southeast Asia and the US. MFA State Boundary and Ocean Affairs Division director Ouyang Yujing 欧阳玉靖 even states that ‘China has the right to designate ADIZ’s.’ For Southeast Asia, China’s sovereignty over the disputed waters is an extension of imperial arrogance. For the US military, the act is tantamount to provoking US forces in the Asia-Pacific, and may immediately destroy the balance of power.

US foreign policy circles are dominated by realists, with liberal thinking merely offering policy-makers further perspectives on and means of realising the national interest; this is quite different from the EU states. Realists argue that behind the increasingly tough stance China has taken in the SCS and other issues, there must be a strategic, not just tactical change. Even Chinese scholars accept that since Xi Jinping took office, the tone of China’s diplomacy has switched from ‘low’ to ‘assertive.’ So, what are the key factors driving this shift?

The international power structure is not why China’s foreign strategy is shifting

Many Chinese scholars and diplomats explain this change as a passive reaction to continuing deterioration of China’s international security environment. This does not hold water, because the deterioration is not the result of structural change, but rather is caused by the state of play of its own foreign policy. By the end of 2012, during a workshop on China issues at the London School of Economics, experts attending reached a consensus on one issue: Chinese diplomacy suffered a major setback between 2008 and 2012.

Shortly after the end of the Beijing Olympics spending spree, China’s relations with Japan and Southeast Asia rapidly deteriorated due to historical grievances, territorial disputes, etc. When Obama declared the ‘Asia-Pacific rebalancing’ strategy 5 January 2012, many Southeast Asian states publicly welcomed the US to ‘return to the Asia-Pacific.’ By the end of 2013, the Philippines, Indonesia and other countries had welcomed Japan’s ‘re-armament.’ Relations between China and the DPRK, regarded as a quasi-ally, are no longer just ‘seemingly united but actually alienated’. Its shooting of Chinese citizens, un­authorised nuclear testing and other events evidence weakening Chinese control. Long-standing wary Indian and Mongolian attitudes to China have become starker. As for Sino-Russian relations, despite the strategic reliance of the two, and the existence of a close working relationship, Russia’s fear of and wary attitude to China have not altered, despite Beijing’s continued friendliness to Moscow when it became isolated after the Crimea conflict.

For many years there has been no practical breakthrough in relations between China and Central Asia. Chinese scholars and officials think this is the result of Central Asia uniting with the West as junior partners to contain China; they are in denial however about what their diplomatic strategy and tactics have led to. If China wants to improve foreign relations through diplomatic means, it should revisit the history of international relations in the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe.

Structuralists believe that this change is the result of changes in the global power structure. Structure is seen as the way power is distributed, and the rules as to how this happens (I’m trying to give a layman’s account of ‘structure’ as defined by Waltz). Structuralists argue that structure is one of the key factors affecting a country’s foreign policy. In their view, changes in China’s foreign strategy are driven by change of the global power structure, and the key cause of changes in the structure is the decline of the Western world like the US, and the rise of the emerging countries like China. The danger of power structure shifts caused by changes in relative strength lies not in the change itself, but in being faster than the original structure can adjust to.

Historically, such rapid but intense structural change is often accompanied by war. Napoleon’s France, Germany in two world wars, and Japan in World War II led to international war. In looking at history, it is reasonable for realists to have pessimistic expectations: namely war between China and the US (or other Western countries). However, history does not simply repeat itself; war between the great powers is unlikely at present.


There are serious limitations in the structuralist perspective. It can help explain development and change in national diplomacy strategy, but its neglect of domestic internal factors make structuralists often draw the wrong conclusions.

Changes in China’s domestic political and economic ideas cannot be overlooked

Analysis of China’s changing foreign policy must focus on its internal factors. The most important include economic development, political stability and changes in thinking. If you re-examine these factors, we find that the situation is quite grim.

In China, the concepts of ‘development’ and ‘growth’ of the economy have been confused, but officials are most concerned about economic growth. Every year since 2008, Premiers Wen Jiabao and Li Keqiang have stressed China’s economic difficulties. In terms of historical data, Q2 2010 began a marked decline in economic growth. Data released on 15 July 2015 shows growth declining to 7 percent (international media widely question the authenticity of this). The enormous downward pressure popularised the term ‘new normal’. But the real worry is the level of economic development in China, the core of which is the level of industrialisation. China’s industrial output is enormous, but in the account Yue Jian­yong 岳健勇 gives in the ‘Myth of the Chinese model—the marriage of market Leninism with global capitalism’, it is actually technology-less industrialisation. The rise of any great power in history accompanies leaps in industrial technology.

China has long been relying on cheap factors, achieving high growth at the expense of human rights and environ- mental protection, leading China’s development to depend on core countries, with industrial upgrading a distant hope. The shortcomings of this model will be revealed beyond doubt as soon as costs rise and the external economic environment deteriorates; this is the situation China is currently experiencing. The price China pays is sky-high local debt, severe overcapacity, massive ranks of the unemployed, rising working class awareness of protecting their rights, shocking environmental pollution and depletion of resources, and so on.

For CCP leaders, political stability is essential for the security of their regime. Political stability on the one hand refers to stability in relations between the power holders, and monopoly over state power of certain political groups. Specifically, it guarantees to keep the struggle between powerful groups from jeopardising the Party itself, as well as smooth transfers of power, with power always resting in the Party’s hands. There have been attempts to introduce inner-party democracy and orderly competition to improve the political ecology. However, the gaoling of Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang betokens not only the failure of this effort, but also that political instability is completely out in the open. On the other hand, political stability also refers to social stability: the CPC and the government must guarantee effective social order. The continued decline in China’s economic growth is however shaking the social order. Premier Wen Jiabao said in November 2008, ‘We must be soberly aware that without a certain pace of economic growth… factors affecting social stability will increase.’ Of course, social unrest is not just caused by economic slowdown. Rampant corruption, a huge gap between rich and poor, environmental pollution, residence discrimination and exorbitant medical costs, etc., are also important sources of social unrest.

In addition, the ideological crisis worries policy-makers in the same way. The Wang Lin affair ripped high society’s fig-leaf off. Widespread cynical and consumerist discourse and ideas, and the lack of mainstream values make society as a whole look decadent, chaotic and manic. Interestingly, the Chinese people have become confident in foreign relations. A lot of survey research shows that most Chinese people believe that the West is in decline, and that China becoming as powerful as the US is just around the corner. Such confidence provides a breeding ground for patriotism and nationalism.

Seeking a way out of thorny domestic issues in foreign relations?

While China acts quite confident, even ambitious, in the international arena, Beijing’s core policy-makers cannot be oblivious to the country’s current situation. Moreover, domestic politics always ranks as the highest priority in any issue. For the CCP leaders, the most important thing is to ensure the Party’s supremacy. Given that stability of the regime itself is under serious challenge, they are unlikely to make both internal and external enemies; after all, the customary tactic of rulers of ancient China—transferring civil strife through foreign aggression—is not applicable in the present day.

More to the point, China cannot afford to challenge the international order. The famous British strategist Michael Cox argues that China is far inferior to the US in both hard and soft power, and cannot close the gap in a short time. More critical is that China, a dependent state in the world-system, simply cannot meet the costs incurred in launching wars with the core states. China may become a challenger of the order only after genuinely becoming an industrial state with considerable autonomy, at least like old Germany, Japan or the Soviet Union.

Under present conditions therefore, China’s foreign relations strategy seeming tough and aggressive is more likely to be because it is trying to find a way out of thorny domestic issues through its foreign relations. We can see at present China’s officials constantly strengthening ideological and rhetorical control, using anti-corruption to rectify the bureaucracy, and adopting a series of stringent stability-maintenance measures to preserve social order. Introduction of the new national security laws is a culmination of stability maintenance thinking and techniques. All this effort is for the continuation of the regime.

Clearly therefore, its so-called strategic intent is driven by domestic factors. Firstly it is out of concern for security and diversification of commodity imports; secondly to promote exports, especially to digest severe domestic overcapacity; and thirdly in a search of higher-yielding investment channels for its increasingly devalued foreign exchange reserves. Another overlooked aim is to divert domestic pressures and relieve the crisis of ideological hollowing, by means of China- style nationalism. The signs of this can be clearly seen in Chinese public attitudes towards Japan. Many people are puzzled why Russia, which similarly caused major catastrophes in China, does not enjoy the same treatment.

Due to the lack of accurate understanding of China’s internal issues, and the blinding of decision-makers by some powerful pressure groups, Washington has made a regret­t­able misjudgement of Beijing’s foreign affairs strategy. It should be noted, these pressure groups often wrongly compare China to the former German Empire, Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, a view which ignores how deeply integrated the world and international systems are under the domination of the US and China, as well as the fact that China’s industrial strength is completely inferior to that of the US. An understanding of China must therefore be placed in the context of China’s own historical experience and current reality. Otherwise, we will only see the China of Western imagination.



*      Li Jiang, “Zhongguo waijiao zhanlüe weihe zhuanbian” [Why should China’s foreign affairs strategy ahift?], Aisixiang, 24 July 2015 [李江:“中国外交战略为何转变?”,思想2015年7月 24日 (in Chinese).].

About 高大伟 David Cowhig

After retirement translated, with wife Jessie, Liao Yiwu's 2019 "Bullets and Opium", and have been studying things 格物致知. Worked 25 years as a US State Department Foreign Service Officer including ten years at US Embassy Beijing and US Consulate General Chengdu and four years as a China Analyst in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Before State I translated Japanese and Chinese scientific and technical books and articles into English freelance for six years. Before that I taught English at Tunghai University in Taiwan for three years. And before that I worked two summers on Norwegian farms, milking cows and feeding chickens.
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