WHEN GENERAL SECRETARY XI JINPING agreed a “Joint Statement” with President Putin claiming there would be “no limits” to the relationship, some wondered whether this heralded the creation of a new world order. The statement does reference the trend toward the “redistribution of power in the world.” So, what kind of a world does Xi want to see? Two major principles drive his view. First, security and sovereignty issues must all be aligned to ensure the continued rule of the Chinese Communist Party. Second, he insists that China be seen as at least an equal player in the world, making it a key participant in defining the rules of the road.
Under Xi’s leadership, China’s foreign policy approach has completed the move away from the era governed by Deng Xiaoping’s mantra: “hide your strength, bide your time.” Clearly, he feels that the time is now and there is no need to hide the nation’s strength. Already in December 2014, Xi noted that China could not be a bystander, but must be “a participant, a leader.” In October 2017, he followed this by stating that by 2050, China would be a “global leader in terms of composite strength and international influence.” This focus, linked to the “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” has been accompanied by a more aggressive promotion of China’s interests and defense of its actions. This is best seen in the actions of the “Wolf Warrior” diplomats who aggressively combat Western criticisms, often taking to Twitter or Facebook, both banned within China.
There are three key features to China’s global approach. First, as noted, China intends to be a major player in global affairs. The nation has been a major beneficiary of the current global order and it would be a mistake to think that it wishes to undermine that order completely. China has profited from membership of the World Trade Organization and associated trade and investment regulations. Its commercial and trading routes have benefited from the U.S. security umbrella, but the deteriorating relationship may push China to develop its own security structures, a development certain to be seen by the West as an aggressive expansion. However, China has sought to exert its influence in those areas that it sees the United States withdrawing from. Clearly, China seeks to change the focus of regimes such as the United Nations system overseeing human rights and it has a very different view of internet governance and cybersecurity from that of Western nations.
Second, China views itself as an equal with the United States when defining global rules and institutions. For Xi, time is on China’s side with the increasingly prevalent view in Beijing being that while the East is rising, the West, especially the United States, is declining. Chinese media is replete with accounts of the superiority of the “socialist” system, reveling in showing the failures of “democracy” in America. Ever since the global financial crisis of 2008-2009, China’s leaders have become more confident that their system is effective and does not need to learn lessons from the West. This perception has been compounded by descriptions of the chaotic response to COVID in the West, compared with Beijing’s “zero-COVID” policy, let alone by showing footage of the Capitol riots on January 6, 2021. China now proposes that not only is its model effective domestically but also might be suitable for other nations to study.
Third, China has developed a more coherent policy toward Asia. Strangely, given the importance of the region to China, for many years it did not have a clear policy approach but wrapped Asia into the broader geopolitical frameworks. Current policy is characterized by carrots and sticks. The carrots are the significant trade and investments, best signified by the Belt and Road Initiative. China is now the major trading partner for most countries in the region. The sticks are the aggressive defense of China’s claimed territorial interests in the South and East China Seas. While, on occasion, China might reduce its aggression, it will not renounce the claims. The status of Taiwan remains the sharpest thorn in the relationship with the United States. Similarly, the implementation of the National Security Law in Hong Kong has caused concern for both the United States and Taiwan, while disconcerting others within the region. This has created, as noted by Evan Feigenbaum, a dangerous bifurcation between an economic Asia with China at the core and a security Asia, within which the United States remains the key player.
China’s emergence as a major global power raises for many nations the question of how to respond. In major part, this depends on where you are and the nature of the relationship. For Russia, China is a good rhetorical partner for its opposition to NATO and the West. For many other countries, trade and investment are most important. While many others, especially in Southeast Asia, do not want to be forced to choose between a rising China and a still powerful West. The tension therein can only increase. Clearly, under Xi, China is determined to be an increasingly influential global player, willing to assert its national interest more forcefully than before.
Anthony Saich, Daewoo Professor of International Affairs, is the director of HKS’s Rajawali Foundation Institute for Asia and faculty chair of the School’s China Programs.
Photograph by Feng Li/Getty Images