Domestic vs. Foreign Affairs
To understand Xi’s foreign policy priorities, one has to remember that his highest priority is still at the domestic front, which includes continuous party building and social-economic modernization. Lately, Xi has proposed his policy priority list, namely, the “Four Comprehensives,” which includes, comprehensively build a moderately prosperous society, comprehensively deepen reform, comprehensively govern the nation by rule of law, and comprehensively and strictly govern the Party.
The “first comprehensive” is the most important, and is the goal of China’s modernization, namely, to build a large middle class society. The remaining three “comprehensives” can be interpreted as the tools to achieve this goal. Among these three tools, the last one is the most important. Xi has served the party from the grassroots to the top, and he knows what has happened to the party. He has learned from the anti-corruption campaign that the party has been endangered by widespread and serious corruption.
The purpose of Xi’s foreign policy is to guarantee a peaceful international environment for the country’s domestic modernization. There has been no major change of this highest policy priority ever since the Deng Xiaoping era. It will not be changed in the next decades. Despite rapid development in the past decades, China is still a middle-income economy.
The problem is how to understand China’s contradictions in its foreign policy between its rhetoric of peaceful rise and its perceived assertive and even aggressive behavior. One can argue that this is related to Xi’s foreign policy priorities. A few points can be highlighted.
Nationalism vs. Rationalism
After he came to power, Xi had to somehow appeal to populism and nationalism for domestic consumption. After the passing of the period of strongman politics, every new Chinese leader has to be a bit nationalistic over foreign affairs. The fact is that China has to play an increasingly important role as a great power before the majority of its people can get rich. That means that many people tend to be nationalistic over foreign affairs, and therefore, nationalism has its big market. Chinese leaders have to respond to nationalistic sentiments. It is also believed that Xi himself tends to be a bit nationalistic which is reflected in his “China dream” narrative.
The purpose of Xi’s foreign policy is to guarantee a peaceful international environment for the country’s domestic modernization.
Xi is perceived to have changed China’s “low profile” (daoguang yanghui) foreign policy orientation which was proposed and practiced by the previous leaders since Deng Xiaoping. However, Xi has also made efforts to make sure that China’s domestic modernization program will not be affected by the changing external environment. He has to maintain a balance between nationalism and rationalism. His foreign policy priorities can be summarized as follows.
The highest priority is to maintain a stable Sino-US relationship under the conceptual framework of “building a new type of big power relationship.” A stable Sino-US relationship is the important symbol of China’s strong leadership. Since Mao, it is a must. It is a judgment of whether the leadership is strong or not. No leader can afford to see this relationship worsened. Whenever a crisis takes place between the two, Chinese leaders will make their best efforts to rescue this relationship. Deng Xiaoping did after the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, and Jiang Zemin did after the Embassy bombing by NATO in 1999 and after the Hainan spy-plane crash in 2001. Today, the Sino-US relationship faces new difficulties. It is hoped that Xi will also make his best efforts to stabilize this relationship.
China has also perceived that the real threat to China’s national security will be from the US, not from any other country. Other countries might create various kinds of troubles for China, but will not be able to pose a real threat. In this sense, Xi prefers a closer relationship with Russia for the convenience. But China will not form a formal alliance with Russia unless the Sino-US relationship becomes confrontational.
Xi has also worked hard to make a friendly relationship with the US’ traditional partners, particularly European states such as the United Kingdom, Germany and France. China perceives that China and Europe do not have geopolitical competition. Due to their economic difficulties, European countries have been very practical in dealing with China. In recent years, China has made good progress in improving its relationship with Europe. There are strong motivations both at the government and societal levels to improve this relationship. Anyway, most Chinese continue to admire Europe tremendously.
For the developing world, China has had the “One Belt One Road” initiative. The main purpose of this initiative is to sustain China’s economic growth by exporting Chinese capital, industrial capacity and technological know how. China is also developing a discourse on its role in the developing world. Xi is very clear that China is not building its own power bloc, and that China will not retreat from the current international system. What China is doing in the developing world is complementary to the existing system. China is not a competitor, but partner. This is exemplified by the AIIB. China hopes that while practicing open regionalism, the AIIB can become an international organization in which China can play an important role.
Xi and Foreign Policy Making
Xi still has problems in terms of organizational capacity over foreign policy making. The National Security Council or State Security Committee was established after the 18th Party Congress almost three years ago. However, this body focuses more on domestic rather than foreign affairs. Its main concerns are social stability and ethnic issues in regions such as Xinjiang and Tibet. In addition, it has not functioned as expected. The small leading group over foreign affairs which Xi heads is still the main organization for foreign policy making. That means that foreign policy making continues to lack coordination. The military is a major actor in China’s foreign affairs. In China’s political system, the military belongs to the party and is under the leadership of the party, not the government. Compared to Hu Jintao, Xi has a much closer relationship with the military. With the military giving him such strong support, he needs to support the military. This has created a condition that has led the military to have a strong voice over China’s foreign affairs. Other ministries, particularly the Foreign Affairs Ministry, are seriously constrained.
Xi has diverse sources of foreign policy advisors, which include formal and informal ones. Formal ones include Wang Yang, Wang Huning, Liu He, Yang Jiechi, and Wang Yi. Wang Huning is a member of the political bureau and has served as the director of the Central Policy Research Office since Jiang Zemin. Wang Yang is also a member of the Political Bureau, and is in charge of China’s foreign economic relations. Both Wang and Wang are deputies of the newly created small leading group on the Silk Road Initiative. Liu He has been important to Xi in foreign economic policy making even though Liu does not have an important position. He is the director of the Central Financial and Economic Office and has helped with the formulation of much of Xi’s policies. Liu is very much pro-market economy and the West.
Xi has also his informal policy network, which includes Liu Yazhou, Li Xiaoling, and others. Liu is the party chief of the National Defense University. Li is the daughter of former State President Li Xiannian, and Liu’s wife. She has played an important role in Xi’s attempt to stabilize the Sino-Japanese relationship. She has represented Xi in a few visits to Japan.
China’s think tanks have very diversified opinions over foreign affairs. There are think tanks which are pro-West, particularly the United States, such as the Institute of National Strategy under Wang Jisi at Beida, and the Shanghai Institute of International Relations which was under the leadership of Yang Jiemian. There are also hardliners such as the Qinghua’s School of International Affairs under Yan Xuetong. Think tanks do not have any direct impact on China’s foreign policy. Xi can pick up their ideas selectively. Lately, China has established 25 national level think tanks on domestic governance and foreign affairs. One has to watch how these newly reformed and created think tanks can influence China’s policy making.