Xi’s Bold Foreign Policy Agenda: Beijing’s Pursuit of Global Influence and the Growing Risk of Sino-U.S. Rivalry

Publication: China Brief Volume: 15 Issue: 6

Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Refinements in the Chinese leadership’s strategic assessment have spurred a set of policy directives aimed at bolstering the country’s political and economic leadership at the regional and global level. Because these policies are driven by imperatives to sustain economic development, which undergirds the Party’s legitimacy, Beijing is unlikely to be dissuaded from pursuing this course. While the risk of military conflict remains low, Sino-U.S. relations appear headed towards an increasingly acrimonious and bitter competition.

The Making of Strategic Assessments

For all the changes inflicted on the Chinese political system by President Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power, the fundamental logic of how Beijing formulates and implements national level strategy and policy guidance remains largely consistent with that of his predecessors. Years of political and ideological reforms have standardized, to some degree, four critical steps in this process: 1) the identification of major contradictions in China’s situation through a strategic assessment; 2) the formulation of ideas in a manner that upholds the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) authority through a theory response; 3) the correction of strategy and policy in accordance with the theory’s insights through the issuance of central directives, and 4) the implementation of policies accordingly (Timothy Heath, China’s New Governing Party Paradigm, Ashgate, 2014). [1] This entire process is underpinned by the logic that all of the Party’s policies are derived from a rigorously scientific and infallible intellectual methodology. For this reason, Party leaders cannot advance change on a single step without also making changes to all other steps. This feature offers the observer an important advantage. Once a change in any step has been detected, developments in the other steps can be more confidently identified and considerable insight gained into Beijing’s strategic intentions.

This process generates a large amount of documents, many of which are publicly available. But of the four steps, the easiest to identify with confidence is a change in the Party’s theoretical conclusions. The designation of a “major strategic concept” (zhongda zhanlue xiangsi) in official media is a rare development that signals consensus has been reached regarding a theoretical interpretation of the “major contradictions” identified. The designation of the “Four Comprehensives” (sige quanmian) as a major strategic concept confirms that this consensus point has now been reached under President Xi (People’s Daily, March 3). Although the CCP faces a long road ahead in analyzing, explicating and deriving the term’s various meanings and derivative concepts, preliminary conclusions have been reached regarding the way ahead on the most important policy challenges facing the state. As Xi explained at a Politburo study session on the study of historical contradictions, adoption of this new major strategic concept will enable the Party to “effectively solve the major contradictions” confronting the “cause of the Party and state” (Xinhua, January 24).

Strategic Assessment: The Changing Period of Strategic Opportunity

As President Xi’s comments suggest, the Party’s policy and theory work rests on the foundation of its strategic assessment of the contradictions facing the nation. The last major strategic assessment happened around 2000. The 16th Party Congress report provided a comprehensive analysis of these major domestic and international trends and contradictions contained therein, referred to by the phrase, the “new century in the new stage” (xinshiji xinjieduan). This assessment provided the fundamental requirements that justified the major strategic concepts and associated policy work of the Hu Jintao administration, including the well known “scientific development concept” and its derived variations, such as “harmonious world. As part of the strategic assessment, the 16th Party Congress report also carried the first designation of a “period of strategic opportunity.” This was envisioned as a 10–20–year period in which a country’s comprehensive national power, international competitiveness and influence were expected to rise as a result of favorable domestic and international factors (Xinhua, November 17, 2002).

Around 2010, Chinese media saw considerable discussion about prospects for the period’s continuation in the second decade (People’s Daily Overseas, July 30, 2012). Chinese officials and theorists concluded that the period of strategic opportunity remains, but that its realization will require a more activist set of policies. One senior PLA official explained that the situation would be “more difficult and arduous” and that China would have to “seize” opportunity in the second decade of the 21st century, rather than passively expect its continuation. He attributed this change to the anticipation that Western powers “will not easily give up their status of dominating international affairs” (Seeking Truth, December 3, 2012).

Party theorists thus note both continuity and change between the first two decades of the 21st century. Expanding on the strategic assessment listed in the 18th Congress report, one senior Party theorist noted changes that would require adjustments in theory work and policy. The most significant changes from the preceding decade include: 1) China has shifted from being a major player to being a leader in the world economy; 2) China has shifted from being a weak power to a strong one in the international order; 3) China has changed from passively adapting to the international system to pushing forward international system reforms; 4) China has changed from passively maintaining the status quo in the Asia Pacific region to proactively shaping it (Modern International Relations, April 26, 2013).

Numerous sources support this assessment. According to an article published in the Party journal Outlook in 2010, a “high level analysis” concluded that China would need to “carry out a thorough reform” of the “world economic governance system, international financial system and international economic rules” to maintain the period of opportunity. Anticipating that developed countries would “make every effort to preserve and consolidate their leading status,” the analysis concluded the coming years would see an intensifying contest in comprehensive national power (Outlook, November 8, 2010, p. 1).

Theory Concepts for Foreign Policy

The Xi administration has already introduced a number of theory concepts to resolve the contradictions identified in the strategic assessment in a manner that upholds Party authority. For foreign policy, these include the “Community of Common Destiny,” “New Asia Security Concept,” the “Chinese Dream,” and others (see China Brief, December 19, 2014).

Past patterns of political behavior observed during the Hu era suggest the recent introduction of the “four comprehensives” will incorporate these concepts and will also generate new ones in coming years. The set of theory concepts will incorporate various central directives (zhidao fangzhen) that have already been issued by senior leaders since 2012.

Central Directives: The Focus on Reforming International Rules and Laws

Central directives remain critical to the Party’s exercise of political power. Directives are instructions provided through the Party’s network of cells and organizations to communicate the central leadership’s intentions regarding policy. Party officials at all levels then oversee its implementation through the articulation and enforcement of state policy. Mirroring patterns observed in domestic policy, the main theme of directives on foreign policy has focused on international structural reform to facilitate the nation’s continued rise. At a recent Politburo study session, President Xi provided directives to “actively take part in the formulation of international economic and trade rules” and for the country to “strive for the institutional right to global economic governance” (Xinhua, December 6, 2014). The focus on structural reform manifests in both economic and political dimensions.

As China’s economy moves toward a structure more like that of the United States and other developed nations, trade relations are growing less complementary and more competitive. Chinese economists assess that future growth will depend heavily on the degree of the Asia-Pacific region’s integration with China’s economy, as well as issues related to global economic governance and international trade rules (see, for example, the report by the State Council Development Research Center) (China Economic News, September 5, 2014). While the pursuit of sustained economic growth provides the principal driver, political and security concerns remain an important factor.

Beginning around 2012, China stepped up criticism of the U.S. alliance system in Asia while it increased efforts to establish and refine alternative security organizations, mechanisms and structures to complement China’s domination of the region’s economy. Reflecting the urgency of these structural reforms, Chinese officials now regard policy toward Asia as the priority direction (The Diplomat, December 22, 2014).

At the international level, China finds an entire network of norms, principles, alliances and frameworks that offer, at best, an ambivalent reception to China’s arrival as a great power. Chinese officials have accordingly stepped up efforts to shape global principles and norms to de-legitimize the ability of the United States to initiate military attacks without UN sanction. In initiating a debate on the meaning of the United Nations Charter, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi argued that military attacks initiated without United Nations approval should be regarded as “illegal and illegitimate.” He described President Xi’s proposal on “building a new type of international relations” as an “important innovation and development” of the UN Charter (Xinhua, February 23).

The Quest for Political and Moral Authority

Because China regards protection of its growing array of economic, political and security interests as inseparably linked to reform of the international order, one of the most pressing tasks confronting its leaders is the accumulation of the political capital needed to push through the systemic and structural reforms that Beijing desires.

Chinese leaders have settled on a variety of means to bolster the nation’s international authority. They have indicated a willingness to increase the nation’s contributions on tough global problems, such as climate change and dispute mediation in Africa. China is also cultivating political support among developing countries and neighbors in Asia. But Chinese leaders have also promoted policies to position the country as a more moral and appealing alternative to the West, which Chinese media denigrate as corrupt, hypocritical and inept (Washington Post, March 2). Applied to foreign policy, this has meant a highly moralistic policy in which Chinese officials attempt to balance considerations of generosity, justice and fairness with economic considerations (Xinhua, October 24, 2014; Xinhua, November 30, 2014).

Implications: China Joins the Great Power Game

Development has long served as the primary focus of Chinese strategy and policy. Indeed, every major Central Committee gathering since 1997 has upheld the 15th Party Congress’ directive that “development remains the central task.” What is new in the Xi administration’s policy focus is the recognition that changes to the structure of the international economic and political order are now required to sustain development.

This carries important consequences for Chinese policy making. As China has grown powerful, its economic interests are gaining in strategic importance. While acknowledging that sovereignty and the political system are “more fundamental and more important” to the nation’s survival, one Chinese scholar argued that their place in the order of national strategic priorities should be pushed back due to a lack of pressing external threats. The greater danger, he observed, now stems from “political and social unrest generated by an economic recession” (Modern International Relations, January 2013).

This danger may have always been China’s most pressing, but with its economy more deeply integrated with the global economy than ever before, preventing recession increasingly requires China to exert greater influence on the international order and in countries in which its economic interests are substantial. Chinese leaders appear to recognize this imperative and are developing policies accordingly. The complexity of the situation is such, however, that the country most capable of facilitating China’s efforts in this regard is also a country that stands to lose considerably from such expansion—the United States. Small wonder, then, that the same Chinese scholar concluded that the contest over the rules of the international order will be the most important part of future Sino-U.S. relations in coming years.

In its focus on initiatives such as the New Silk Road, also known as the “one belt, one road,” and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the Xi administration’s policies appear to have similarly prioritized the consolidation and protection of economic interests. The good news is that this development suggests the leadership will continue to have little appetite for military conflict. While crises over maritime and other disputes will continue to plague China’s relations with its neighbors, the risk of escalation to major war remains low. However, for both the United States and China, the imperative to sustain growth will put intense pressure on policy makers to secure and defend economic gains. Due to the fact that the two economies are growing less complementary and more similar in structure, trade relations will become more competitive than in the past. Moreover, because influencing the international order is increasingly essential to gaining the economic edge, this competition will unavoidably turn increasingly political. The danger remains that the search for economic leverage could spur political and military confrontation.

For years, the United States has pursued a strategy designed in part to “bind” China to the international order in a manner that reinforces, rather than subverts, U.S. authority. The hope has been to “bind China to existing international system of norms, rules, and institutions” and “shape its evolving interests and values through bilateral and multilateral engagement” (Washington Quarterly, Winter 2005/2006). Beijing’s policy shift shows it intends to play a different game. In choosing to selectively adopt and shape those aspects of the international order that serve its interests and circumvent those that do not, Beijing is demonstrating that it understands the rules of great power behavior more perceptively than Western strategists may have anticipated. Washington will need to grasp the dynamics of the evolving situation just as deeply to effectively manage an increasingly competitive relationship.


  1. “Major contradictions” (zhongda maodun) is a legacy Marxist idea that refers to the incompatibilities between elements of a polity’s economy, called the “forces of production,” and between the polity’s economic and the non-economic life. According to CCP theory, China can only progress through resolution of these contradictions.