Foreign Relations & International Law

China Prepares for an International Order After U.S. Leadership

Timothy R. Heath
Wednesday, August 1, 2018, 8:31 AM

At China’s Central Foreign Relations Work Conference—an infrequently-held high level strategy session on the nation’s foreign policy—convened on June 23, 2018, Chinese leaders issued an array of foreign policy directives designed to strengthen the activist foreign policy outlined by Xi at the previous foreign affairs work conference held in 2014.

One Belt, One Road: The Global Implications, 2017 (Source: Flickr/World Economic Forum)

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At China’s Central Foreign Relations Work Conference—an infrequently-held high level strategy session on the nation’s foreign policy—convened on June 23, 2018, Chinese leaders issued an array of foreign policy directives designed to strengthen the activist foreign policy outlined by Xi at the previous foreign affairs work conference held in 2014. Since that previous conference, key geopolitical developments have added to the urgency with which Chinese leaders view their country’s role in global governance. In Beijing’s estimation, these developments have also increased the possibility that China will face a power transition with the United States in coming years—and in response, Chinese officials are laying the groundwork to manage that transition and ensure a leading role for their country in the emerging international order.

Deterioration of Global Governance

Since 2014, the decline in the quality of global governance has continued unabated. Multilateral international institutions such as the United Nations and International Monetary Fund have proven unable to overcome persistent slow economic growth, the challenges of climate change, violations of long-standing norms—such as Russia's seizure of Crimea—and the seemingly irresolvable crises of both transnational terror and mass migration in the Middle East. The European Union faces a potential break up and escalating trade tensions threaten to upend the global economy.

To Beijing’s eyes, the international order is deteriorating at a moment when China’s need for international stability and security is greater than ever. As the second largest economy in the world, China’s interests now span the globe, opening a broad array of vulnerabilities. The country surpassed the United States as the largest importer of oil in 2014. Its trade dependence surged to nearly 60 percent of gross domestic product in 2006 before receding slightly in recent years. According to Foreign Minister Wang Yi, last year 130 million Chinese citizens traveled abroad and 30,000 enterprises are located in other countries – some in dangerous locations.

For years, China relied on the efforts of Western countries to control transnational threats and ensure international stability while minimizing its own commitments, raising frequent accusations of “free riding.” But the Western powers’ fraying grip on global leadership has rendered this approach increasingly untenable: in the last two years, China has faced the stunning Brexit vote in 2016; the election of U.S. President Donald Trump on an anti-globalization platform and Trump’s subsequent withdrawal of the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership; and the surging popularity of populist leaders across the industrialized West. Surveying the political turmoil engulfing the industrialized west, State Councilor Yang Jiechi observed in November 2017 that it had become “increasingly difficult for Western governance concepts, systems, and models to keep up with the new international situation.” Western-led global governance, he argued, had “malfunctioned,” and the accumulation of “various ills” showed the system had reached a point “beyond redemption.” Jin Canrong, a well-known professor at People’s University, similarly commented, “The needs for governance keep rising,” but “European countries and the United States appear to be powerless because they are saddled with many problems.”

Few countries are well-positioned to fill this gap in global governance. Most developing countries simply remain too weak to assist. Among the larger developing countries—such as Brazil, India, Russia, China, and South Africa (known collectively as BRICS)—Brazil’s economy is struggling to gain traction following a steep downturn in 2015; India’s efforts to expand a basic infrastructure and reduce red tape have stalled; and the gasping Russian economy has shrunk to a size smaller than that of South Korea.

China appears to be the only plausible country that can offset weaknesses in Western power. China’s economy is growing at a slow, but still strong, six to seven percent, although at the cost of accumulating debt and other accumulating threats to long-term growth. Chinese official media reports suggest that the country appears to have achieved basic modernization faster than its leaders anticipated. As the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, stated in a February 2018 commentary, the 19th Party Congress’ designation of strategic goals for 2035 showed that China had “basically realized modernization 15 years ahead of schedule.”

China Steps Up to Fill the “Governance Deficit”

In response to what Chinese media commentary have called a “global governance deficit,” authorities are viewing with urgency issues of “global governance.” The Politburo has held two study sessions on the topic, on Oct. 12, 2015 and Sept.12, 2016. At the latter event, Xi hinted at the erosion of Western power and the concomitant rise in Chinese national strength, stating that the “structure of global governance depends on the international balance of power.” He declared that China “must make the international order more reasonable and just to protect the common interests of China and other developing countries.”

At the foreign affairs work conference held in June 2018, Xi incorporated the core elements of his vision for global governance from the previous foreign affairs work conference. For example, the “community of common destiny”—an ideal in which countries tolerate one another while carrying out dialogues to resolve differences peacefully and maintain a system of global trade and investment—remains a centerpiece of Xi’s vision, as does the concept of a global network of partnerships —both of which he raised at the previous conference.

A closer look at Chinese diplomatic activity and writing by top officials since 2014 provides some insight into how Beijing intends to make these ideas a reality. Central to China’s approach is the establishment of values and norms that prioritize the values and interests of the developing world over those of the developed world. Chinese officials have stepped up activities to co-opt international institutions, build coalitions of similarly-minded political allies, and extend influence operations to shape global discourse in China’s favor.

Values and Norms

Fundamental to China’s conception of global governance is the establishment of new norms to guide international behavior. In Xi's words, “China must lead the reform of the global governance system with the concept of fairness and justice,” and Chinese commentators make clear that international law should be “implemented on the basis of the norms of fairness and justice” as defined by Chinese authorities.

In a December 2017 People’s Daily article, Foreign Minister Wang Yi explained the meaning of the terms “fairness” [公平·] and “justice” [正义], which Wang stated should become “norms” [准则] for the international community. Wang described fairness in terms of expanding rights and influence on the part of developing countries, declaring, “We will support the expansion of the representativeness and the right of speech of developing countries.” He added that China will also “speak in defense of justice for developing countries” and “push forward the international order towards a fairer and more rational direction.”

In the same article, Wang defined “justice” in terms of the upholding of international laws and principles centered on a United Nations that itself upholds the interests and values of China and other developing countries. “Justice,” Wang explained, requires “opposing the interference in the internal affairs of other countries and opposing the act of imposing one's will on others.” Justice also requires China to “support the United Nations in playing a core role in international affairs.” As a norm, China seeks a “just” order in which all countries “abide by the charter, purpose, and principle of the United Nations, and follow international law as well as generally-accepted principles of international relations.”

Co-opting International Institutions

Chinese leaders have directed efforts to increase the country’s influence within and through existing institutions such as the United Nation, G20, and the International Monetary Fund. Where existing institutions prove insufficiently responsive, authorities have set up rival versions— such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which serves an alternative to the Asian Development Bank. The Chinese government has prioritized efforts to renovate and lead organizations featuring greater representation by developing countries. Illustrating this logic, a 2017 People's Daily commentary noted a “decreasing efficiency” in “international economic mechanisms with the Group of Seven as the center.” It hailed instead Chinese involvement in the G20 and BRICS, which it depicted as more responsive and effective.

Within each institution, Chinese officials have directed more efforts to dominate agenda- and rule-setting. In a 2017 interview with People’s Daily, Foreign Minister Wang Yi described how Chinese officials at a 2014 Asia-Pacific Economic Conference meeting put forward “more than half of all proposals” for action as an example of how the country’s “agenda-setting power has been strengthened.” The same article also noted that a meeting of the G20, countries “with guidance from Xi Jinping” formulated “guiding principles” and mechanisms to cope with issues such as economic growth, multilateral investment, and climate change. The article cited this as an example of China’s focus on “rule setting.” In a separate article, Wang Yi also hailed Chinese efforts to set rules and agendas in international organizations regarding space, cyberspace and polar regions.

Building a Coalition of Supporters

Officials have provided more insight into the global network of partners that Xi hinted at in 2014. Chinese authorities have not only sought to strengthen government-to-government ties with many countries, but have also increased engagement with select political and non-government groups, whom they hope can steer governments towards policies favorable to China.

Chinese authorities have emphasized the importance of relations with both the developing world and countries in Asia. At the 2014 work conference, Xi stated China should “speak for developing countries.” And in 2013, China held its first central work forum on diplomacy to the Asia-Pacific region. But as Beijing contemplates greater international leadership, it has increasingly prioritized building international coalitions to support Chinese power. At the recently-concluded foreign policy central work conference, Xi declared that “great efforts should be made to deepen unity and cooperation with developing countries.” He described the “broad masses of developing countries” as “our natural allies” in the international community. Although it should be emphasized that the use of “allies” does not denote anything resembling traditional military alliances, the mention was still notable as the first time a Chinese leader had discussed in public the formation of political coalitions to advance Chinese foreign policy goals and international leadership since perhaps the Cold War.

But developing countries do not necessarily support a unified agenda or the exercise of Chinese power—as is evident in the disunity of the BRICS and other government-to-government organizations. This is a vulnerability that Chinese explanations of the idea of “partnership” ironically confirm. Wang Yi has explained that the “salient characteristics” of partnerships consist of “respect for sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity” and that partnership “respects people’s independent choice of social systems and developments.” This description makes clear that the basis for unity among so disparate and diverse a set of governments will unavoidably prove fragile, rendering efforts to mobilize coordinated action extremely difficult.

To overcome this limitation, Chinese authorities have sought to build more durable and reliable partnerships that can guide the policies of other governments, promote norms favored by China, and encourage pro-China popular sentiment in other countries. At the 2018 work conference, Xi described foreign relations work as a “systemic project” involving “political parties, the government, people’s congresses, the military, local authorities, and the public.” Of special importance, perhaps, is the effort to extend the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) outreach to various social groups in other countries, including the Chinese diaspora. The elevation of the United Front Department within the CCP in 2018 underscores the importance of this line of work.

The CCP’s focus on political parties outside China likewise seems tied to issues of global governance. In 2015, a special conference convened by the International Conference of Asian Political Parties (ICAPP) reportedly involving 60 delegates from over 30 countries, signed a document in support of the Belt and Road Initiative—a massive Chinese-led infrastructure investment and trade initiative designed to deepen integration of the Eurasian landmass—that called for a “regional financial cooperation system” and infrastructure building to connect the region. In a 2016 speech, CCP Central Committee Secretariat Liu Yunshan stated political parties should “strengthen their guidance of public opinion.” He also pointed out that “political parties shape countries' philosophies, policies, and positions on global economic governance.”

Similarly, an October 2017 article by the CCP's International Liaison Department describes how exchanges between political parties can serve as a “stabilizer” in the state-to-state relations, explaining that “in-depth ideological exchanges” between the CCP and other parties could “spur the other side on to establish a correct and rational cognition about China.” In 2017, China held a high level conference focused on building relations between the CCP and other political parties. At that event, Xi stated that the CCP is “willing to work with other political parties around the world” for the purpose of advancing China’s goal of “building of a community of common destiny.” Xi added that over the coming five years, the CCP intends to invite 15,000 members of foreign political parties to China for exchanges. The CCP reportedly has kept regular contacts with more than 400 political parties and organizations in about 160 countries and regions.

Political party connections can also prove valuable as channels for building consensus on norms and values favorable to Chinese international leadership. In 2014, the Chinese Communist Party hosted its first summit with other world political parties, which it hailed as “The CPC in Dialogue with the World.” According to a concept paper from the event, a copy of which has been posted on website of the Global Foundation, an Australian think tank, the dialogue explored topics such as, “How can political parties of all types throughout the world work together to jointly participate and guide innovative development in global economic governance?” The concept paper stated that a primary purpose of such discussions was to “build consensus” around such issues.

Shaping International Discourse

Chinese theorists consider influence over the language, vocabulary, ideas and concepts used to discuss international issues—known as “discourse power” [话语权]—to be an important attribute of global power. “Only when Chinese diplomatic discourse is generally prevalent internationally,” noted Yang Jiemian, a prominent scholar at the Shanghai Institute of International Studies, “will China exert the influence and play the role of a great power.” Chinese scholars argue that the country’s discourse power remains weak, but assess that it will grow as China’s strength waxes and Western power wanes. As Yang stated, “The core values of China’s diplomatic discourse is presently still relatively weak, but it will ultimately become part of the mainstream.”

Officials agree on the importance of this dimension of international influence. In the 2017 People’s Daily interview, Wang Yi cited Xi’s speech praising globalization and criticizing protectionism as examples of the country’s “discourse power,” noting the speech earned “praise by the international community.” Wang also noted how documents in the United Nations have begun to incorporate Chinese proposed concepts such as the “community of common destiny” as evidence of the growing international receptiveness to Chinese ideas, concepts, and proposals.

Authorities have also stepped up outreach to foreign think tanks, academics, and scholars to socialize Chinese concepts, ideas and policy proposals. International media has raised awareness of some of the more sensational developments, such as efforts by officials to buy foreign media, suppress rival diaspora voices, and carry out “influence operations” through Confucius Institutes and Chinese student associations. However, perhaps more fruitful from China’s perspective are the networks of scholars and researchers engaged in issues of interest to China, such as the “eSilk Road” think tank network that supports the Belt and Road Initiative.

China Prepares for Power Transition

For years, Chinese commentators and scholars dismissed talk of a “bipolar order” or “G2”—but attitudes appear to be changing. In a 2018 interview, Tsinghua University's Yan Xuetong envisioned a coming bipolar order. He rejected the idea that China could equal U.S. power in the next 10 years, but coyly refused to speculate on which country might prove superior after that period. Other Chinese experts similarly acknowledge China remains too weak to challenge the United States in the near term, but avoid publicly speculating on the longer term and instead advocate increased efforts to shore up the country’s comprehensive strength and global leadership. Chen Xiangyang, an expert at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, stated in June 2018 that, “China is not yet strong enough to counter the existing major powers which continue to play important international roles.” He recommended that China “act rationally and promote global cooperation” and “make efforts to avoid a vicious competition and arms race.”

Although Chinese officials and scholars seek to avoid an open challenge to U.S. leadership, leaders seem to believe in a growing possibility that China could eclipse the United States as a global power some day. Statements by top leaders evince uncertainty and some anxiety about how the United States may respond to this possibility. In a startling acknowledgment of this sensitive issue, Xi directed greater efforts to study power transitions at the recent foreign affairs work conference, calling for “in-depth analysis of the law of how the international situation changes when the world comes into its transitional period.” In language tellingly omitted from English translations, Xi indirectly referred to potential disruptions and uncertainties in the U.S.-China relationship, stating that in light of the “accelerated development of multipolarization,” it had become necessary to “attach great importance to the tendency of extensive adjustments in major-country relations” (emphasis added).

Anticipating the possibility of a transfer in power, China is positioning itself to thwart any effort by the United States to mobilize an anti-China coalition. In addition to Beijing’s buildup of military and economic power, official media have in recent years cast China as the responsible, law-abiding authority acting in conformity with the United Nations while depicting the United States as a “lone wolf” that opposes the will of most countries. In a 2017 speech expounding on China’s vision for “global security governance,” Xi denounced unnamed countries for “building security on the turmoil of another country.” A People’s Daily article on the speech criticized “Western countries” for using “rule of law" as a “tool to achieve their own interests on security issues.” Similarly, a typical Xinhua commentary excoriated the recent U.S. withdrawal from the United Nations Human Rights Council, which it decried as the “latest move of unilateralism.” The commentary declared the withdrawal “once again highlights Washington's disregard of the UN's authority and objectives.” This is not mere rhetoric. Presaging a likely tactic, Chinese authorities appear to be cultivating coalitions of countries to oppose the United States in its escalating trade war.

China’s strategy aims to deter war with the United States while also steadily undermining U.S.authority in global institutions and discourse and building a broad base of political support around the globe. For the time being, the United States retains advantages in its technological leadership, economic strength, military prowess, and impressive array of alliances and partnerships across the globe. But success is hardly assured. Continued domestic political conflict, deep social polarization, and fracturing alliances threaten to mire the United States in gridlock and infighting. If it is to maintain its position and compete effectively against China, the United States will need to access its reservoirs of tenacity, imagination, and resourcefulness to shore up its alliances; bolster its leadership in international institutions; and reinvigorate its global vision.

Timothy R. Heath is a senior international defense researcher with the RAND Corporation.

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