With China’s political class in front of him earlier this month, Xi Jinping summed up his assertive foreign policy in one lively refrain to delegates: “dare to fight.”
The statement at the National People’s Congress captured a new spirit in Beijing, spurred by the Chinese leader’s conclusion that the US-led world order is in decline and ready to be replaced by a new system that better suits China’s interests.
The flurry of diplomacy has already begun. Emerging from the self-isolation of China’s zero-Covid policy, the president made a state visit to Russia this month, released a study on peace in Ukraine and prepared to host a visit from European leaders eager to help end the war. Also this month, China convinced Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore diplomatic ties, the first such success as a mediator in the Middle East.
More subtly, China has taken a series of foreign policy “initiatives” to create alternative structures for international cooperation, especially with the developing world.
“China is ready to gradually erode American leadership and promote Chinese governance,” said Zhao Tong, a senior fellow at the Carnegie think tank and a visiting scholar at Princeton University.
For China, diplomatic pressure is a natural extension of its growing economic power, and is aimed at restoring its historic role at the center of global politics. It also plans to counter Washington’s efforts to “contain” China’s rise by curbing its technological and military capabilities.
For the US-led world order, meanwhile, Xi’s campaign represents the biggest challenge since the Cold War.
Since becoming head of the Chinese Communist Party a decade ago, Xi has taken a more assertive stance on foreign relations. In addition to bombastic calls for the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” he has militarized artificial islands in the disputed South China Sea, taken a more aggressive stance toward Taiwan, and used “wolf warrior” speaker diplomacy to shout down foreign critics.
In October 2017, at the 19th Party Congress, he said, “It is time for us to be at the center of the world.”
Now Xi wants to consolidate that position. This month, he codified the new foreign policy doctrine with a 24-character formula that includes the phrase “dare to fight.” The formula’s sentence structure reflected guidance given more than 30 years ago by late reform-era leader Deng Xiaoping, who advised strategic patience in foreign relations. But Xi’s version has definitely abandoned this principle.
According to one Asian diplomat, Xi’s speech in 2017 called time for the Deng era, where China “hides its strength and bides its time.” “But now [Xi] officially replaced the Deng Doctrine with something completely different,” they said.
In that new spirit, China this month for the first time played a decisive role as a mediator in a Middle East dispute, convincing Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore diplomatic ties after a seven-year rift.
“In the past, we declared certain basic principles and explained our position, but we did not participate operationally. That will change,” said Wu Xinbo, dean of the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai.
China has also tried to present itself as a supporter of peace in Ukraine, although Western capitals see Beijing’s stance on the war as strengthening Vladimir Putin and recognizing the Russian conquest of Ukrainian territories.
Xi is expected to discuss Ukraine with Spain’s Pedro Sanchez, who arrived in the Chinese capital on Thursday. Beijing hopes the Spanish prime minister’s two-day trip will pave the way for China-EU cooperation after Spain takes over the bloc’s presidency in July, a Chinese expert said. In the coming weeks, the French Emmanuel Macron and Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, will also visit. But while Putin welcomed Xi’s efforts, the Chinese leader has not called Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, since his country was invaded.
Beijing is also vying for leadership in the developing world. In recent weeks, Xi has promoted what he calls “China-style modernization,” a concept more suited to developing countries than the Western “rules-based” order.
Following the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative, which focuses on foreign infrastructure investment, in 2013, Xi launched the Global Development Initiative in 2021, which gave another boost to the use of China’s economic power to bring developing countries together.
The following year, he announced the Global Security Initiative and this month the Global Civilization Initiative, still vague policies that appear to be aimed at challenging Western understandings of universal values.
“People need it. . . refrain from imposing their own values or models on others,” China’s State Council said of the latest initiative.
To mark the occasion, Xi held a conference call in a sparsely furnished room in which sympathetic political leaders from around the world appeared on a giant screen.
“We need to look at China’s foreign policy with new eyes because these moves are new,” said Tuvia Gering, an expert on China’s foreign and security policy at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.
Moritz Rudolf, a researcher at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center, says China’s argument that modernization does not have to equate to Westernization is well-received in many developing countries, especially if it brings financial benefits from closer cooperation with Beijing.
“This appears to be a counterargument [US President] Joe Biden’s narrative of autocracy versus democracy,” Rudolf said. “This is an ideological battle that is more attractive to developing countries than people in Washington would like to believe.”
In Latin America, for example, the general mood regarding Beijing’s diplomatic strategy was positive, said Letícia Simões, assistant professor at La Salle University in Rio de Janeiro.
According to an article last year by a Chinese Communist Party official, Beijing has already approved $22 billion of $35 billion in loans to countries in the region.
China’s overtures appear to be paying off politically in Central America, where several countries, including Honduras, have severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan over the past six years.
“Left-wing governments [in Latin America] they tend to be more positive towards China, but even right-wing countries need a pragmatic relationship,” said Simões, pointing to China’s role as the largest trading partner among many countries in the region.
According to analysts, in the Iran-Saudi dispute, Beijing has turned its commercial dominance into geopolitical influence. They also predicted that China’s rapidly developing military capabilities could allow it to offer alternatives to the United States in international security.
“China is signaling to states that China can control foreign policy,” said Courtney Fung of the Lowy Institute.
According to analysts, China’s more active foreign policy was partly motivated by pragmatism, including the need to protect increasingly global economic interests, as well as nationalism and geopolitics.
“China wants to feel that we represent a force in international affairs that is equal to our national power,” said Fudan University’s Wu. “But another factor is the US attempt to contain China. They want to isolate us, oppress us, demonize us, and therefore we must acquire the ability to resist these efforts.”
The war in Ukraine reinforced this narrative in the minds of some Chinese policymakers.
“They sincerely believe that the war was provoked by the West to end Russia, and if Russia is defeated, China will be next,” Carnegie’s Zhao said. “Russia is China’s most important teammate in the fight with the United States, so there is no room for Russia to leave.”
For years, Chinese diplomats and academics have debated how to reconcile the country’s growing global interests with its traditional doctrine of non-interference in the affairs of other countries. In order to provide a diplomatic framework for incidents such as China’s 2011 evacuation of its citizens from Libya and its anti-piracy missions around the Horn of Africa, the term “constructive intervention” was coined.
Chinese experts see this concept at work in Beijing’s approach to the war in Ukraine, which Western observers say is undermined by contradictions. For example, China did not condemn Russia’s invasion, nor did it specifically support Ukraine’s sovereignty.
Many believe that China faces a steep learning curve as a peacemaker. “I hope China can play a mediating role in the Ukraine conflict, but it would be extremely difficult,” said Zhang Xin, a Russia expert at East China Normal University.
The Iran-Saudi deal was simpler because both sides wanted greater Chinese involvement in the region and both wanted a deal, Zhang said.
Nevertheless, observers believe that Beijing’s foreign policy will only become more active. Chinese scholars see Afghanistan and North Korea, as well as some conflicts in the Middle East and Africa, as areas where China could play a growing role, even though it has been engaged in international negotiations over Pyongyang’s nuclear program for decades with little success.
Some also believe it could join forces with the United States in peace efforts. “There is still a lot of room for cooperation,” Fudan University’s Wu said.
Western scientists are more skeptical. But if Beijing’s new desire for mediation “signaled that China would no longer be a free rider and use some of its political capital[to get deals done]. . . then that can be a good thing,” said Paul Haenle of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Additional reporting by Michael Stott in London