How to Understand China’s Foreign Policy

China can become a beacon for the world -- if it trades in its conservative foreign policy for one that emphasizes universal values.

Lintao Zhang/Getty Images
Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

With Xi Jinping’s elevation to the presidency in March, China’s leadership transition is now complete. Yet Beijing still has not elevated foreign affairs to the top level of decision making — it still prioritizes its domestic situation, even though China is the world’s second-largest economy, with interests that stretch across the globe.

Indeed, China remains constrained by its own internal problems, including the rise of nationalism; defects in democracy and human rights; lagging political reform; an unbalanced economy; and the dangers posed by a society in transformation. These problems mold Beijing’s current conservative foreign policy, which focuses on avoiding problems. When a problem happens, China’s Foreign Ministry mobilizes all of its resources to extinguish it — the same strategy it deploys with domestic affairs.

The two areas are closely intertwined. Effective diplomacy can create an external environment that would help China solve its domestic problems — but a lot needs to be done. China’s leadership should closely reexamine its principles, methods, and policies, and create a Chinese foreign policy that actually works. To do so, Beijing needs to reevaluate its view of international development and toss out former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping’s axiom of "keeping a low profile and hiding one’s brightness."

Since economic reforms began in 1978, China has claimed "peaceful development" — a term that means seeking domestic development and harmony — with international cooperation and peace as a foreign policy goal. But this is a doctrine better suited for the Cold War era. Back then, the U.S.-Soviet struggle for hegemony pushed the world to the brink of war, while poor countries in the global south like China only wanted a peaceful environment in which to develop. But the Soviet Union is gone, the United States has declined, and China has become a sophisticated world power: "peace" and "development" in foreign policy sounds as anachronistic as it is obvious. People everywhere always hope for peace and development — China saying it adds nothing new.

Deng’s policy had a special history. After 1989, China urgently needed to join the international system, so developed countries could provide it with the resources, technology, and market it needed to build its economy. As a country the West viewed with distrust, it had to hide its brightness.

But now, China is one of the world’s most important powers. Relations between China and its neighbors, and with the United States, are growing increasingly tense because they are having difficulty adjusting to China’s rise. China can’t "hide its brightness," just like an elephant can’t hide behind a tree. The more Beijing says that it can, the more it breeds mistrust.

Beijing’s international economic affairs policy, meanwhile, lacks principles. It needs to stop emphasizing profit and ignoring justice, and start emphasizing both. Its diplomacy now serves the domestic economy. As a country with a relatively low per capita income, and a relatively large number of poor people, that is necessary, for now. But economic diplomacy doesn’t mean ignoring human justice, or some of the most basic international moralities. Beijing has been giving up the moral high ground when it should have been holding fast to it.

Yes, Third World countries should be allowed to prioritize "peaceful development." And Beijing’s advocacy of this concept has been a useful counterweight to the West’s aggressive human rights diplomacy. However, when large-scale human rights violations erupt around the world, development has to give way to human rights. At the very least, the two should be equally important.

Beijing maintains that it adheres to a policy of non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs, because otherwise it won’t be able to fight back when the West interferes in China’s domestic affairs. But Beijing should not stop eating for fear of choking. Western countries’ interference inside China doesn’t go beyond talking — China is now a large power, not a small one, and it has enough methods and resources to fight back. Moreover, even if Beijing advocates non-interference in other countries’ domestic affairs, Western countries will continue to criticize China over human rights and other issues. China, therefore, should interfere in other countries’ internal affairs: expressing concern when they severely violate human rights, and using its influence to push for improvement — but not pushing for regime change like the West does. This would create a new, better image for China — that although Beijing cares about human rights, it won’t use human rights as an excuse to mask other interests.

If China wants to become a leader, and not just a follower of the international system, it needs to provide the world with an acceptable and universal set of values and doctrines and refine its reform experience into values and paradigms that can be reproduced and promoted throughout the world. Chinese Communist Party Chairman Xi Jinping has recently spoken of a "Chinese Dream:" the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. Beijing can make that an important part of its international public diplomacy. But for the international version to work it needs to remove the ideology particular to China — instead focusing on universal values of openness and tolerance, so that people from other countries will be inspired to realize their own dreams.

China can become a beacon for the world — it just has to let its light shine.

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