More continuity than change in China’s approach to the post-COVID world

We remain in the early stages of understanding what the COVID-19 crisis means to us—as individuals, families, citizens, and fellow travellers on a fevered planet.  Much may change, but—more importantly—much will not. If anything, this crisis will solidify trends already in motion prior to the pandemic. That certainly seems true for China’s approach to the world.

China’s strategic aims unchanged

While badly shaken by the coronavirus epidemic, China and its ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will continue to wield formidable powers on the international scene.  Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the CCP, an occasion its leaders will use to celebrate permanency and stability, not change.  And in 2022, in another signal of cohesion and continuity, Xi Jinping looks set to extend his reign as China’s paramount leader for another five years or longer.

In short, we can expect more—perhaps much more—of the same from China, both at home and abroad.  That is because the core means and ends which animate CCP rule have not changed and are unlikely to do so in the near- to medium-term.  Tactics may shift with circumstances—for example, Beijing will seek ways to gain advantages during the current calamity—but the strategic aims of such efforts remain steadfast.

Xi’s foreign policy: drivers

All the more reason to clearly understand the core drivers of Xi Jinping’s foreign policy.  In work for a forthcoming book, I have identified six of them. Most have been long-standing aspects of China’s foreign policy.  However, all have become much more prominent and vigorously-pursued elements of foreign policy under Xi. But taken together they offer a coherent framework for understanding—and responding to—China’s approach to the outside world.

The framework looks like this:

At the centre, where all six goals come together, is the most important objective driving China’s foreign policy.  I term it legitimacy, which is shorthand for maintaining and strengthening the CCP as the sole governing party in China.  This key objective is realised through a foreign policy which keeps two target audiences in mind, those at home and those abroad. Abroad, the CCP looks to strengthen its legitimacy and survival by gaining the acceptance, appreciation, and even approbation of foreign governments and societies for China’s system of governance, domestic policies, and pursuit of overseas interests.

Second is sovereignty.  Broadly speaking, this means expanding China’s freedom for strategic manoeuver internationally.  But it also entails asserting and defending Chinese sovereignty claims. Doing so links back to Party legitimacy but also supports China’s long-term geopolitical interests and ambitions: the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”  Where Beijing’s sovereignty claims are questioned and contested—think Xinjiang and parts of Tibet, and especially Taiwan, East China Sea, and South China Sea—could be where future conflict erupts if Xi Jinping decides to pursue these claims more assertively.  At a minimum, these claims directly affect relations with nearly all of Beijing’s neighbours and have implications further afield for its ties with others such as the United States and beyond.

The third and fourth key drivers—wealth and power—result in a foreign policy which promotes the continued build-up of economic prosperity and coercive instruments of hard power. These provide the material foundation in support of the other drivers such as legitimacy and sovereignty, as well as influence and leadership.

Influence refers to the aim of projecting a positive image abroad and shaping thinking within foreign societies in ways that favour China’s strategic interests.  Such influence projection has long been part of China’s activities abroad, but under Xi Jinping it has received an expanded mandate and greater resources. This includes the foreign activities of CCP organisations such as the United Front Work Department; the cultivation of foreign politicians and other elites; and the expansion of China’s international media and cultural presence, including through traditional media, new social media, art and cultural traditions, and even cinema.

A final driver of China’s foreign policy is the pursuit of greater leadership roles for Beijing on the international stage.  This effort includes increasing political leverage in multilateral fora, contributions and leadership positions within the United Nations system and other international organisations; establishment of new multilateral institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank; and seeking to set political, regulatory, and technical standards and norms across a range of emerging technologies and fields of commerce.  Pursuing such leadership also bolsters other fundamental foreign policy drivers such as legitimacy, sovereignty, and influence.

Plus ça change…

Increasingly prosperous, powerful, and authoritarian, China intends to become a more intense global competitor economically, technologically, diplomatically, militarily, and in the realm of ideas.  The COVID-19 crisis will not change this.

Taken together, these drivers of China’s foreign policy—legitimacy, sovereignty, wealth, power, influence, and leadership—offer a timely, comprehensive, yet accessible framework to assess those ambitions, consider their implications, strengths, and weaknesses, and develop recommendations for how other powers can respond in the 2020s and beyond.