China’s Hawkish Shift

By Aaron Kliegman

The late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping once summed up the strategy that defined China’s foreign policy for decades: “Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities; bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; never claim leadership.” The idea was for China to gain national strength quietly and patiently, observing global affairs while plotting how to control them.

In recent years, however, China has shifted from this strategy to adopt a more aggressive foreign policy — a shift that has been evident amid the coronavirus pandemic.

For weeks, China has waged a campaign of disinformation and aggressive diplomacy to deflect blame for mismanaging and covering up the coronavirus. Indeed, Chinese diplomats are openly promoting conspiracy theories and saying the American military unleashed the virus. Such propaganda is indicative of a different, more confrontational approach to foreign policy than what Deng advocated.

On Tuesday, Reuters published a report that examined how young, hawkish Chinese diplomats are pushing their government to be assertive globally and more hostile toward the United States. While the article correctly notes that China’s foreign policy is becoming more hawkish, it mistakenly portrays the Chinese Communist Party as a battleground between a cautious foreign policy establishment and insurgent hawks trying to upend the old order.

Of course, there are people within the regime who view confrontation as unwise and reckless. But there is widespread support within the military, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and elsewhere inside the government for a hawkish approach. After all, the Ministry of Propaganda doesn’t seem bothered by aggressive, anti-American tweets about the coronavirus. And if Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Communist Party, was bothered by the tweets, then they’d be deleted, and such rhetoric would be censored.

China’s hawkish shift in foreign policy goes well beyond public spats over the coronavirus. Xi, who last year called on his diplomats to show more “fighting spirit,” has pushed Chinese assertiveness on the global stage since coming to power in 2012. Xi, like Deng, emphasizes China’s internal development, but he frames it in more ambitious terms. Indeed, Xi seeks a “modern socialist country, prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced, and harmonious” by the middle of the 21st century, as part of his so-called “China Dream.” This vision may sound harmless — and Chinese leaders hope to achieve it without military force — but it comes at the expense of American power.

Historically, China called itself the “Middle Kingdom” because Chinese leaders saw their empire as superior to all others and the center of global affairs. Following its century of humiliation, from 1839 to 1949, China was determined to reassert that role — and remains determined today. Driven by an imperial mindset, China feels it has been denied its rightful place in international affairs. Chinese leaders, including Xi, have a worldview in which deference to them is the proper basis of the international system of states. Simply put, foreign policy should be conducted on China’s terms.

This grand objective entails supplanting the US as the world’s only superpower and the center of international affairs. So, there will be peace, harmony, and global happiness — if Washington submits to China.

Xi seems to think China should now pursue this vision more aggressively. “It is time for us to take center stage in the world and to make a greater contribution to humankind,” he said in 2017, adding that China’s socialist model offers a “new choice” for the developing world. Such language marks a noticeable split from Deng’s philosophy of biding time.

Throughout his speeches and instructions, Xi makes abundantly clear that he and the rest of the Communist Party believe their system is superior, both ideologically and practically, to all other forms of government. This confidence is tangible. Perhaps it is why Xi has gone forward with numerous bold initiatives that show a more assertive foreign policy. The Belt and Road initiative, closer relations with Iran, more military exercises with Russia, the creation of new international financial institutions, island-building in the South China Sea, a massive buildup of its armed forces, aggressive diplomacy — these are the actions of a determined country not afraid to hide its ambitions.

And don’t forget Taiwan, which Xi seems more determined than his predecessors to “reunify” with mainland China. Last year, Xi expressed a willingness to use military force to seize the island — a point that the Ministry of Defense echoed in a white paper months later.

The focus today is on the Chinese government’s absurd yet aggressive campaign to blame America for the coronavirus. The broader point, however, is that China is adopting a much more aggressive foreign policy — one that should deeply concern Americans. And the main reason why is the man at the top, Xi. The Chinese leadership is consolidating power and decision-making at the highest levels, leaving few ways and no incentive for anyone to challenge official policy. As Xi continues to amass nearly absolute power inside China, the country’s foreign policy will only become harder to alter.

Under Deng’s approach, China was gaining national strength with a low profile; now, Xi thinks China is strong enough to flex its muscles.