The Dawn of Xi Jinping’s China Dream
When President Xi Jinping came to power in November 2012, he brought with him a willingness to use China’s growing economic and military might to support a more assertive and security-oriented Chinese foreign policy. His address to the Central Conference on Work Relating to Foreign Affairs (FAWC) in November 2014, while filled with the usual platitudes of peaceful development, mutual respect, and calls for diplomacy that created “win-win” situations, departed from traditional Chinese foreign policy as President Xi unprecedentedly stated that China could no longer develop on its own and was increasingly dependent upon, and consequently influenced by, the global economy and other exogenous factors. Further breaking with precedent, President Xi also stressed that China’s continued development was inextricably tied to the protection of its core national interests, explicitly linking China’s security interests with its economic interests. These breaks with tradition not only signaled President Xi’s commitment to advance and defend China’s economic and security interests but to also promote these interests no matter who or what may stand in China’s way.
While prior leaders have grudgingly acknowledged China’s need to engage with the international order, this admission was always tempered by the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) belief that China could still develop on its own. CCP leaders believed that China already possessed the innate capability to develop its economic and military capacities independently and only required limited outside assistance; Chinese leaders continued looking inwards and largely ignored the international community. President Xi’s blunt statement that China depended on external events to further its objectives, both domestically and internationally, was a stark admission that China had to adopt a more outward looking mentality and actively engage in the international arena to create an environment conducive to its continued rise. President Xi’s emphasis on the importance of multilateral international institutions such as the United Nations and World Trade Organization, as well as his push to create the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and ASEAN+3 clearly illustrates this sense of urgency.
Not satisfied with merely increasing Chinese participation in international and regional institutions, President Xi also saw fit to attach an addendum to China’s oft repeated policy of a “peaceful rise”: China’s continued development would now be contingent on the uncompromising defense of its “core interests” (defined as sovereignty, territorial integrity, security, and development) with the implication that, if those interests were challenged, China’s continued economic development would be jeopardized. While defending its sovereignty and territorial integrity is not a new concept in Chinese foreign policy (the CCP’s positions on Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang being prominent examples), and while not explicitly an aggressive statement when taken at face value, Xi’s emphasis on economic development through the defense of these aforementioned core interests has translated into renewed tension within the region. China’s considerably broad definitions of these interests, vis-à-vis its territorial claims over the entirety of the South China Sea, its increased deployment of military forces in territorial waters claimed by its neighbors, and its willingness to use its growing economic influence to punish any perceived offenses signaled a more assertive and provocative China unafraid to challenge the United States and its current dominance within the region. China’s interest in international institutions thus represent Xi’s belief that China is a fully-fledged great power capable of exerting its influence on a global scale; the AIIB, ASEAN+3, and the SCO are all institutions that were created to give China broader platforms from which it could advance and protect its core interests while aggressively sidelining the United States.
The launching of China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, an ambitious foreign economic development and investment program championed by China, earlier this year further highlights President’s Xi’s determination to wield his country’s growing influence to secure China’s national interests. Like his speech at FAWC, President Xi’s speech opening the Belt and Road Forum, took on a more combative tone and starkly presented OBOR as a chance for China to seize leadership in an economic world-order currently dominated by an increasingly in-ward looking United States. By investing in infrastructure projects in countries along China’s periphery, President Xi hopes to increase China’s leverage and ability to pressure those countries into acquiescing to Chinese interests. Initial targets of Chinese investment through OBOR, such as Myanmar and Sri Lanka, have realized this and sought to renegotiate or even terminate existing infrastructure contracts signed with the Chinese government. Xi has also made blatantly clear that the “one road” mentioned in OBOR refers to the vital sea lanes within the South China Sea and that he intends on funneling investment money earmarked in OBOR to building up and expanding upon China’s territorial claims and interests in the region. Cambodia, which already receives substantial FDI from China, stands to gain even more from OBOR and has proven in the past that it is willing to promote Beijing’s interests in the South China Sea if the FDI keeps flowing and China hopes to use OBOR to convince other countries in the region of the benefits of supporting China’s interests over their own.
With China increasingly trying to assuage its skittish neighbors and a wary US of its peaceful intentions while at the same time more forcefully, and provocatively, promoting its national interests, one must wonder why President Xi chose to break with tradition and introduce seemingly contradictory foreign policy objectives during his tenure in the first place. After all, China’s more assertive nature has only served to complicate Xi’s efforts to build cooperative and friendly relationships with his neighbors and other potential partners and has imperiled some of OBOR’s earliest projects. The answer lies in the opportunity President Xi has exploited as China’s economic and military powers steadily grows while those of the United States and the West steadily wanes. Previous Chinese leaders adhered to Deng Xiaoping’s maxims of non-aggression, non-confrontation, and non-antagonism because China did not yet possess the capabilities to challenge the United States, and in Deng’s era Japan. However, while emphasizing that China in the modern era is more susceptible to the outcomes of external events, Xi Jinping noted that China now also possesses the power to influence and shape the outcomes of those external events, surpassing all other powers except the United States in military spending and overall GDP, and should not shy away from wielding that influence to advance positions that benefit China, even if those actions may be seen as hostile by other powers.
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