In-depth Rising China’s Diplomatic Strategy
China’s Foreign Policy at a Crossroads

Kawashima Shin [Profile]

[2012.10.29] Read in: 日本語 | 简体字 | 繁體字 | العربية |

Specialist in China’s modern Chinese diplomacy and editorial committee member Kawashima Shin takes us through some of the recent adjustments to China’s foreign policy, with a view to the path ahead.

China may be seen as now standing at a crossroads in its foreign policy: Will it continue on its current path, holding on to the principles that have guided its foreign policy throughout the modern era, or will it head in a different direction, adopting a new set of guiding principles?

The Principles of China’s Foreign Policy

We can identify three major principles that have guided China’s foreign policy in modern times. One is an emphasis on national sovereignty and unification. This means exercising sovereign control over the territory and people within the boundaries set by China itself. If another regime asserts its sovereignty over territory within these boundaries, China does its utmost to block and eliminate that regime. If another government claims to be the central government of China itself, China works to minimize the diplomatic space in which the other government can operate, aiming for its eventual elimination and unification of the country. This relates to the core element of China’s foreign policy, namely, to “let China be China.”

The second principle of China’s foreign policy is to conduct it in a manner that will promote the central government’s agenda, particularly its domestic policies. This does not simply mean that international affairs are an extension of domestic affairs. It also means that the domestic policies may get a boost from foreign policy. So it is a two-way street. This second principle overlaps the first one: It means that the principles applied to domestic affairs may also be applied to international affairs. At the same time, it means that China is not closed to developments in the international community; it changes in response to the influence of various types of interaction with the rest of the world.

Third, China’s foreign policy aims to elevate the country’s international status. This involves both substantive and psychological elements. Examples of the former include the country’s visible status within international institutions like the League of Nations and the United Nations. Examples of the latter include the appraisals of international media and the country’s status in the context of global discourse. Such assessments have no visible shape, but China has always responded sensitively to them.

One might say that these principles are common to all sovereign states. But in China’s case the emphasis up to now has been on establishing and projecting modernity. And there may have been no clear idea of what would follow after this task was accomplished.

Coming Under Criticism

The significance of these principles arose from China’s modern history of being invaded; the context in which they were established was a stage at which the country had yet to recover its “normal” strength. The incursions on Chinese sovereignty by Western powers probably made it necessary to adopt policies aimed at regaining what had been lost. Nationalism may have served as an effective tool to prevent internal fissures. Also, during the years when China’s profile on the international stage was less prominent, it may have been possible to take principles aimed at establishing the legitimacy of the central government on the domestic scene and apply them to foreign policy without receiving criticism from the rest of the world. The elevation of China’s status in the international community, meanwhile, could be justified as representing no more than the recovery of the country’s proper position as a great power.

However, the rise of China to the status of a great power in political, military, and economic terms has occurred much faster than the authorities in Beijing anticipated. As a result of this advance, adherence to the old principles of foreign policy has become a source of difficulty. The Chinese government’s insistence on maintaining sovereignty and its extreme sensitivity to the issue of national unification have narrowed the options for compromise and harmony with respect to territorial issues and have invited criticism from neighboring countries and others. Also, the rise to great-power status has brought heightened expectations for China to cooperate with the international community and contribute to the building of international frameworks; in this context, China has been criticized for foreign diplomacy that focuses only on consistency with domestic policies, and for pursuing a foreign policy based excessively on the advancement of its own national interests.

Recent Adjustments of Foreign Policy

One could assert that it is fine for China to respond to each issue in such a way as to maximize its national interests, even if it results in difficulties of this sort. But as the relations between China and the rest of the world diversify, and as people in various positions within China become involved in foreign affairs, defining China’s “national interests” has become a more complex matter, and so has the policymaking process. Public opinion trends and the movements of special interest groups have come to be significant factors. Through education and propaganda, Chinese people have had the image of “China as victim” strongly imprinted on their minds, and it angers them to see the authorities acting with restraint toward other countries even though the country has become a great power. They are demanding greater results than before with respect to matters like national sovereignty and unification, and they are presenting China’s case to the rest of the world on the basis of the “common sense” and logic that prevail within China. In addition, they have become downright greedy for the further enhancement of their country’s international status and for the respect of others. In this way, public opinion has come to exert major pressure on China’s foreign policy. The nationalism that the government fostered domestically is now tying its hands internationally.

Since the days when Deng Xiaoping was in control, if not before, the main objective of China’s foreign policy has been to promote the country’s (economic) development. The principles I cited above continued to be observed, “history” (Beijing’s version) was stressed and nationalism was promoted, but the key factor in making foreign policy decisions was the pursuit of development. China even made concessions to a certain extent on matters like its borders with Central Asian countries and territorial claims in the South China Sea to improve relations with its neighbors. This was also linked to the drive to develop the western part of the country; the aim was to enliven economic and trade links between China’s remote border regions and neighboring countries. This focus on the country’s development was in place at the beginning of Hu Jintao’s administration.

The situation changed in 2006, however, when the development-first approach to foreign policy was modified. “Sovereignty” and “security” were added as policy objectives. And in 2009, the year after the Beijing Olympics, a more active set of external policies was reportedly adopted. It became common to see arguments in the media calling for the pursuit of foreign policy results in the areas of sovereignty and security through the adoption of a more vigorous approach than before, based on the idea that, having succeeded in developing its economy, China no longer needed to exercise restraint for the sake of development. This sort of thinking also came to be seen in the remarks of senior leaders and in the revision of official slogans.

Beijing’s Dilemma

Starting in the second half of the Hu Jintao administration, a considerable number of voices came to be heard asking, “How much longer should China restrain itself in foreign policy?” and insisting, “China is already a great global power, the situation is different from before, so we should vent our pent-up anger.” But others argued, “China is still very much a developing country, so we should stress development and as far as possible act in harmony with our neighbors and the international community.” Yet others asserted, “Our country is already past the development stage, and while taking an active approach with respect to issues like sovereignty and security, we must fulfill our responsibilities as a great global power.”

In practice, China’s foreign policy has been displaying a stance befitting a great power in some respects, while at the same time running into difficult situations with respect to issues like territorial claims in the East China Sea and South China Sea. The Chinese authorities face the challenge of balancing the domestic forces of nationalism with the international calls for responsible behavior while attempting to meet the various demands directed at them from both inside and outside the country. What they seem to be aiming for at this point is to deflect criticisms directed at China and play down the idea of “China as a threat” at the same time as stressing points like security and unification to their domestic audience. In their behavior on the international front, they seek to accomplish this by fulfilling the country’s responsibilities in the field of global governance in such a way as to avoid creating contradictions between domestic and foreign policy and to answer the demands of domestic nationalism.

Can China Cast Off the Fetters of the Modern Era?

For the past century China’s foreign policy has been grounded in movements to recover national sovereignty and unify the country. Will this stance be adjusted to some degree? Will it be possible to reconcile foreign policy with domestic policy aimed at maintaining the regime? And can a way be found to elevate China’s international status that will satisfy both the Chinese and international society? These are the questions that China now confronts.

At this point China does not yet seem to have found a uniform, consistent set of answers to these questions. The authorities in Beijing have narrowed the options for negotiation by defining nonnegotiable “core interests” involving matters of sovereignty and security. Legislation has been enacted to fix the interpretation of territorial limits, and a rigid understanding of history has been adopted, leaving little room for compromise. These developments have enabled the authorities to cope with the views of hard-liners on the domestic front but have tied their hands on the external front. And when the Chinese start talking about territory that has been subject to various shifts over the course of history as being “an integral part of China since ancient times,” neighboring countries feel threatened.

In terms of security as well, China, while pursuing the recovery of lost status, is highly sensitive to military buildups by its neighbors since it continues to be conscious of having been invaded repeatedly in modern times. It is building up its own military, and this heightens the sense of a Chinese threat among neighboring countries. With respect to international status, meanwhile, the Chinese find it hard to avoid feeling frustrated that they do not receive greater respect and esteem even when they respond affirmatively to requests from the international community.

China’s foreign policy at this point is stuck at the level of responding to diverse domestic and external demands on a piecemeal basis, as if working on a mosaic. It is possible to view China as now being at the stage of feeling its way toward new approaches though it has not yet cleared away the issues that have stuck with it since the start of the modern era.

Overcoming and Rediscovering History

As part of the process of tentatively moving toward new approaches, the Chinese have started to reconsider their ironclad principle of noninterference in other countries’ domestic affairs. Some are now arguing that “constructive intervention” by China is permissible in cases where it is desired by the country in question, requested by the international community, and possible for China to undertake.

One recent development of note is the attempt to draw lessons from the system of tributary states while considering issues between China and its neighbors. A considerable number of the arguments that have been advanced in this connection seem to rest on shaky historical ground. This is because many of them are premised on the understanding that imperial China and its neighbors coexisted peacefully and that China enjoyed the respect and esteem of these neighbors. But the historical records in classical Chinese concerning relations between China and its tributaries were written from the viewpoint of the ruling Chinese dynasty; they do not necessarily represent the views of the tributaries. In other words, we cannot assume without further consideration that the tributary system represented an international order shared among the countries involved. So if the Chinese use their understanding of the historical order based on the evidence from Chinese-language records as a reference source for their contemporary foreign policy, they are liable to adopt a diplomatic style that their neighbors will not understand.

In any case, within China the self-image that has prevailed through the modern era has become shaky, and with respect to foreign policy we see prominent developments that look like zigzags or pieces of a mosaic. Various tentative moves are afoot, but it is unclear how these will affect the country’s future course. What seems likely is that the diversification of China’s domestic society and the increased complexity of its decision-making processes will cause the outlook for external policy to remain opaque for some time to come.

It is hard to predict how much longer China’s “modern era” will continue. But it is certain that the Chinese now must consider what lies ahead for their country after they cast off the fetters of this long and troubled era.

[Originally written in Japanese.]

  • [2012.10.29]

Editor in chief of, professor of international relations at the University of Tokyo, and senior researcher at the Institute for International Policy Studies. Born in Tokyo in 1968. Graduated in 1992 from the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, where he majored in Chinese area studies. Received his PhD in history from the University of Tokyo. Previously an associate professor at Hokkaidō University. Author of Chūgoku kindai gaikō no keisei (The Formation of China’s Modern Foreign Policy), Kindai kokka e no mosaku 1894–1925 (Moves Toward a Modern State, 1894–1925), and other works.

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