The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research


The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research

New Directions for Chinese Diplomacy?

February 16, 2015

The government of Xi Jinping continues to send mixed signals on foreign policy, now flexing its muscles in the East China Sea, now touting its commitment to international cooperation. Kazuyuki Suwa reviews diplomatic developments in China since the spring 2014 session of the National People’s Congress in the light of discussions with experts on the ground.

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The National People’s Congress held in Beijing from March 5 to March 14, 2014, received relatively little media attention, inasmuch as the 2013 meeting had previously approved all key party and government appointments. But as the first annual session since President Xi Jinping took office, the meeting (Second Session of the Twelfth National People’s Congress) put the seal of approval on the new administration’s goals and targets, and in this sense it holds considerable significance for policy trends going forward. In the following, I examine the trajectory of China’s foreign policy approach since the NPC spring session with the aid of interviews conducted in Beijing.

The New Normal

In his Report on the Work of Government, delivered on the first day of the spring NPC session (March 5), Premier Li Keqiang made the following statement concerning China’s foreign policy:

“This year is the 60th anniversary of the issuance of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence.[1] The Chinese people love peace and cherish development, and China needs a long-term stable international environment for its modernization. We will continue to hold high the banner of peace, development, cooperation and mutual benefit; unswervingly follow the path of peaceful development; and unwaveringly implement a win-win strategy of opening up. We will resolutely safeguard China’s sovereignty, security and development interests, and fully protect the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese citizens and legal persons overseas.”[2] In addition, the State Council’s report on government jurisdiction over implementation of the national agenda (referred to below as the “jurisdiction report”) stated that foreign policy henceforth would be implemented in “a pragmatic and open fashion.”[3]

The question is, how does Beijing intend to reconcile the “path of peaceful development” with the seemingly divergent course of “resolutely safeguarding China’s sovereignty” at a time when Deng Xiaoping’s exhortation to maintain “lie low and bide our time” seems more and more like an artifact of a bygone era? I posed this question to a young professor of international politics at a major university in Beijing and received the following answer (with the qualification that he had no role in the policymaking process and thus could only convey his “impressions”).

“Since the outbreak of the 2008 global financial crisis,” he said, “the so-called mainstream principles of peaceful development and biding our time have ceased to be the mainstream in foreign policy. Of course, there is always a range of opinion on foreign policy as on other issues, even in a country like China. But in the past, policymakers were able to hold off calls for a more aggressive stance by taking refuge in the principle of peaceful development. That’s no longer possible.

“In Chinese foreign policy today,” he continued, “there’s no longer a single approach or policy direction that could be called mainstream. This creates fertile ground for the diffusion of extreme ideas—such as the notion that China can do whatever it wants by leveraging its economic power, and Maoist concepts like ‘It’s okay to let half the people die’ [for the good of the nation]. In China today you hear a lot of talk about the importance of ‘public diplomacy,’ but the real reason for this seemingly progressive stance that is that the people who make and implement policy are afraid of public opinion.”

If this is an accurate assessment of the dynamic driving foreign policy in China today, then we who desire peace and stability in the region have reason to view China with a sense of genuine alarm.

Inconsistencies on “Peripheral Diplomacy”

In the 2014 Report on the Work of the Government, “peripheral diplomacy” ranked number one on Beijing’s list of foreign-policy priorities, followed by developing countries, major powers, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC), and multilateral cooperation.[4] This new emphasis on relations with China’s closest neighbors is a direct reflection of the basic policy established by the Xi regime in an unprecedented working conference on peripheral diplomacy, held in Beijing on October 24–25, 2013.

The October 2013 conference was the first forum focusing specifically on peripheral diplomacy in the history of the People’s Republic of China. According to Renmin Ribao ( People’s Daily ), it was held to “establish strategic targets, basic policies, and comprehensive arrangements for peripheral diplomacy over the next five to ten years.” In his remarks to the participants, President Xi Jinping, who chaired the forum, reportedly called for “vigorous promotion of the principles of friendship, good faith, generosity, and tolerance in order to achieve the great revival of the Chinese people.” In a commentary on the conference carried by Renmin Ribao , Qui Xing, president of the China Institute of International Studies, stated unequivocally, “Among the categories of major-power, peripheral, developing-country, and multilateral diplomacy, the periphery is assuming increasing importance.” A companion article sought to convey the importance of the periphery in numbers, noting that the region consists of 29 countries with a combined population of 2.5 billion, while placing particular emphasis on the importance of China’s relations with Russia, Central Asia, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, India, Pakistan, and South Korea. Conspicuously missing from the list was Japan.[5]

China’s Japan policy entered a period of instability immediately after the 2008 state visit of then President Hu Jintao, and Beijing has gradually intensified its hardline stance toward Tokyo since then. Designating 2015 as the “70th anniversary of the victory over fascism,” the Chinese leadership is calling for an international united front against its “principal enemy,” Japan.

It is unfortunate that the government of Xi Jinping has chosen to exclude Japan from the list of countries meriting stronger diplomatic efforts under its “peripheral diplomacy” initiative, but it is consistent with the policy China has adopted toward Japan since late 2009, when the Japanese government “nationalized” its control over the disputed Senkaku Islands by purchasing several islands that were in private hands at the time. In its 2014 Report on the Work of the Government, the State Council was clearly targeting Japan when it stated, “We will safeguard the victory of World War II and the postwar international order, and will not allow anyone to reverse the course of history.”

Speaking to the press on March 8 on the sidelines of the NPC session, Foreign Minister Wang Yi underscored China’s intransigence toward Japan, insisting that “on the two issues of principle, history and territory, there is no room for compromise.”[6] Such statements suggest that the road to Japan-China rapprochement could be a long and difficult one. As one Japanese government official said to me in Beijing, “There is, unfortunately, no possibility that these incursions by Chinese naval vessels into the waters around the Senkakus will come to an end. Now that Beijing has established and fleshed out a legal and institutional groundwork for the current policy, letting things slide is no longer an option.” At the time I felt his pessimism was warranted.

Nonetheless, the last few months have produced unmistakable signs of an overall thaw in diplomatic relations between Tokyo and Beijing. In early April, Hu Deping, former vice-chairman of the All-China General Chamber of Industry and Commerce and the son of late Chinese leader Hu Yaobang, visited Japan at the invitation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and met with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and other officials, a possible signal of Beijing’s readiness to begin mending fences. In mid-April, Vice-Premier Wang Yang received a delegation from the Japanese Association for the Promotion of International Trade headed by veteran Liberal Democratic Party politician Yohei Kono. Later that month, Wang met with Tokyo Governor Yoichi Masuzoe during the latter’s visit to Beijing. It was the first time in 18 years that a Tokyo governor had traveled to the Chinese capital at the latter’s invitation.

Despite the unprecedented strains in bilateral ties, China cannot realistically ignore the objective importance of Japan in the context of either peripheral or major-power relations, especially given Beijing’s growing emphasis on “economic diplomacy.” In this sense, the development of Japan-China ties in the months and years ahead can be considered a litmus test of Beijing’s practical commitment to “peaceful development” going forward.

Cracks in the Principle of Noninterference

Meanwhile, the ongoing crisis in Ukraine has called into question China’s commitment to the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, touted as central to the Beijing’s foreign policy since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. At issue in particular is the principle of noninterference in internal affairs, which Beijing has cited time and again in connection with its treatment of ethnic minorities and its handling of the Taiwan problem.

In mid-March, after the collapse of Ukraine’s pro-Russian regime and its replacement by a pro-Western government, the Crimean parliament declared independence from Ukraine. The separatist government then signed a treaty with the Russian government under President Vladimir Putin to incorporate the region into the Russian Federation. Despite a chorus of international criticism, including a joint condemnation from the leaders of the Group of Seven industrial powers, Russia refused to reverse its action, and the annexation became a fait accompli. The crisis soon spread to eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian forces stormed government offices in several cities. Since then the United States and the European Union have continued to engage the Kremlin in talks aimed at stabilizing the region, but tensions have only escalated.

Regardless of Russia’s insistence that the majority of Crimea’s inhabitants favored annexation, the act was clearly at odds with China’s cherished principle of noninterference in internal affairs. Given Beijing’s stated commitment to this principle and insistence that other countries respect China’ sovereignty in regard to internal policies, the Chinese should have been among those most vigorously condemning Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its continued intervention in Ukraine. But Beijing seemed more concerned with maintaining friendly ties with Moscow, which Xi Jinping has proclaimed are better than at any point in history. In an apparent effort to placate all sides, China offered only a most tepid and ambiguous response to the crisis, as typified by this statement at a March 2 Foreign Ministry briefing.

“China is deeply concerned about the current situation in Ukraine. . . . It is China’s long-standing position not to interfere in others’ internal affairs. We respect the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. There are reasons why the situation has reached this point in Ukraine today. China calls on all the parties involved to seek a political resolution of their differences through dialogue and negotiation based on respect for international law and norms governing international relations in order to maintain regional peace and stability.”[7]

In keeping with this non-position, China abstained from a March 15 UN Security Council vote on a draft resolution urging member states not to recognize the results of Crimean referendum on annexation held on March 16. (The draft resolution was vetoed by the Russian Federation.)

Interestingly, the reaction within China to Beijing’s noncommittal response was largely positive. Typical of media coverage was this report on the website, carried under the title “Why Are Russia and Ukraine Thanking China?”:

“On March 18, President Putin delivered a fervently patriotic speech to the Russia Parliament, concluding by saying, ‘We are grateful to those who have shown understanding of our actions in Crimea. We are deeply impressed by China’s response. China’s leadership has analyzed the situation in Crimea from all angles, from a historical and political perspective.’ On the morning of March 21, the Ukrainian embassy in China held a press conference on the situation in Ukraine and the current state of and outlook for economic and trade cooperation between Ukraine and China. The Ukrainian ambassador responded to questions from domestic and foreign reporters. On the subject of China’s position and response to the changing situation in Ukraine, the ambassador stressed his gratitude for the Chinese government’s level-headed response to these events.”[8]

Between Internationalism and Hegemony

The National Security Commission of the Communist Party of China, established at the Third Plenum of the Eighteenth Party Congress November 2013, met for the first time on April 15. Made up of members of the Politburo Standing Committee and empowered to coordinate all aspects of internal and external security policy at the highest level, the council is expected to have a decisive impact on foreign policy going forward. Commenting on external policy at the NSC’s inaugural meeting, President Xi Jinping, who chairs the commission, said that the country would “seek peace, cooperation, a win-win situation, and a harmonious world.” But how do such lofty sentiments apply to China’s policy toward Japan?

When US President Barack Obama, meeting with Prime Minister Abe on April 24 this year, assured the Japanese government that the Japan-US Security Treaty applied to the Senkaku Islands, Beijing accused Japan and the United States of “ganging up” on China. Will this sort of backlash intensify, or will the government of Xi Jinping begin to steer a more moderate, conciliatory course? More generally, does Beijing’s pledge to participate in international affairs as a “responsible power” herald a new phase in Chinese diplomacy? Will the regime of Xi Jinping find a way of reconciling the goal of “resolutely safeguarding China’s sovereignty” with the “path of peaceful development”?

Hitoshi Amako of the Waseda University Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies argues that China is caught in a basic dilemma in its relations with Japan as it wavers between the path of international cooperation and that of “great power politics,” or hegemony.[9] Frankly, I fear that China has already resolved the dilemma by choosing the path of hegemony. If I am correct in this assessment, our task now must be to leverage the principles of international cooperation to which we adhere in order to draw China into the same circle of cooperation.

[1] The Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence are mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, mutual nonaggression, mutual noninterference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and cooperation for mutual benefit, and peaceful co-existence.



[4] The Chinese use the term zhoubian waijiao in reference to diplomacy with neighboring countries. I have adhered to the literal translation here because I believe it reflects the persistence of a traditional Sinocentric worldview.

[5] Renmin Ribao , October 26, 2013.




[9] Hitoshi Amako, “Nitchu kankei no zento: Shu Kinpei seiken no taigai senryaku kara miru” (Outlook for Japan-China Relations from the Perspective of the Xi Regime’s International Strategy), Toa , April 2014.

    • Professor, School of International Relations, University of Shizuoka
    • Kazuyuki Suwa
    • Kazuyuki Suwa

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