Beijing’s Aggressive New Foreign Policy and Implications for the South China Sea

Publication: China Brief Volume: 13 Issue: 13

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The Xi Jinping leadership is embarking on an ambitious and all-rounded diplomacy that official Chinese commentators have called large-scale or high-powered diplomacy (dawaijiao). Its essence, according to the Xinhua News Agency, is “taking relations with big powers as crucial; giving priority to [China’s] neighbors; treating ties with developing countries as fundamental; and deeming as a major platform the country’s multi-lateral obligations” (Global Times [Beijing], June 4; Xinhua, May 27) President Xi, who heads the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s Leading Group on Foreign Affairs  has thoroughly revised late patriarch Deng Xiaoping’s relatively cautious “take a low profile” dictum. Given the fact that China is poised to overtake the United States as the world’s largest economic entity within this decade, Xi is gunning for a “a new kind of great power relationship” with the superpower. The fast-rising quasi-superpower is using its economic and military muscle aggressively to boost its say in the global order. These developments, together with Beijing’s new-found determination to become an “oceanic power,” will shape China’s policy toward the South China Sea disputes.

The first manifestation of China’s assertive foreign policy is simply much more frequent and in-depth interactions with nations around the globe. Since Xi and Li Keqiang became state president and premier last March respectively, Politburo-level officials have visited more than one-quarter of the 193 UN members. The travels of Xi are particularly noteworthy. The 60-year-old supremo made his first foreign visit as head of state to Russia and Africa just a couple of weeks after being named state president. Moreover, his just-completed tour of Latin America and the United States took place merely two months after his first trip. By contrast, Hu Jintao’s undertook his first overseas tour as head of state more than two months after he became president in March 2002. He also waited for more than four months before embarking on his second overseas foray (China Review News, June 4; Wen Wei Po [Hong Kong], May 31). 

Just as his recent predecessors, Xi sees relations with the United States as key to China’s overall diplomacy. Although Deng Xiaoping counseled that Beijing should “avoid confrontation” with the superpower, Xi is aiming at give and take with Washington on an equal footing. The “New Type of Great Power Relationship” (xinxing daguo guanxi) was apparent in the informal but highly symbolic meeting between Xi and President Barack Obama in early June. State Councilor and former foreign minister Yang Jiechi quoted Xi as telling Obama that a “New Type of Great Power Relationship” consisted of three elements. The first was “adequately handling contradictions and differences through dialogue and cooperation instead of confrontation.” Secondly, both countries should respect each other’s “social system and development path.” Thirdly, both countries should go after win-win scenarios and to “ceaselessly deepen areas of mutual interests” (Xinhua, June 11; Global Times, June 9). In light of the nervousness with which Beijing views the Obama administration’s “Rebalancing toward Asia”, Beijing probably hopes the “New Kind of Great Power Relationship” will help change the dynamics of the bilateral relationship.

Yet if the United States—and other countries or blocs in the Western alliance such as the European Union—were unwilling to resolve differences with China in a spirit of win-win reciprocity, Beijing has the past six months demonstrated that it is not shy about using tough tactics at both the rhetorical and substantive levels. At the Bo’ao Global Summit last April, Xi scolded a certain country for “bringing disorder to a region and even the world for the sake of its own self-interest” (China News Service, April 7; People’s Daily online, April 7). The unnamed country is most likely the United States. One month later, Cui Tiankai, the new Chinese Ambassador to the U.S., warned Washington against siding with Japan over the latter’s sovereignty disputes with China over the Diaoyu-Senkaku islands. In a press interview, Cui asked Washington “not to lift up the boulder that is Japan, and particularly not to allow this boulder to crush its own feet” (People’s Daily Online, May 2; [Beijing], May 2). “Lifting a boulder to crush one’s own feet” was a well-known saying of Chairman Mao. Moreover, during Premier Li’s recent visit to Germany, the usually mild-mannered head of government surprised his host when he used usually strong language to castigate European “protectionists” who supported punitive tariffs against China’s solar panels and telecom equipment. Li warned these protectionists would “undoubtedly go down the road of perdition” (Cable TV news [Hong Kong], May 25; China News Service, May 25).

Rhetorical fusillades pale beside hard-power projection as Beijing is wielding both the military and economic cards to further its diplomatic goals. One of Xi’s first missions upon becoming chairman of the Central Military Commission last November was to tell different PLA units “to get ready to fight and to win wars” (“Commander-in-Chief Xi Jinping Raises the Bar on PLA ‘Combat Readiness’,” China Brief, January 18). Compared to predecessors ex-president Jiang Zemin and ex-president Hu, Xi is more ready to use military muscle to put pressure on real and potential adversaries. Apart from committing unprecedented resources to building state-of-the-art weapons, Xi inked a $3.5 billion deal to buy Russian jetfighters and submarines during his March trip to Russia. It was the largest Chinese purchase of Russian hardware in a decade (China News Service, March 27; Reuters, March 27). Almost on a daily basis, Chinese authorities have deployed marine police assets in the vicinity of the Diaoyu-Senkaku islands to demonstrate China’s sovereignty claims over the archipelago. The PLA also has boosted the frequency of war games in the East China Sea and the South China Sea, including naval exercises involving all three of its major fleets (Ming Pao, June 16; Xinhua, March 10). 

China, which is the world’s biggest trading nation and the fifth largest provider of outward foreign direct investments (FDI), also has been deploying the economics card with gusto. At the Bo’ao Conference, Xi told world leaders that his country would be importing goods and services worth $10 trillion in the coming five years. China’s FDI is tipped to amount to $500 billion in the same period (People’s Daily, April 8; Xinhua, April 7). It is economic heft that has enabled China to project power where its military muscle may have fallen short. Part of the reason why the EU might have second thoughts about punishing the alleged dumping of Chinese products was the booming growth of Chinese FDI in Europe. Chinese companies invested $12.6 billion in the EU last year—a jump of over 21 per cent over 2011 (Financial Times, June 6;, April 22). China’s multifarious business activities in Latin America are the backbone of what some analysts call Beijing’s “pivot to America’s backyard” strategy. It is not an accident that Xi preceded his “informal summit” with Obama by visiting three Latin American countries. During his tour of Mexico, Xi raised the level of China’s relationship with his host country to that of a “comprehensive strategic partnership.” China is Mexico’s second largest trading partner after the United States. Xi also vowed to curtail the $18 billion surplus that China enjoyed in bilateral trade (Global Times, June 7;, June 7).

China’s newly assertive diplomacy is perhaps best exemplified by quasi-superpower’s policies toward the South China Sea. Beijing’s enhanced leverage over these 1.35 million square miles of water is essential to China’s aspiration to become an “oceanic power” (haiyang daguo). While it was ex-president Hu Jintao who first made reference to China as a haiyang daguo, Xi will be the leader who renders this aspect of the China Dream a reality. Bolstering China’s oceanic power was the theme of Xi’s visit to a naval base on Hainan Island in April. The commander-in-chief admonished the troops, one of whose major responsibilities was guarding the South China Sea, to “heed firmly the party’s goals to strengthen the military under new circumstances.” “We must firm up our confidence in constructing a strong military,” Xi said, “We must devote ourselves to the materialization of a strong army” (Xinhua, April 11; Global Times, April 11; China Daily, November 20, 2012). 

PLA generals have been up front about the possibility of using force to realize China’s oceanic aspirations. As Lieutenant General Wang Sentai, Vice Political Commissar of the PLA Navy, pointed out, “China is a big oceanic country, but not yet a strong oceanic power.” “History has told us that when our navy is weak, our country is on a downward trend, and when out navy is strong, our country is on the rise,” he added. Major General Luo Yuan, a hawkish PLA media commentator, reiterated that Beijing might consider the military option against the Philippines. Noting that the Philippine military capacity is among the weakest in Asia, General Luo said that “if [Manila] makes an advance of one inch, we will retaliate by making an advance of one foot.” “The South China Sea will become a sea of peace after we have taken back the eight islets that the Philippines have [illegally] occupied,” he recently noted (China Youth Daily, June 1; China News Service, May 13).

Owing to Obama’s decision to move the bulk of U.S. naval capacity to the Asia-Pacific region by decade’s end, the South China Sea seems destined to be a bone of contention. As pointed out by Senior Colonel Dai Xu, another popular military commentator, the “South China Sea is essential to [America’s] C-shaped containment policy against China.” “China’s blue-colored door to the ocean may be slammed shut [by the U.S.] any time,” he indicated earlier this year (, April 27;, March 10). Yet, the South China Sea also could be the one arena where give and take with the U.S. within the framework of “New Kind of Great Power Relationship” would bear the most fruit. During his summit with Obama, Xi repeated what he said during his visit to the United States in early 2012, that “the Pacific Ocean is wide enough to incorporate [the interests of] both China and the U.S.” Xi added in Sunnylands that he was most interested in “cooperation with the [United States] over the Pacific Ocean” (China Daily, June 9; China News Service, June 8).

At the very least, the Xi leadership hopes the United States will not stand in the way of Beijing’s efforts to negotiate a settlement with the four countries that have territorial disputes with China over the Paracel and the Spratly Islands: Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. This was made clear during Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s tour of Southeast Asia last month, which is seen as embodying a new initiative regarding the South China Sea conundrum. Wang appeared to hint at U.S. machinations when he said in Jakarta that “we have to raise our guard over efforts by individual forces and countries to stir up trouble in this area due to their own self interests” (Xinhua, May 1; People’s Daily Online, May 1) The Chinese media have suggested that in return for Washington’s relative forbearance on the South China Sea front, Beijing may be willing to do its utmost to rein in the Kim Jung-un regime’s bid to build weapons of mass destruction. As Renmin University international relations expert Jin Canrong pointed out, “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is the one common concern between China and the United States.” “Both countries can pool their resources to solve this problem together,” he said (China News Service, May 28; People’s Daily, May 28).

At the same time, Beijing is hopeful that its “economic card” can play a sizeable role in resolving territorial rows with the two countries that appear to be least amenable to an amicable settlement with China: Vietnam and the Philippines. Although upping the psychological pressure on Hanoi and Manila, Beijing hardly has halted its trading and investment activities in the two countries. Vietnamese statistics show that China’s cumulative FDI in the country exceeded $4.5 billion as of the end of 2012. Using time-honored united front tactics, Chinese diplomats also have been persuading business communities in these two countries to lobby their governments to adopt a more flexible policy toward China (, April 19; Xinhua, October 20, 2012).

Equally importantly, Beijing is pursuing an economics-based divide-and-rule tactic to prevent ASEAN from achieving consensus on the South China Sea conflict. China’s cumulative investment in ASEAN reached $18.8 billion by the middle of 2012. Direct investment in 2011 topped $7 billion, up from $3.26 billion the year before (, June 6; China Daily, January 6) With these figures seem modest, they are expected to pick up dramatically as an ambitious series of trans-national railway and highway projects—much of it financed by China—in connection with the China-ASEAN Free Trade Area kicks in during the rest of the decade. Chinese investments and economic aid are focused on quasi-client states, such as Cambodia and Laos as well as relatively neutral countries, such as Thailand and Indonesia. At the ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh last year, apparently “pro-China” Cambodian officials saw to it that no common platform was reached on how to deal with China on South China Sea-related disputes (People’s Daily, May 16; China News Service, April 5; “China Pushes on the South China Sea, ASEAN Unity Collapses,” China Brief, August 3, 2012).

By mid-year, Beijing seems to be shifting to a relatively placatory posture toward the South China Sea imbroglio. While visiting Bangkok during his Southeast Asia tour, Foreign Minister Wang told reporters that “boosting cooperation with ASEAN was a top priority in the new Chinese leadership’s policy of good neighborliness.” Wang added that Beijing was committed to resolving differences with ASEAN members “through friendly consultation and mutually beneficial cooperation” (People’s Daily, May 2; Xinhua, May 1). During the annual Shangri-La Defense Dialogue earlier this month, PLA Deputy Chief of the General Staff Department Lieutenant-General Qi Jianguo reiterated that Beijing would stick to the time-honored formula of “seeking joint development while setting aside sovereignty [disputes]” in defusing territorial rows with its neighbors (Beijing News, June 4; China News Service, June 4). How China’s rivals on the South China Sea issue will respond to Beijing’s series of overtures will be a good test of the efficacy of President Xi’s much-vaunted new diplomacy in both its conciliatory and pugnacious aspects.