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CHINA: Why has Chinese foreign policy turned more aggressive?

Gabriel Wildau

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( 6 mins)
  • China’s foreign policy has grown more combative in recent years, and the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated this trend.
  • Beijing still cares about maintaining friendly relations with the world, but domestic politics create countervailing incentives to project toughness.
  • The top leadership is concerned about a global rise of anti-China sentiment, and diplomats are likely to gradually soften – though not abandon – their more assertive posture.

Across a range of issues, China’s foreign policy has appeared to grow more aggressive in recent months. Examples include:

  • In the South China Sea, the China Coast Guard rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing vessel near the disputed Paracel Islands. A government survey vessel also harassed a Malaysian oil drilling vessel in contested waters.
  • In the East China Sea, near the disputed Senkaku Islands (known in China as the Diaoyu Islands), the coast guard harassed a fishing vessel before being chased away by the Japan Coast Guard.
  • Around Taiwan, the Chinese military has increased its activities, crossing the median line with jets and deploying an aircraft carrier off the island’s east coast.
  • In Hong Kong, Beijing has moved to impose a national security law.
  • Along its disputed border with India, Chinese troops approached and possibly crossed the so-called Line of Actual Control, sparking the most serious border standoff since the 1962 Sino-Indian War.
  • Some Chinese diplomats have embraced “wolf warrior” diplomacy, publishing combative commentary on Twitter and Facebook to push back against criticism of China – and sometimes advancing unfounded conspiracy theories.

Until around 2012, China’s foreign policy largely conformed to Deng Xiaoping’s principle of “hiding strength and biding time.” The rationale for this formula was that China was too weak to exert significant influence in international affairs and should instead focus on domestic priorities. A corollary of this principle was that China needed to maintain a benign external environment in order to achieve its domestic objectives and was therefore reluctant to take actions that will antagonize other countries.

Today, foreign scholars increasingly view China as a revisionist power that seeks to displace the US as the global hegemon and reshape the global order to make it more hospitable to Beijing’s authoritarian values. However, though Beijing’s willingness to take controversial actions has clearly increased in recent years, China’s leaders still care deeply about maintaining positive foreign relationships.

Covid-19 accelerates long-term trends

China’s more assertive foreign policy can be traced partly to long-term trends that predate the pandemic and partly to the pandemic itself.

Regarding long-term trends, Chinese president Xi Jinping clearly indicated China’s shift in posture in his 2017 speech to the Communist Party’s five-yearly party congress, where Xi was formally selected for second five-year term as the party’s general secretary. Xi declared that China has entered a “new era” – an ideological slogan that was also added the party’s constitution. Another key concept from the speech was “the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation.” These two concepts carried significant implications for both domestic and foreign policy.

On foreign policy, the “new era” is one in which China assumes a greater leadership role in world affairs. Xi said that China is “moving closer to the center of the world stage” and “blazing a new trail” for developing countries “who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence.” “National rejuvenation” evokes full recovery from the “century of humiliation” stretching from the First Opium War in 1839 until the Communist victory in the Chinese civil war in 1949 – a period when China suffered successive foreign invasions. Recovery entails China resuming the role it played as a great power for much of world history prior to 1839.

The Covid-19 pandemic has created additional incentives for the recent foreign policy shift. China has achieved relative success in controlling its domestic outbreak, largely neutralizing the threat to the party’s legitimacy that some observers detected at the height of China’s outbreak in early February. Nevertheless, the leadership is still concerned about protecting Xi and the Communist Party leadership from criticism of their initial mishandling of the virus in Wuhan. The unprecedented economic slowdown resulting from the pandemic also raises the risk of popular discontent.

In this context, China is concerned about appearing weak both internationally and in the eyes of potential nationalist critics at home. This concern is most acute in relation to sovereignty issues such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the South China Sea. The sharp deterioration of US-China relations has made Chinese leaders feel less constrained by US criticism while possibly also increasing the incentives to demonstrate that China will not yield to US pressure.

Re-calibration is coming

A problem for Chinese diplomacy is that combative remarks by Chinese officials sometimes appear to be directed more towards a domestic than a foreign audience. Wolf warriors want to signal to senior leaders their commitment to defending China’s reputation, but this domestic signaling often comes at the cost of effective foreign diplomacy.

But there are signs that China’s foreign policy establishment is growing concerned about international backlash and willing to re-calibrate – though not to return to the era of “hiding strength.” In April, a think tank affiliated with China’s top intelligence agency, the Ministry of State Security, delivered a report to top leaders warning about rising global anti-China sentiment. Leading Chinese foreign policy advisors and scholars have also publicly criticized the wolf warrior trend in recent weeks. Cui Tiankai, Beijing’s ambassador the US, criticized the most well-known wolf warrior, foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, for promoting a conspiracy theory that the US military brought the coronavirus to Wuhan.

Nor is histrionic anti-western rhetoric a new phenomenon in China. Such rhetoric flourished during the Cold War and never entirely disappeared. What is new is that such rhetoric is increasingly delivered in English and directed towards a global audience on platforms like Twitter. Beyond signaling to senior leaders, such rhetoric also reflects Chinese diplomats’ inexperience. Before the “new era”, protecting and promoting China’s international image was not a key objective. Looking ahead, Chinese diplomats are likely to soften their rhetoric as they grow more sophisticated in their pursuit of soft power.