Eight factors driving Xi's foreign policy

Updated: 2016-01-01 08:16

By Robert Lawrence Kuhn(China Daily Europe)

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Global financial crisis accelerated China's emergence as a key player on the global stage

It's a question I'm often asked: What drives President Xi Jinping's robust foreign policy? The assumption is that Xi has upped China's global game, making the country's international relations more proactive and engaging - some say more muscular and aggressive. All recognize that China is now involved with every important issue in world affairs. Moreover, China is starting to shape the agenda of international discourse, not just react to the ideas and actions of others.

What motivates China's diplomatic transformation? There is no secret answer, no master plan hatched behind the guarded walls of Zhongnanhai, where China's leaders work in central Beijing. Rather, a confluence of factors has come together, enhancing China's role on the global stage.

Eight factors driving Xi's foreign policy

I here suggest eight drivers, or underlying motivations, for China's vigorous foreign policy under Xi. But first, for context, I begin with the financial crisis, which I see as a milestone and accelerator of China's emergence.

It has long been said, quite rightly, that China's international political influence has been far less than its international economic strength, but until recently this state of affairs suited China's leaders just fine. China is still a developing country, with many regions and classes lagging behind; China has gross disparities in income and standards of living, and an overall GDP per capita that ranks no higher than around 80th among almost 200 countries. China needs time - decades - to develop, and with so many challenges at home, it could ill afford increasing obligations and entanglements abroad.

When the financial crisis hit in 2008, China's leaders worried that the worldwide economic meltdown would put tens of millions of Chinese workers on the street, undermine - if not decimate - the country's economic structure, and thereby threaten social stability. They rapidly enacted a stimulus program and announced to the world that China was in no position to help the world, that the country's resources were consumed with the problems at home. They stressed that the best thing that China could do for the world was to concentrate its efforts domestically - a destabilized China would be good for no one.

That policy lasted only a few months. By early 2009, it became obvious that China's relationship with the world had changed fundamentally and there was no turning back to old zones of comfort. China's leaders came to realize that they could not disengage from the world. It had become impossible for China to handle its domestic issues in isolation. China would have to engage the world, now more, not less.

It was a transforming realization. One minister told me at the time that senior personnel in his ministry, which focused almost entirely on domestic matters, would from then on allocate one-third of their studies to international matters and one-third of their readings to international publications.

Eight factors driving Xi's foreign policy

The trend was set: China's increasing international engagement was on, but China's seminal shift from reactive to proactive foreign policy began in earnest when Xi became Party secretary in 2012 and president in 2013. Examples are well known: the Belt and Road Initiative reaching out to some 60 countries, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a new kind of major power relations with the United States, strategic partnership with Russia, a "golden era" in relations with the United Kingdom, high-profile state visits to Germany and France, support for African development, climate change, the list goes on. In less than three years as president, Xi has visited about three dozen countries.

China recognizes that to be a major power, with its political influence approaching its economic strength, as well as to protect its own vital interests, the country must mount proactive diplomacy. Following are eight drivers of China's new kind of foreign policy:

Complementary development. China's development is founded on reform and opening-up. At its beginning, China sought capital and know-how while it offered productive factories and cheap labor. Now China invests capital and builds infrastructure while it seeks natural resources for its industries and foreign markets for its products. Moreover China has debilitating overcapacity in heavy industries such as steel, cement, aluminum, plate glass and chemicals, and if these can be transported and utilized by less developed countries, all benefit.

Domestic economy. China is embarking on its comprehensive 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-20), with the ambitious goal of becoming a moderately prosperous society by 2020. Foreign trade of higher value-added products, plus access to advanced foreign technologies, are an integral part of the plan - and these can be facilitated by China's diplomacy and good image.

Core interests. China has three categories of sacrosanct "core interests" - (I) its political system of one ruling party, (II) continuing economic development, and (III) national sovereignty and territorial integrity - and China's foreign policy is designed to protect each of them. The more other countries and peoples understand, even appreciate, China's core interests, the more secure China will feel (and be).

Global crises. Technology has greatly enhanced standards of living but it has also made the world more fragile. Crises can be more disruptive than ever before - political instability, sectarian violence, terrorism, pandemics, financial contagion, natural disasters, trade disputes - and some can erupt suddenly. China's pro-active diplomacy enhances mechanisms for managing crises, which can avert or temper such global crises.

International incidents. China, like all nations, has interests that conflict with those of other nations (for example, the South China Sea, cybersecurity, currency, balance of trade). Should incidents of one kind or another occur - which, given the complexity of the world, seems inevitable - the more China interacts with other countries the better it will be able to contain such incidents.

Global responsibilities. As the world's second-largest economy, China is a new global leader and therefore shoulders new global responsibilities. World peace and prosperity do not happen by chance, and there are forces, accidental and deliberate, that can be disruptive. The world needs bulwarks of stability and China is taking on more of these burdens.

Global example. China does not seek to export its political system and it promulgates the virtue that each country should determine its own system of governance and style of development. Nonetheless, China's remarkable economic success can be an example that other developing countries can study and apply. To lead by example is a high-minded strategy that enhances China's credibility.

National pride. China is rightly proud of its 5,000-year civilization as well as its recent economic miracle, and it is natural that China would be pleased for other nations and peoples to appreciate the country's accomplishments. Considered in light of 150 years of oppression and degradation it suffered, China's pride in its increasing diplomatic respect is understandable.

There is nothing short-term about these eight drivers of Xi's foreign policy. As China continues to progress, these drivers continue to develop. We would do well to follow their course.

The author is a public intellectual, political/economics commentator, and international corporate strategist. He is the host of Closer To China with R.L. Kuhn on CCTV NEWS, whose executive producer is Adam Zhu. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

(China Daily European Weekly 01/01/2016 page8)