‘High Winds, Choppy Waters, Even Dangerous Storms’: Understanding Chinese Foreign Policy Under Xi

The combination of developments under Xi Jinping's leadership has consequences not just for Chinese domestic politics but also for the rest of the world.

At the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) that concluded last month, General Secretary Xi Jinping was able to fill the top echelons of the party’s leadership structures with his own men, ignoring both several institutional norms and rival factional groupings.

Xi was able to build up this overwhelming personal influence within the Chinese political system over the past decade not just by manoeuvring over personnel appointments and targeting of rivals under his wide-ranging anti-corruption campaign, but also by an extensive campaign of reviving and reinterpreting Communist Party ideology within Chinese society.

Alongside, he has tried to make use of China’s increased economic capacity and global standing to drive a hyper-nationalist agenda and pride in “China’s fine traditional culture”.

External consequences

This combination of developments – the seeming lack of checks on Xi’s personal power, and the prescriptions for the party and Chinese society of Marxist-Leninist dogma on the one hand and cultural exceptionalism on the other – has consequences not just for Chinese domestic politics but also for the rest of the world.

The Chinese party-state is already known to frequently and deliberately ignore international norms and laws in order to get its way.

At the 20th Party Congress, Xi explicitly said, “[W]e have not yielded any ground on matters of principle, and we have resolutely safeguarded China’s sovereignty, security, and development interests. National security has thus been strengthened on all fronts.”

If the 2020 Chinese transgressions along the Line of Actual Control with India in eastern Ladakh in clear violation of bilateral treaties constitute “matters of principle” for the Chinese, it should be clear that current trends in Chinese foreign and security policies are only likely to continue.

Unlike the 19th Party Congress report of 2017, which adopts a confident tone about the party being able to deal with the challenges the world threw China’s way, the 20th Congress report appears considerably more focused on the difficulties ahead. It notes that “[e]xternal attempts to suppress and contain China may escalate at any time”.

Even as the report declares that the party is “more confident, and more capable than ever of reaching the goal of rejuvenating the Chinese nation”, the cadre must “be more mindful of potential dangers, be prepared to deal with worst-case scenarios, and be ready to withstand high winds, choppy waters, and even dangerous storms”.

The party-state is clearly suffering the effects of the domestic economic downturn – the result of structural weaknesses in the Chinese economy – the US-China trade war, and the COVID-19 pandemic, and the stringent zero-COVID-19 policy response. Under the circumstances, emphasising “worst-case scenarios” offers a useful distraction from the party’s incompetence in managing domestic affairs and helps polarise public opinion within China against the world outside.

This will naturally have implications for India, the region and the world at large and it is useful, therefore, to understand the patterns of the party-state’s foreign policy in order to anticipate what will come next.

Also read: China Will Support Pakistan in Stabilising Its Financial Situation: Xi Jinping

Patterns in Xi’s foreign policy

At least two broad patterns can be identified in China’s foreign policy under Xi.

The first is of the long-standing link of the domestic with the external, of China’s internal preoccupations spilling over in policies towards other countries. The second is of a drive towards greater say and participation in regional and global discourses and developments as a way to show not just what China can and must do as a leading global power but also as a form of existential competition with the liberal, democratic political systems of the world.

In the first category, one aspect that has garnered world attention in Xi’s tenure is China’s attitudes towards its ethnic minorities.

It is evident that targeting of the Uyghur ethnic minority has scaled up over the past decade to add to the long-standing oppression of its Tibetan minority. China’s ethnic minorities have always been discriminated against. Han settlers have always had preferential treatment and minority cultural spaces have long been constrained.

But under Xi, even lip service to ethnic autonomy and cultural freedoms has been abandoned with positions traditionally reserved for ethnic minorities now beginning to go to Han officials, ethnic histories being rewritten, minority languages being suppressed, and their heritage and monuments being systematically destroyed, causing certain governments and human rights organisations to infer the possibility of a genocide of the Ugyhurs.

Externally, however, the party-state has become increasingly confident about intervening in neighbouring countries to ensure that its ethnic policies at home can continue without limits. Thus, the Chinese embassy in Kathmandu, for example, has increased its engagements with specific Nepalese government ministries and institutions such as the Nepalese Armed Police Force and with the northern border provinces to limit and contain the activities of Tibetan dissidents and the flow of refugees.

China has also actively canvassed Muslim countries to toe its line on Xinjiang. Even New Delhi inexplicably abstained on a vote last month at the UN Human Rights Council to discuss the human rights issues in Xinjiang.

In the second category, one might note the Chinese use of concepts such as “community of common destiny” and “Chinese dream”. These are catchphrases attempting to compete with the ideas and concepts originating from the West such as of human rights, the liberal global order, or the ‘American dream’.

The objective is to find space for the CPC eternally in power in China as a legitimate political system in the world.

What most outside observers miss, however, is that in the CPC worldview, this exercise is also zero-sum, that is, it can only be achieved by undermining or delegitimising competing political systems.

Thus, while the objective is to “[f]urther increase China’s international standing and influence; enable China to play a greater role in global governance”, the 20th Congress Report makes it a point to say, for example, that “[i]n pursuing modernisation, China will not tread the old path of war, colonisation, and plunder taken by some countries”.

By “some countries” it clearly means the democratic nations of Western Europe, North America and Japan, and the effort is also to undercut the ability of these specific countries to mount any sort of criticism against China.

Also read: What China’s One Belt and One Road Strategy Means for India, Asia and the World

Promoting dominance

At the same time, these ideas targeted at the outside world are also designed to promote China’s dominance in the global system. Outgoing Politburo member in charge of foreign affairs Yang Jiechi’s infamous comment as foreign minister at an ASEAN meeting in 2010, “China is a big country and you are small countries, and that is a fact”, is a case in point.

China is thus caught between a desire to simultaneously mark itself out as different and deserving of its own voice in international politics but also wanting to use its size and historical influence to get countries to acknowledge and respect its interests without question. In effect, it behaves exactly like other contemporary global powers and those before.

This contradiction was evident in the 20th Congress Report and will only become more visible as both domestic pressures and external challenges grow for China. In turn, the world too will face, “high winds, choppy waters, and even dangerous storms” from China’s external actions.

Jabin T. Jacob is associate professor at the Department of International Relations and Governance Studies, Shiv Nadar Institution of Eminence and Adjunct Research Fellow at the National Maritime Foundation, India. He tweets @jabinjacobt