Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy: Roadmap to Global Leadership?

Publication: China Brief Volume: 22 Issue: 18

A flag-raising ceremony to celebrate the 73rd anniversary of the founding of the PRC in Tiananmen Square in Beijing on October 1 (Source: China Military Online)

Only a short time ago, the question of whether the People’s Republic of China (PRC) aspires to global leadership was generally considered farfetched. However, President Xi Jinping’s recent announcements of the Global Development Initiative (GDI) at the UN General Assembly in 2021 and the Global Security Initiative (GSI) at the Boao Forum this April leave little doubt that the PRC is making an active push to become a world leader in all facets (China Brief, May 13; Xinhuanet, September 22, 2021).

Back on the World Stage

In mid-September, Xi traveled outside China for the first time in over two-and-a-half years to visit Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, where he attended the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Samarkand (PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs [FMPRC], September 17). At the summit, Xi stated that humanity has entered a new period of turbulence. In order to navigate these challenging times, he called on all parties to partake in the GSI to enhance security cooperation and the GDI to “deepen practical cooperation” in areas such as trade, investment, infrastructure development and technological innovation (People’s Daily, September 17). Several days later, Foreign Minister Wang Yi addressed the UN General Assembly. He echoed Xi’s observation that the world faces immense challenges but also characterized the current moment as “full of hope.” Wang acclaimed the GDI as “a rallying call to refocus attention of the international community on development and build a global community of development,” and for “reducing the peace deficit and providing China’s input to meeting global security challenges” (FMPRC, September 25).

The timing of Xi’s first overseas trip since early 2020 suggests confidence in his domestic political position. Despite myriad domestic challenges, Xi had no compunction about departing China a month before the 20th Party Congress begins in Beijing (China Brief, September 20). Ironically, Xi’s failure to appear in public for eleven days following his return from Samarkand sparked a frenzy of unfounded social media speculation that he had been removed in a coup. However, almost exactly ten days after his return home, Xi made his first public appearance, which strongly suggests he was in quarantine during the interim. It would have been poor political optics for the General Secretary to appear in public immediately after his return with the whole country indefinitely under the strict rule of his zero-COVID policy. When Xi reappeared, he did so alongside all of the other members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the Politburo and other top leaders to open a new exhibit on “Forging Ahead in a New Era” in Beijing (People.cn, September 27). At the exhibit opening, both Xi and ideology czar and PBSC member Wang Huning acclaimed the wisdom of the path that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has taken over the past decade, pledging even stronger efforts to realize the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” (Xinhuanet, September 27; People.cn, September 27).

Great Rejuvenation, Global Dimensions

The PRC’s active promotion of its new global governance initiatives, GDI and GSI, suggests that Xi is primed to accelerate his push for a greater international leadership role coming out of the 20th Party Congress. A foundational element of Xi’s mass appeal is that he has amalgamated the dynastic legacy of China’s civilizational centrality in East Asia with the post-1949 dream of a PRC-led developing world. This is reflected in his fondness for opening major speeches with paeans to Chinese civilization and its 5,000-year-old history (Xinhuanet, July 1, 2021). Xi’s panegyrics to past glory are invariably followed by lamentations over the subsequent century of humiliation imposed by the West and Japan, an interruption of China’s civilizational greatness, which was only rectified with the founding of the PRC in 1949. According to the CCP’s official narrative, under Xi’s leadership, China has not only reclaimed its past greatness but has now reached a zenith, a “new historic juncture” when “China will make even greater contributions to humanity” (Gov.cn, November 16, 2021).

Given its genesis in the “China Dream” and the first centenary (2021) goal of achieving “a moderately prosperous society,” some might assume that the pursuit of national rejuvenation is an altogether domestic endeavor.  However, the second centenary goal, which Xi set forth at the 19th Party Congress in 2017, is global in scope, stipulating that by mid-century the PRC will be a “great modern socialist country” that is “a global leader in terms of composite national strength and international influence” (China Daily, November 4, 2017). Becoming a global leader requires China not only to become the world’s strongest country, but also to attain international authority; for small states and middle powers to be receptive to its influence, and for all countries, including other great powers, to demonstrate respect for its political system, sovereignty and interests.

Theoretical Underpinnings

As a self-proclaimed opponent of hegemony, international security has traditionally been the area of global governance where Beijing has been most reticent. However, under Xi, the PRC has shifted from a foreign policy of “keeping a low profile” to one of “striving for achievements” (Cankao Xiaoxi, January 14, 2014). The blueprint for this shift is Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy, which, per State Councilor Yang Jiechi, provides a “guide to action for steering the major changes of the world in the right direction, resolving the international security dilemma, realizing common development around the world, safeguarding people’s lives and health, and upholding true multilateralism” (FMPRC, May 16).

In May, the China Institute of International Studies (CIIS), which is affiliated with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, published an article by Wang Jue and Liu Jun on “The Core Tenets of the Global Security Initiative: Theoretical Innovation and Global Significance” (CIIS, May 10). The piece asserts that the “holistic national security concept” (总体国家安全观, zongti guojia anquan guan), first advanced by Xi in 2014, is a key element of GSI that transcends Western security theory. As Joel Wuthnow observes, the holistic national security concept’s “key characteristic is that the party cannot think of security in narrow, traditional terms,” and that security “must be defined more broadly to encompass diverse areas such as cybersecurity, biosecurity, energy security,” counterterrorism and environmental security (China Brief, November 23, 2021). Wang and Liu assert that the “holistic national security concept” surmounts the two stumbling blocks that have bedeviled modern, Western-dominated international relations: “the Thucydides Trap” (heightened risk of conflict when a rising power threatens to supplant the leading power in the system) and the “Kindleberger Trap” (no power predominates, which creates a deficit of global public goods). Per Wang and Liu, the GSI is Xi’s great contribution to overcoming a world where the “strong devour the weak” (弱肉强食, ruorouqiangshi). In contrast to what the CCP portrays as U.S.-driven zero-sum bloc confrontation, the GSI provides a mechanism to peacefully resolve disputes, advance “common security” and achieve “win-win” outcomes. The GSI promotes “common security” over “hegemonic stability” to escape the “Kindleberger Trap” and offset the global governance deficit.

The influence of moral realism, which blends classical realism, neorealism and classical Chinese political philosophy, is strongly apparent in Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy and its practical manifestations: GSI, GDI, and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The progenitor of moral realism is Tsinghua University Professor Yan Xuetong, who breaks with many contemporary Western realists to contend that morality has always played a key role in international politics and was integral to the classical realism of Hans Morgenthau and others. [1] Yan earned his doctorate at Berkley, where he studied under the father of neorealism, Kenneth Waltz. In addition to his scholarship, he also directly contributes to Beijing’s efforts to improve its international standing as secretary general of the World Peace Forum, which is held in conjunction with the PRC State Council and the Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs (China Brief, July 29; Tsinghua University, July 6).

Yan holds a fundamentally realist worldview but argues that the morality of states matters as it bears on their strategic credibility. In his 2019 book, Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers, Yan emphasizes the salience of effective leadership to meet domestic challenges and to build and maintain international strategic credibility. [2] Historically, the most successful great powers have sustained primacy not simply through raw strength but through their ability to gain the trust of allies. Interestingly, Yan identifies this as a key reason for the different fates of the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the Cold War: “the cases of the Warsaw Pact and NATO demonstrate how the international leadership of superpowers can have different effects. Leading states with high strategic credit are able to establish and expand unbreakable alliances, while the opposite is true for states without high credibility.”


The PRC is advancing GDI and the GSI even as it struggles with a major economic slowdown exacerbated by the twin drags of the bursting of its real estate bubble and the zero-COVID policy. The collapse of the property sector has led to a precipitous decline in local government revenues, which puts pressure on the center to provide more stimulus that could eventually lead to fiscal trade-offs (China Brief, September 20). Although the PRC still has a substantial fiscal arsenal, it is unlikely to be able to direct the same levels of enormous capital overseas as during the first half-decade (2014-2018) of BRI, when the PRC annually surpassed $100 billion in outward investment (AEI, July 14).  

The post-COVID shift in global public opinion, with unfavorable views of China near historic highs in many countries, also challenges Xi’s vision of the PRC as a global leader (Pew, September 28). However, in the CCP’s telling, such negative views are invariably blamed on “Western anti-China forces” that manipulate international public opinion to conduct smear campaigns against China on sensitive issues such as Xinjiang and Tibet (FMPRC, June 29).

Despite mounting domestic challenges and a difficult international environment, the PRC appears determined to push forward with its quest for global leadership. This is in part motivated by the PRC’s efforts to insulate itself from Western, particularly U.S., power and pressure. However, the achievement of a leading role in world affairs is also an integral part of the great rejuvenation narrative and, as a result, is bound up with Xi’s domestic political standing.  As Xi maintains, China is closer than ever to its long-sought goal of a modern renaissance, but realizing this great rejuvenation is not “something that can be achieved easily by beating gongs and drums” but requires ever more arduous striving (Qiushi, September 30). The “great struggle” (伟大斗争,weida douzheng) against all those, inside and outside China, who stand in the way of the great rejuvenation is clearly just getting started.

John S. Van Oudenaren is Editor-in-Chief of China Brief. For any comments, queries, or submissions, please reach out to him at: cbeditor@jamestown.org.


[1] Yan Xuetong, “From Keeping a Low Profile to Striving for Achievement,” The Chinese Journal of International Politics, Volume 7, Issue 2, Summer 2014

[2] Yan Xuetong, Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers (Princeton University Press, 2019).