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China's Foreign Policies Today. Who is in Charge of What

by Axel Berkofsky and Giulia Sciorati

2 dicembre 2022
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In the decade since Xi Jinping took power in 2012, China’s foreign policy has witnessed a significant change, from a defensive to an assertive approach. For decades, while spurring economic growth, Beijing worked to integrate into the liberal international order and present itself as a peacefully rising power. While some elements of this “peaceful rise” narrative persist to this date, under President Xi Jinping’s leadership, the country has been projecting the image of a more powerful nation in the international arena. And although Xi’s strategy aims to reassure other nations that Chinese intentions are benign, he is also attempting to create a global system that is more favourable to his country’s interests.

The edited volume examines China’s current approach to foreign policy and the drivers of the country’s shift away from tradition. The study complements theoretical analyses on the inner workings of Beijing’s foreign policy decision-making processes with empirical evidence drawn from China’s stance towards the Russia-Ukraine war and conflicts in general.

Axel Berkofsky is an Associate Professor at the University of Pavia.

Giulia Sciorati is a post Doctoral Research Fellow at the Department of Humanities of the University of Trento.

From Chapter 6.  A Three-Pronged Foreign Policy in the New Era (pagg. 114 -119)

Embracing Foreign Policy Activism Under Xi

Since Xi announced his flagship project, the “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI – Yi dai Yi lu一带一路), in 2013 from the halls of Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan, an extensive literature has emerged on China’s role in international politics arguing for or against the notion that Beijing’s active/very assertive engagement in regional politics is also the result of a Chinese revisionist drive. This tendency has underlined the emergence of a China that – if not revisionist – has at least become more active in the international arena. Undoubtedly, China’s centrality regarding global issues – including in security and conflict resolution – has denoted an inevitable break with the country’s past approaches to the outside world.

As evidence of this newfound behaviour, we only have to consider China’s recent stance on the Russo-Ukrainian war. Despite maintaining a somewhat cautious attitude towards the crisis, Beijing has been presenting the image of a concerned external party to the conflict, developing a narrative on humanitarian assistance and concern for the safety of civilians based on the country’s traditional boundary of keeping a distance from what China considers the “internal affairs” of other countries (neizheng 内政).

Although observers might perceive China’s involvement in the crisis as relatively minor, there remains a “sense of participation”21 – alas, distant and questionable – in resolving the Russo-Ukrainian conflict that is a characteristic trait of the current leadership’s approach.

Before Xi came to power as Secretary-General of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in November 2012 and became President of the People’s Republic of China in March 2013, China’s foreign policy had, in fact, maintained a solid connection to the country’s 1990s leader Deng Xiaoping and his personally devised approach to foreign affairs. The taoguang yanghui doctrine (韬光养晦) has remained critical in shaping China’s internal strategic debates as well as its realpolitik in the international arena. As the term explains,23 this is a policy of distancing China from other countries’ conflicts, maintaining a “low profile”, and focusing on developing a global China from the inside.24 Indeed, according to Deng’s worldview, China was to devote its efforts to integrating into the global economy and building an economic model that would enable the country to improve its position in the international system and provide a welfare model that would ensure China’s internal stability. The focus of Beijing’s foreign policy would thus counterintuitively be inward-looking and economically focused, contrary to the pursuit of a US-style, globally involved foreign policy. By sticking to taoguang yanghui, China would also ensure that its global rise would occur at minimum political cost. However, this approach also entailed that the country would have to live with the fact that it would remain somewhat subordinated to the US, still the world’s sole superpower with global reach, despite what is referred to in China as “US decline” in international affairs.

Despite its overall benefits, taoguang yanghui is no longer a policy option for Xi. His foreign policy has been connected to the idea that China is central in the international system and that this centrality needs to be emphasised through the development of a “community of a common destiny” (renlei mingyun gongtongti人类命运共同体).

So far, the activism that has characterised China’s foreign policy under Xi has severed the connection with the low-profile view advocated by Deng and continued by Xi’s predecessors –both Hu and Jiang Zemin – and has, at times, been referred to as “revisionism”. However, China’s own “brand of revisionism” has mainly targeted the inner workings of the country’s foreign policy decision-making processes rather than the general status quo. Beijing has, in fact, repeatedly shown itself to rely on the stability of the international system to develop its global partnership network.

China’s reaction to the 2021 Afghan crisis is a case in point. As regional stability remains a crucial objective of Beijing’s overall approach to global issues, China has not pursued a proactive role in the Afghan crisis. One interpretation might suggest that, in the country’s view, this would avoid inflaming the domestic situation in Kabul even further. 

To be sure, China has not failed to accuse the West in general and the US in particular of having created chaos and disorder in Afghanistan over the years, and has argued on numerous occasions and via multiple channels that the US failure to pacify and democratise Afghanistan was doomed from the start. All of this while watching from a safe distance over the years, limiting its engagement in Afghanistan to considering the natural resources of a country that could become part of the aforementioned BRI.

Nonetheless, China has, at the same time, rushed to foster military and security cooperation with Afghanistan’s neighbours. Most notably, Beijing has financed a jointly administered military outpost in Tajikistan – an effort mainly directed at ensuring China’s internal stability goals.

Confronted with the various forms taken by China’s international activism, scholars, analysts and policymakers have feared the return to a Maoist-like foreign policy approach, rooted in the idea of an unavoidable conflict between capitalism and socialism that would have made China fully embrace revisionist tendencies.29 This point is made evident in Jude Blanchette’s 2019 volume, where the author presents an in-depth picture of the individuals and agenda of China’s new left under the current leadership. However, Xi is not Mao. Although both these political figures have displayed a tendency towards power centralisation (especially in the security and  foreign policy domains), Xi remains aware that the strength of China’s current foreign relations is based on trust-building – supported by investments and economic aid – with partners in the developing world, and the image of an anti-imperialist, peacefully rising power, which the country had been promoting in the world since the Bandung Conference in 1955.

This anti-imperialist image of itself that Beijing is seeking to project is certainly imperfect and, over time, has faced numerous tests, which, in turn, have more often than not weakened China’s position with its partners in the developing world. Mao’s decision to unleash a border war with India in 1962 – at the time a fellow developing country belonging to what Mao understood as the Third World – put an end to Mao’s credibility as the leader of the developing/Third World countries. A very recent example again involves India: the 2020 border clashes between the Chinese and Indian military forces in the Ladakh region,32 clashes that seem to have been unleashed by Beijing, despite Chinese propaganda suggesting otherwise. However, one should not forget that the relationship between Beijing and New Delhi has been historically characterised by a cyclical rivalry, making India stand out alone among China’s neighbours and making the clashes a less significant departure from Beijing’s neighbourhood stability tenet.

Notwithstanding the practice of China’s supposedly antiimperialist policies,34 any attempt to pursue a revisionist foreign policy would severely damage the country’s partner network, on which Beijing relies to achieve its global governance objectives. 

On that note, some empirical evidence emerges, once again, from the ongoing war in Ukraine. China’s cautious stance on the conflict, in fact, despite representing a more active involvement against the war than the country’s traditional practice, has damaged Beijing’s self-proclaimed image as an antiimperialist country. This is particularly true for the relationship with partners that are most at risk from Russia’s aggressiveness – that is, the post-Soviet space – and also for the ones that have suffered from Western colonialism in the past and which might perceive Beijing’s cautiousness as tacit support not only of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but also of past invasions and

Courtesy by Ledizioni.