China’s foreign policy under Xi: Softer, stronger

Adrian Monck
Managing Director, World Economic Forum Geneva
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China’s president Xi Jinping delivered a major foreign policy speech over the weekend, the impact of which is just beginning to be analysed.

The New York Times headlined it ‘Leader Asserts China’s Growing Importance on Global Stage’. Unsurprisingly, their reaction took a US-centric view:

Mr. Xi did not mention the United States by name but took an unmistakable jab at Washington, saying, “The growing trend toward a multipolar world will not change,” a reference to the Chinese view that America’s post-Cold War role as the sole superpower is drawing to a close.

The same tone came through in the Bloomberg report:

China must establish “big country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics,” President Xi Jinping said in a speech that laid out his goals for making the nation a major strategic power, a further sign he’s jettisoned a long-standing policy to limit involvement in foreign affairs.

French news agency AFP reported it through the prism of disputes over the South China Sea:

Chinese President Xi Jinping said in a key foreign policy speech that the rising Asian nation would protect its sovereign territory, the Xinhua news agency reported, as it faces maritime disputes with several neighbours.

The Financial Times agreed with the conciliatory tone (‘Xi Jinping tones down foreign policy rhetoric’), but also captured an interesting observation on the perception within China of President Xi’s approach:

“We admire General Secretary Xi because he is as tough with Japan and the US as he is with corrupt officials here,” said one Communist party official, who asked not to be identified because he is not allowed to speak to foreign media.

Elsewhere in Asia, the response was less wary and more welcoming. ‘Xi Jinping’s speech: More diplomacy, less raw power’ wrote Rory Medcalf in The Interpreterthe blog of Australia’s Lowy Institute for International Policy:

One way to read this speech is that it knits together China’s ambitious diplomatic initiatives to change the Asian and global order, from a new infrastructure bank to new security conferences. Therefore it affirms China’s intent to challenge that order, albeit carefully.

It underscores China’s determination to defend and advance its maritime claims and interests, develop a ‘maritime silk road’ of economic, diplomatic and security links across China’s version of the Indo-Pacific, and develop the capabilities to protect its growing overseas presence.

But the speech is also important for its notes of prudence and restraint, with an emphasis on better communicating China’s ‘soft power’ message. It places weight on building regional institutions and a global network of partners. It contains reminders about the non-use of force and even respect for international law.

But for other Asian countries there will be practical tests for China’s new approach. Syed Munir Khasru from a think tank in Bangladesh raised some in the SCMP:

Language and cultural issues act as a barrier to the projection of Chinese soft power. Stronger involvement in social and human development, knowledge sharing, and coming to the aid of countries devastated by natural or man-made disasters, are important parts of soft power which are not currently China’s forte.

Author: Adrian Monck is Managing Director of Public Engagement at the World Economic Forum.

Image: A Chinese national flag flutters on a financial street near the headquarters of the People’s Bank of China, China’s central bank, in central Beijing November 24, 2014. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

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