The linchpin for better understanding China’s foreign policy may lie less in watching its external moves than in analyzing its domestic dynamics. While President Xi Jinping has taken a more assertive approach to foreign policy than his predecessors, he continues to spend most of his time on internal issues such as party consolidation, the anti-corruption campaign, military reform and economic growth. Those efforts, plus pressures from the party elite, public opinion and the military, create a complicated mix of domestic dynamics that collectively shape the country’s direction abroad.

A Factory in China at Yangtze River.
A factory on China’s Yangtze River spews pollution that has risen as a domestic concern, helping to drive Chinese foreign policy activism against climate change. (Wikicommons)

A dozen experts assessed how China’s internal economic, political and security considerations are shaping the country’s foreign policy during a daylong conference at USIP on April 7, co-hosted with Georgetown University.

While Xi’s less-formal 'kitchen cabinet' approach to decision-making has sidelined some traditional foreign policy voices, it has not eliminated differing points of view.

Xi’s Foreign Policy Leadership

Throughout the day, several panelists stressed that Xi's general approach to foreign policy has been more aggressive than his predecessors, both because of his own leadership style and because China’s military and economic strength have given him better tools to promote China’s interests.  

Chris Johnson from the Center for Strategic and International Studies noted that Xi has clearly broken from Deng Xiaoping's long-standing guidance to keep a low profile, and is instead demonstrating greater activism on the international stage.

One area where China has been particularly influential is in the global effort to fight climate change. Largely due to public demands for cleaner air and water, as well as Xi’s desire to be a leader on this issue, China has been able to successfully convince other developing nations to adopt aggressive greenhouse gas emissions targets. Melanie Hart from the Center for American Progress explained that, by working with a set of friends and audiences that the United States does not share, China has been able to bring about meaningful change in an area where U.S. efforts have often fallen short.

The Woodrow Wilson Center’s Richard McGregor also praised Xi’s creative approach to addressing China's strengths and weaknesses, noting that Xi has “a more intelligent mix of policies on the foreign policy front–hard at the core, but flexible at the edges.”

Yet despite these advances, the panelists were not convinced that Xi will introduce substantial changes to China’s broader foreign policy objectives.

“We should expect to see more of the same from Xi Jinping,” Johnson said. He warned that although Xi appears to be pursuing a “multidirectional foreign policy” that is less focused on—or solicitous of—the United States, it is too early to tell whether Xi has grander visions of remaking the international system.

Dissenting Voices?

The panelists noted that Xi has centralized power around his own authoritarian style and personality, coming to rely on a small inner circle of trusted advisors. Although this less-formal “kitchen cabinet” approach to decision-making has sidelined some traditional foreign policy voices, it has not eliminated differing points of view.

On domestic issues, panelists pointed out that some party leaders have adopted quiet methods of dissent. For example, on issues where the local leaders disagree with Xi, particularly on economic issues, they have slow-rolled implementation, thereby weakening certain policies by simply failing to take action. Signs of discontent and opposition have also emerged from the media and the educational system, as advisors who used to be part of the inner circle now find themselves excluded from decision-making. 

Foreign policy, however, seems less likely to face or be affected by internal dissent. 

“Foreign policy is on auto-pilot for China in a lot of ways,” despite Xi's efforts to consolidate his authority, said George Washington University’s David Shambaugh. “We are not going to see a big change in the South China Sea, U.S.-China relations, China-Japan, or anything else, by alteration of this collectivity of leaders at the top of their system.” 

Growing Influence of Public Opinion

Beyond the party leadership, Chinese citizens have also become more active in shaping foreign policy, forcing leaders in Beijing to respond to citizen concerns while also projecting an image of strength and resolve. Nationalist sentiment may bolster China’s foreign policy in some cases, but as Cornell University’s Jessica Chen Weiss noted, the government also realizes that “unbridled grassroots nationalism could jeopardize not only social stability at home but also diplomatic flexibility.”  

The current economic slowdown further complicates the relationship between nationalism on foreign policy. “A slowing economy and slowing growth of Chinese development could point in two very different directions,” Weiss explained.

“On the one hand, you could see growing adventurism to divert attention from domestic problems, but you could also see a renewed focus on internal progress on things like pollution, rising inequality, more jobs, or social services,” Weiss remarked. “And further international tensions and confrontations could actually backfire by making the Chinese leadership seem weak and incompetent. So a more prudent strategy could hold that mounting domestic problems actually counsel restraint rather than more adventurism.”

Greater Expectations for the Military

The Chinese people, the civilian leadership and the PLA are all increasingly interested in building the military capabilities necessary to protect China’s rights and interests abroad. Xi is working to make the PLA “more red and more expert,” and doctrinal shifts, domestic requirements and rising public expectations have all pushed the military to develop expeditionary capabilities that will enable it to defend Chinese interests around the world.

PLA modernization, restructuring and reform have been central tenets of Xi’s efforts at home, but those efforts face a number of social challenges, such as the need to recruit and retain more college-educated soldiers. The success of these reforms is important, Vantage Point Asia’s Kristen Gunness explained, because Xi has “has at least in part staked the legitimacy of his term on a strong and modernized PLA that can defend all of China’s interests, both at home and abroad.” 

As China’s investments and presence overseas continue to grow, China’s leaders are experimenting with a variety of foreign policy levers that will enable China to better promote and protect its national interests. In some cases, China has special tools, relationships or perspectives that allow it to provide security, economic growth and improved quality of life in places where others’ influence may be limited.

USIP’s China Program is focused on China’s role with regard to peace and conflict dynamics in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.  The day’s discussion highlighted a number of areas to watch in the coming years, as the world gauges China’s next foreign policy moves.

Jennifer Staats is USIP’s director for China programs.

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