IPCS Discussion

China’s Foreign Policy Directions Under the New Leadership

05 Jun, 2014    ·   4496

Rheanna Mathews reports on the proceedings on the discussion

Rheanna Mathews
Rheanna Mathews
Research Intern

The Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS) organised a panel discussion on the direction of the Chinese foreign policy under the country’s new leadership. The discussion took place at the IPCS Conference Room, and was led by Sonika Gupta with interventions by Vivek Mishra, Shreya Upadhyay, Aparupa Bhattacherjee and Rajeshwari Krishnamurthy.

Sonika Gupta 
Assistant Professor, China Studies Centre, Indian Institute of Technology (Madras)

Today, China has achieved the kind of impact on global politics that the US had post the Second World War. This means that any country that looks at its own role in global politics has to factor in China’s power and global presence. China has reached a place where the decisions it takes will impact other countries.

The new leadership in China is mandated to take forward the set of programmes put in place by their predecessors. Despite this, there is a difference in the way the leadership wants to go about in doing these things and this difference is significant enough to affect many of the informal power-sharing agreements both regionally and globally. This change is engineered more due to internal factors than external influences.

Today, China is being looked upon as to have become more aggressive since the current leadership assumed office. This perspective has been based on the several territorial disputes China that has been embroiled in, over the past three years, and that have been heating up. However, not all territorial disputes are the same, and evidence cannot be drawn from the past three years to say that China is following a generally aggressive policy based solely on territorial disputes.

Use of force is another major debate within the various sections of the decision-making structure in China. Not enough attention is paid to the debate on the use of force within China’s popular media and whether China will use it to organise its foreign policy strategies.

What are the policies of the previous leadership the current leadership is carrying forward?  
The most important take-away from the third plenum is the continuation in the policy that “the market should play a decisive role in the allocation of resources in the economy.” This means there is a continued focus in China towards maintaining a peaceful neighbourhood. Also, the National Security Committee and the Central Reform Leading Group were set up directly under the politburo, thus formally declaring that the final policy directions regarding both national security and economic policy shall come from the party and not the state apparatus.

This institutional entrenchment of the party and its core interests, and giving it more constitutional authority, is in response to the anticipated separation of the party and the state as seen in western states. Moreover, this also reduces the number of people taking policy decisions confining it to the upper echelons of the party, in what has been described as the “thickening of the elite.” These structural reforms in China that moved in the direction opposite to what was expected will definitely influence foreign policy formulation.

The new leaders will have to shape foreign policy in a context visibly different from that of their predecessors. China’s neighbourhood has become very hostile and it doesn’t have the same support that it used to push its programme for economic growth.

There is a renewed emphasis on non-interference. This includes a range of issues from Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, the South China Sea and the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. The list of core interests has expanded and its impacts are varied. The dispute with Japan is not just territorial. The amount of importance the dispute with Japan has in China is disproportionately higher than that of China’s disputes with India – that barely figure anywhere in the media. Vietnam and the Philippines are rapidly becoming core interests. The reason why these situations are getting flagged as evidence for aggression is because the situation on the ground has changed. The situation on the ground has changed not just because China wanted to change the situation. For example, in the dispute with Japan, it was Japan that took the first step, by nationalising the islands. The Chinese response has been very strident, but there is a lot of evidence to suggest that the Chinese case is stronger in terms of historical discovery and traditional usage of those islands. This then is tied in with the entire traumatised relationship China has with Japan.

Therefore, one cannot club these disputes together and come to the conclusion that China is becoming aggressive. But it definitely is changing its strategy in the case of Vietnam and the Philippines, whereas in vis-a-vis India, it is more of continuity than a change of policy. Scholarly opinions state that although the Chinese national power is more than it was, the international environment is more complicated and less beneficial to China. For example, even though Chinese companies are making a mark globally, they face numerous security restrictions. Australia and the US do not allow Chinese IT companies to bid for their projects because they do not trust Chinese intentions. Or, whenever there is talk of restructuring global institutions like the UNSC, the Chinese view is always the outlying view.

However, in China, there is a lot of focus on projecting itself as a responsible global power; and one of the things they’ve done is actively participating in peace-keeping cooperation.

The Xi Jinping regime will see to it that China begins to treat friends and enemies differently. For those who are willing to play a constructive role in China’s rise, China will seek ways for them to gain greater actual benefits from China’s development.

Major debates within China about the direction the country’s foreign policy are also changing. The “Bide your time and hide your capabilities” and the “Cross the river by feeling the stones” maxims that Deng Xiaoping advocated have been challenged within the decision-making apparatus in the Chinese government since the third plenum. There is also growing popular support for using military force for resolution of territorial disputes. Presumably, this is because given that China has become a big power, it should exhibit “big country mentality,” not like a country that has been victimised, and claim what rightfully belongs to it.

Another issue discussed in detail at the third plenum was whether the need to formulate foreign policy from a US-China lens still existed. This approach seems to be sidelined in favour of newer ones that focus more emphatically on its ‘core interests’, especially in light of the US’ policy of rebalancing.

It is predicted that China will engage in informal ‘alliance-making’, using economic considerations and its growing soft power, and at the same time aggressively pursue military modernisation. There will be greater co-operation on global issues and greater resistance on regional ones. China will seek to resist the US’ ‘containment’ strategy by assuming roles of greater responsibility in the region.

Vivek Mishra
Research Intern, IPCS

US’s primary agenda is to protect economic stakes and standing up for its strategic partners. This involves engaging in a balance-of-power game with China and regional stability. At present, the US-ASEAN trade stands over $200 billion. Therefore, there is an increase in the stakes the US has in this region. In these circumstances, protecting the freedom of navigation is a priority for the US and for US multilateral security arrangements.

The ASEAN Regional Forum is engaged to ensure freedom of navigation, but there is a difference of opinion with China that says that such issues should be resolved bilaterally. The US’ role will focus on four important straits of this region –  that are also potential maritime chokepoints in times of crises – the Strait of Malacca, Sunda, Lombok, and the Makassar. Protection of Seal Lines of Communication is a priority for the US, and engagement with countries of this region is particularly important to push forth the idea of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

South Asia as a region will constitute a very important link in US rebalancing in the future. Although Southeast Asia sits on the periphery of the theatre of action vis-à-vis rebalancing, it too will play an important role in the times to come. If China is expecting the US to roll back the strategy of rebalancing, it will go the whole hog in building the strategy of rebalancing, involving Southeast Asia particularly, and bolstering its strategic stakes in the region.

In disputes of territoriality, the US is expected to stand for its allies but a military confrontation with China is unlikely. Regarding regional stability, the US looks for a region that is stable, accessible and autonomous – and it finds these qualities in the countries of the region. The current threat environment in the region of Southeast Asia is very benign. There is very little risk of a major inter-state war and therefore the role of the US Army from the Pacific Command, Guam, and Diego Garcia, will largely focus on sea piracy and trafficking but the US will keep its powder dry.

Shreya Upadhyay
Research Intern, IPCS.

A jingoistic nationalistic approach is doing the rounds which why today’s Chinese leadership is under pressure to assert its right of sovereignty – which originates from the nationalistic mindset of the Chinese people. The recent upsurge in tensions in Vietnam and the Philippines shows that the Chinese moves have had the intention of inciting a diplomatic crisis and that China is testing the waters when it comes to the US response and that of the region while it is asserting its maritime claims in the South China Sea (SCS).

Vietnam and China, in the past few years, have reached a mutual understanding on shared land, water, and maritime rights and the relationship has been progressing since 2013. A certain degree of camaraderie also exists between the communist party of Vietnam and that of China and there exists a political debate within Vietnam whether the country should side with China or ally with the West.

Simultaneously, China is also testing waters with the ASEAN countries. The oil rig incident with Vietnam was timed to happen just before the ASEAN meeting and while the move drew massive international condemnation, regional countries have still not geared up to form a united front against Chinese coercion in the SCS. Also, it signals that China intends to unilaterally pursue its maritime claims, and for the moment, it is succeeding.

But with Philippines, it is a different matter. Philippines is backed by the US and so, comparatively, is much bolder in dealing with China. And, the fact that they’ve signed a peace and defence pact allows US forces expanded access to Philippines military bases and to pre-position fighter jets and ships.

There is a lack of consensus on issues. For instance, all countries want multilateral negotiations while China wants bilateral negotiations – impeding progress.

In the recent session of the ASEAN summit, both Vietnam and the Philippines reported recent instances, asking member states to internationalise the dispute. While the ASEAN has issued a joint statement calling on all parties involved to exercise self-restraint, it has shied away from specifying China. Nor has it internationalised the dispute like China dreaded. Therefore, ASEAN too has not taken a stand vis-à-vis China.

Aparupa Bhattacherjee
Research Officer, IPCS

Myanmar features prominently in China’s foreign policy owing to the geographical proximity and Chinese investment in the country. In 2011, Myanmar began to transition from a military dictatorship to a democracy, whose economy is heavily dependent on China. However, Naypyidaw is now seeking investment from other Western countries, especially after the suspension of the Myitsone dam project. The $3.6 billion project was important for China because its Yunnan province was supposed to receive 21 gigawatts of energy from it. China never expected the Myanmarese president to suspend the project based solely on the people’s opposition. Following the dam debacle, bilateral relations between Myanmar and China soured. Investments in 2012 were much lower than in 2011. However, China is still the largest investor in Myanmar and remains her biggest trade partner. Myanmar, as a small country in transition has to depend on China. China also plays an important role when it comes to ethnic insurgency in Myanmar. Several reports indicate that China has been supplying arms and monetary aid to the Kachin Independence Army.

Kachin as an independent state forms the border between China and Myanmar, and so it plays an important role for China. Therefore, China wants peace in the Kachin region, not least because it wants to protect its investments, which is why it has been playing an active role in the peace talks between the Myanmarese government and the Kachin Independence Organisation.

Domestically, in Myanmar, there has been a change in the attitude towards China. Both the political elite and common citizens in Myanmar view China as a threat due to the inflow of Chinese migrants following the massive Chinese investments in the country. However, Myanmar has to balance this change in attitude towards China, more so because of its role as the Chair in the recently held ASEAN Summit.

Rajeshwari Krishnamurthy 
Research Officer, IPCS

China’s trade with the CAS has increased 100 times since the 1990s, and stood at $45.9 billion in 2012. The burgeoning economy, and every-increasing population has resulted in an insatiable demand for energy in the country, and Beijing is doing all it can to match demand and supply. China’s engagement with the CAS has resulted in several new projects involving oil and gas pipelines.  

Furthermore, China’s Shanghai Cooperation Organisation initiative, which includes the CAS and other states, is taking the lead to counter terrorism. China fears that Uighur activists and other Islamic radicals might try to destabilise its western province of Xinjiang. Earlier in May, interestingly, the P5 states signed a treaty with the CAS not to use or threaten with the use of nuclear weapons. According to the Treaty, the CAS will not obtain or develop nuclear arsenal. Essentially, this Treaty secures China’s western borders from nuclear threat to a large extent – and also brings some respite for the region where nuclear proliferation is on the rise.

With Afghanistan, despite concerns over security issues, China has consistently maintained purely economic relations with the country. While it is likely that this engagement will continue in a similar fashion, the primary motivator for China’s interest in Afghanistan, in the light of the withdrawal of the US forces, will be security issues. Although China has its own apprehensions regarding Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor border with its Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, expecting China to send troops to the Afghanistan has very low probability.

Already, in order to secure its interests pragmatically, China has initiated various dialogues on Afghanistan, with the many concerned countries in the region. There is a popular hope that China could now assume a more proactive role in securing the region by helping Islamabad and Kabul resolve their differences.  

If it does so, such a move would improve its image, especially in the light of its aggressive moves in the South China Sea.


• What is the trajectory of Chinese soft power, especially with regard to neighbouring countries, especially regarding territorial claims?

•How can China increase resistance to regional issues and assume greater responsibilities in the region at the same time? 

•Does India stand to lose its bargaining power by acknowledging China’s role as a global actor?

•Does China justify its non-interference policy while it supports armed insurgent groups in Myanmar? 

•If China does not have an aggressive foreign policy, how can one explain the deployment in the Black Sea by China?

•Many understand that May 2013 incursion of the Chinese troops into India territory was a decision was taken on the local level as it was reported in the Indian media and not in the Chinese media. If it had received major coverage in China then would the onus in decision making have shifted from the local officer to Chinese central commander?

•Given how the Chinese and Indian media do not share similar levels of vibrancy and freedoms, how can difference in the reporting of the Depsang incursion be compared?
•When you have a rising power and an established power, it is unlikely that the relation between them will be friendly. Will this kind of situation occur in the future between China and a rising India?

•India thinks of China as a comparative power. However, as pointed out by T.N. Srinivasan in the analysis of GDP, PPP, FDI, global investment and also on the military front and global impact, it is difficult to view the countries as similar. They can be compared only in the aspiration both have.

•Depsang, even if considered as something that started as a localised incident, was prolonged for too long for the Communist Party of China to not respond swiftly enough if they were concerned. This is a regular modus operandi with China. When they have a high level visit, they raise tensions on the border. So this is a face saving argument for India to say that it is a localised incident. Even if a local commander overstepped the line, there was no reason why it could not have been handled swiftly. As it is seen in the third plenum, China is mixing the party and state even more and there is no question about who controls the government. There is structural evidence to prove that during every high level visit there will be a Depsang-like incident.   

•Not finding anything in the Chinese media is not a function of the fact that China doesn’t have free media. The focus here should be for the evidence of what the state wants.

Rapporteured by Rheanna Mathews, Research Intern, IPCS