Photo: Reuters/Carlos Barria
Photo: Reuters/Carlos Barria

China understands how “survival of the fittest” works in this fast-changing, conflict-ridden world, and its foreign policy is emblematic of that. The world’s second-largest economy has set a course of rapid change in order to adapt and grow as the trade war with the US stares it in the face.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) held a Central Conference on work relating to foreign affairs on June 22-23 in Beijing., nearly four years since the last one in November 2014. It is noteworthy that Hu Jintao, the predecessor of Chinese President Xi Jinping, held only one such conference during his entire 10-year tenure.

This conference follows the 19th party congress held last year and the National People’s Congress (NPC) in March. The party congress put Xi at the center of all policy decisions and the NPC reaffirmed it. In particular, the NPC approved the creation of the Central Committee on Foreign Affairs, establishing the party’s supervision over the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

During the party congress, Yang Jiechi, director of the Office of Foreign Affairs, was included in the politburo, indicating that the process of extending the party’s supervision over foreign affairs had started and the recently concluded meeting confirmed that. Subsequently, Wang Yi was elevated to state councilor as well as reappointed as foreign minister during the NPC. Moreover, Vice-President Wang Qishan, a Politburo Standing Committee member, has been generally in charge of China-US relations. This form of centralization indicates further expansion of the Xi imprint on China’s foreign policy.

Changing self-perception

From the last conference in 2014 to this one, a lot has changed for China and its self-perception. In 2014, China had started believing that a new G-2 kind of setup was in the making. It had found comfort in Obama’s accommodative approach and started advocating a “new type of major country relations” –  based on “no conflict or confrontation,” “mutual respect” and “win-win cooperation” between the two countries.

China saw itself as a nation championing a global cause after the Paris Accord on climate change. It also began working on what it called a neighborhood first approach and developing a “community of common destiny” or shared destiny. This laid down the theoretical foundations of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Four years later, China is out of its comfort zone in dealing with US President Donald Trump. His protectionist policies hit China where it matters the most. China is also no longer directly in charge of guiding the security process on the Korean Peninsula, unlike the last time.

After the Singapore summit, China can only influence the process and not dictate it like earlier. The quadrilateral process is back and the idea of Indo-Pacific unity has greater currency in the region. China’s Southeast Asian neighbors are also quietly hedging their bets.

In Europe, China’s cheque-book diplomacy has nearly divided the European community. The BRI process has been slow and the Sri Lankan debt-trap example has caused a cautious response from other smaller states.

Foreign policy of a ‘new’ era

During the conference Xi said China enjoys overall favorable external conditions for its development. Even so, he also called for reforms of institutions and mechanisms of foreign policy for catering to the requirement of the new era, meaning the need to bring policy in line with party guidance. The Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson affirmed the Xi imprint in stating that “President Xi Jinping’s thought on diplomacy is established as an overarching guideline, providing fundamental principles and action guidance for China to implement the major-country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics.”

Trump’s shutdown of America via tariff wars coincides with China’s expanding share in global value-addition chains

Their stated intended outcomes are t0 firmly “safeguard China’s sovereignty, security, and development interests”; second, establish a “shared future for mankind,” which implies a more vigorous promotion of the BRI at home and abroad; third, to “help make the global governance system fairer and more reasonable.” This is a clear response to the expanding tariff war with the Trump administration.

China believes that in the previous phase of globalization, while the first world benefitted disproportionately, developing countries like China undertook dirty, dangerous and demeaning jobs to sustain that process of globalization. Now, Trump’s shutdown of America via tariff wars coincides with China’s expanding share in global value-addition chains.

China’s emphasis on “world of harmony” can be seen as a continuation of its pro-globalization posture, which Xi has actively advocated since the election of Trump.

China’s rapid evolution

The new phrase – “network of global partnerships” – is a reformulated version of “community of shared destiny.” This is a response to the criticism that the BRI is not only China-driven but also a China-centric process aiming for a pre-determined destiny, which includes the re-establishment of a Sino-centric order. “Partnerships,”‘ inherently being a two-way process, sound more benign than “community of shared destiny.” This appears to be a similar adjustment to China rephrasing peaceful rise as peaceful development in the first decade of the 21st century.

The period between the previous and present central conference, on works relating to foreign affairs, suggests that China’s perception of its opportunities and challenges has significantly changed within the last four years.

The change also affirms a proactive policy and a willingness to rapidly respond to evolving circumstances. For China’s neighbor India, this may mean the need to extend its dialogue processes with the party and party-led institutions at all levels. India will also have to watch various party publications more closely to understand Beijing’s strategic outlook completely, since the party is no longer track 2.0 as far as foreign policy is concerned.

Avinash Godbole

Dr Avinash Godbole is is an assistant professor with O P Jindal Global University, specializing on China studies and international relations. The views expressed here are personal.

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