China’s Foreign Policy ahead of the 20th Party Congress

China is less than ten days away from its 20th Party Congress. The changes will impact the Chinese Communist Party for the next five years, a monumental event that takes place every five years. President Xi Jinping is expected to stay in power in the following term. Most likely, even in the term after that.

Xi’s era has seen a shift from Deng Xiaoping’s hide capabilities and bide time (韬光养晦; tāoguāng yǎnghuì) and moved on to a more assertive approach. China’s growing aggressiveness in international affairs manifests the realist dictum that a nation should always come first in its interests. China has changed how the world views it and has been more aggressive in pursuing its foreign policy goals due to the “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy. Xi has played a significant role in making China reach where it is with his robust changes in the foreign policy framework.

Foreign policy framework under Xi

China’s foreign policy has become a one-person show, with Xi Jinping pulling most strings. His ‘Great Power Diplomacy’ is promoted widely, and he handles the leading small groups on foreign affairs, one of the major ones being the Central Foreign Affairs Commission (CFAC), created in 2018. The CFAC was upgraded and par with vital bodies like the Central Military Commission (CMC). The CFAC is supplementary to the Central National Security Commission (CNSC), which handles domestic affairs but helps draft foreign policy. Other existing bodies that have lost some importance in the Xi period include the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) and the International Liaison Office (ILO). The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), too, has lost some of its capabilities in designing foreign policies.

Secondly, Xi’s personally endorsed initiatives such as the BRI (Belt and Road Initiative), GDI (Global Development Initiative), GDSI (Global Data Security Initiative), and GSI (Global Security Initiative) are his economic, political, digital and security models that China has been intent on pushing. Chinese ministers abundantly mention these initiatives in their speeches. In the recent SCO meeting held in Samarkand on the 15th and 16th of September, Xi had separate talks with almost all SCO members (except India) ministers. He praised the Central Asian Republics, calling them ‘worthy of China’s support’ and how these countries can help implement (relatively newer) GDI and GDSI. Something to be noticed here is a lot of ambiguity in Xi’s speeches. When other countries collaborate with China on such initiatives, it might look like the exchange is based on ‘mutual benefits’. However, the reality is usually different than what was projected.

Thirdly, Xi’s escapades in the Indo-Pacific and China’s increased aggressiveness in the South China Sea have resulted in territorial disputes with other countries in the region. At least three islands China constructed in the disputed South China Sea have been wholly militarised. This comes in light of Xi’s take over of the military and consequent reformation, building the largest navy in the world.

Finally, there has been downward growth in the US-China relationship. Export restrictions on China by the US, the US banning of Huawei and other Chinese firms in 5G, such as ZTE and the supply chain dilemma amidst post-pandemic conditions are the central tenets of the trade and technological war between the two nations. China is increasingly wary of “small cliques” the US is engaged in, such as the QUAD and the AUKUS. US complaints about human rights in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong raise concerns against China.

With the onset of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the US has continually called out China for ‘siding’ with Russia, often questioning China and Russia’s ‘no-limits friendship.’ The US-China relationship became more complex after Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan. Following the visit, China engaged in extensive military drills around Taiwan. Each side has blamed the other for concentrated attempts to disrupt the current quo while emphasising the significance of maintaining the status quo concerning Taiwan.

Implications of China’s actions

With State propaganda continually representing the Party as the guardian of China’s pride in the presence of belligerent countries and organisations, nationalism has emerged as a potent, strong point for the Party. The party can spread propaganda through various means. A popular example is the ‘Study to build a powerful country’ app is a famous example. Users of the app get points based on the time they spend on it and the number of times they take part in its quizzes. The app offers a centralised location for news on Xi’s political philosophy and the nation’s accomplishments.

However, there has been a downside to the spread of nationalism and propaganda in China. For example, after the death of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Chinese nationalists ‘celebrated’ the assassination. People dressed as Mr Shinzo’s killer uploaded their photos on social media. Some called the day of the death, July 8, a historic occasion. Another example is that of Hu Xijin, former editor of the Global Times. Before the speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, visited Taiwan, Mr Hu said that ‘if she dared to stop at Taiwan, the Chinese military was ready with its military to shoot down Taiwan’. He later deleted the tweet. However, there have been several instances where the Chinese government has had to face embarrassment on behalf of the extremist views of particular citizens.

Way forward

China has rarely left any chance to boast about its achievements on international platforms. In his speech at the 58th Munich Security Conference in February, Wang Yi, the foreign minister of China, praised China and Xi for pushing for ‘common development’ in challenging economic conditions. In this vision of ‘common development’, he describes the Belt and Road Initiative as an example of high-quality cooperation. He also calls for countries to work together towards realising the China-led GDI. On previous occasions, Wang Yi has reiterated China’s rise as a dynamic and active force in global governance and its elevated stance in international institutions.

At the 20th Party Congress, two major players in Chinese foreign policy, Yang Jiechi, director of the general office of the CFAC and Politburo member, and Wang Yi, are bound to retire after this term. Although new ministers might take their places, the policies China is likely to adopt a continuation of confrontationist policies in the near future. The CFAC is expected to take major decisions on matters of foreign policy.

While China’s global image has taken a downturn in the Western world, China is viewed as a primary source of economic salvation by developing middle powers and smaller nations. However, at the moment, domestic woes at home plague China. The impact of the Zero-Covid policies, real-estate troubles, unemployment, and less productivity due to an ageing population in China are significant subjects China might focus on. It is most likely to prioritise problems at home in the upcoming term. However, China will continue to be more assertive in its foreign policy.

Swayamsiddha Samal
Swayamsiddha Samal
Swayamsiddha Samal is a research assistant at the United Services Institution (USI), New Delhi. She has a B.A. in Mandarin from Jawaharlal Nehru University and an M.A. in Politics and International Relations from Pondicherry University. Her interests lie in Chinese politics and its foreign policy. She tweets at @swayamsiddha08.