Xi Jinping's New Foreign Policy

by Lincoln Hines
January 15, 2015

In light of the backlash against its recent actions in the East and South China Seas, China has indicated that it is rethinking its regional strategy. The logic driving this new foreign policy, however, remains largely unchanged.

R. Lincoln Hines

January 15, 2015

Since 2008, China has taken an increasingly strong-handed approach to regional affairs, and this provocative approach has continued under President Xi Jinping. However, increasingly sensitive to regional backlash against Chinese policies, Xi outlined in November 2014 a foreign policy vision meant to reassure the United States and regional neighbors, while proclaiming China’s status as a “major country.” Yet despite Xi’s reassurances, the logic driving China’s maritime strategy remains unchanged. Observers should expect continuity in Xi’s regional strategy in 2015.

This regional strategy is driven by interwoven domestic and external considerations. The Chinese Communist Party, wary of domestic unrest and concerned by the U.S. rebalance to Asia, must address often conflicting policy goals, such as creating a stable regional environment, satiating nationalist ambitions, and asserting regional and geopolitical influence. China has thus pursued a regional policy characterized by creeping assertiveness in the maritime domain, conciliatory rhetoric, and economic engagement.

Xi’s foreign policy also stems from more immediate concerns. Xi is undertaking a consolidation of domestic power unprecedented in the post–Deng Xiaoping era: he has pursued a vigorous anticorruption campaign, targeting potential rivals and ensnaring top civilian and military officials, and attempted to make difficult reforms to allow markets to play the “decisive role” in the economy. In tandem, Xi is taking a stronger approach to regional security, placing an oil rig near the Paracel Islands, confronting the USS Cowpens, intercepting a U.S. P-8 near Hainan Island, constructing an artificial island near the Spratly Islands, and establishing an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea (raising concerns that China will also declare an ADIZ over the South China Sea).

These actions have damaged China’s regional image. Countries on its periphery have vehemently rejected Chinese maritime claims and sought stronger security assurances from the United States. The Philippines has taken its territorial dispute with China to an international tribunal, and Vietnam has witnessed massive anti-China riots. The United States is adopting a firmer stance toward China, releasing a report in December questioning China’s “nine-dash line” claim in the South China Sea. China has also experienced economic repercussions for its confrontational approach toward Japan, with Japanese direct investment in China dropping nearly 49% in the first half of 2014.

Xi, consequently, is under pressure to address this backlash and reassure regional stakeholders. Perhaps most significantly, during China’s Central Conference on Work Relating to Foreign Affairs in November, which was Xi’s first work conference on foreign affairs and only China’s second such conference in eight years, Xi emphasized building cooperative win-win relations with neighboring countries. These remarks were intended to allay concerns about Chinese revisionism and have been complemented by recent diplomatic efforts, including warming relations with Japan, a landmark climate agreement with the United States, major diplomatic outreach in Southeast Asia, and the removal of the oil rig from the Paracel Islands.

Despite these reassuring gestures, Xi reiterated at the work conference on foreign affairs China’s commitment to protecting its “core interests” and underscored China’s belief in U.S. decline, describing the world’s “inevitable” move toward multipolarity. Beijing has not indicated plans to moderate its assertive maritime policies.

Moreover, China has regionally promoted an “Asia for Asians” security concept, as well as alternative regional security institutions and forums such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia. Similarly, China is promoting alternative economic institutions aimed at regional integration, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a China-led alternative to the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. Globally, China has continued calling for “major country relations” as a model of relations with other great powers. Though it may genuinely seek a more cooperative relationship with the United States, China does not believe that Chinese regional and global influence is commensurate with Chinese power. Thus, the underlying existential tension in U.S.-China relations remains: how can China, an aspiring great power, and the United States, the established superpower, peacefully accommodate each other’s national interests?

For U.S. policymakers and concerned regional powers, actions speak louder than words. As long as China continues to rapidly modernize its military and coerce its neighbors in the maritime domain, it is difficult to see Chinese soft power improving regionally, especially among countries on China’s immediate periphery, such as Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines. For various reasons—nationalism, insecurity, resource demands, and status—China still has an interest in vigorously pursuing its maritime claims. New developments, such as the outcome of the Philippines arbitration case, could heighten regional tensions. But because the risk of outright conflict with the United States is too high, China will likely continue pursuing these claims throughout 2015 at a level just below the threshold that would necessitate a U.S. response.