Foreign Policy Priorities for Xi Jinping

China's new leader has much room to improve Beijing's international relations.

The new leaders of the Chinese Communist Party may have moved into office, but so far their new policies have not. Yet if these men at the top—led by party General Secretary Xi Jinping—are to resolve a daunting array of problems at home and abroad, they must move quickly to prevent bad situations from growing worse, thus aggravating troubles their predecessors have passed along unsolved.

And no issues may be more pressing than those of foreign policy, where current Chinese actions often are incoherent, contradictory and all too possibly dangerous to themselves and the region. The reasons are many, but they include the lack of an overall strategy for achieving broad but ill-defined goals and a governing system that is poorly suited to making coordinated decisions.

Deep-seated suspicions about other nations’ intentions add to the problem, for the legacy of Chinese history and Leninist ideology often makes Beijing officials believe they are being victimized by foreign conspiracies that don’t really exist. This is especially true today as the Obama administration’s “pivot” or “rebalancing” toward Asia feeds into that Chinese insecurity; many Chinese contend America is trying to “contain” them. In reality, Washington’s purposes are much more complex and nuanced, but that belief makes choosing rational policies more difficult for Beijing than it need be.

Future relations will rely largely upon Xi’s political will and the strength of his mandate, which remain unknown. In March the party secretary will also gain the lesser post of president and the party’s number two man, Li Keqiang (his former rival for the top spot), will become premier. Much depends upon how they and the other five members of party Politburo’s standing committee divide oversight of policy sectors among themselves, and upon the government ministers they choose. It’s assumed, though, that Xi—who has considerable foreign experience—will supervise overseas relations no matter who becomes foreign minister.

Island Disputes

Xi might well begin in his own neighborhood. For many years China’s top policy goals have been stability at home and peace in the region; these are essential if the economy is to keep expanding and domestic unrest is to be avoided. Yet China has been drifting toward violent and dangerous showdowns with Japan and other nearby nations, notably the Philippines and Vietnam, over ownership of rocky islets and the seas around them. This drift seems driven more by nationalistic hubris than calculated strategy, and feeds rival nationalisms in the other concerned countries that could spiral out of control at any time. If that happened, those long-term Chinese goals of peace and stability would be seriously subverted.

Consider the small cluster of islands between China and Japan, known as the Diaoyus to Beijing and the Senkakus to Tokyo. Largely ignored throughout history, today both countries assert rival if debatable ownership claims to their fisheries and potential undersea oil riches. Japan has controlled them since World War II while the United States, though asserting neutrality on the sovereignty question, insists they will remain covered by the U.S.-Japan defense treaty until the two sides agree on ownership. In theory, however unlikely, this could lead to American attacks on Chinese gunboats if Beijing tries to seize the isles by force—a situation so dangerous that no one in Washington wants to contemplate it.

Yet the trend is toward violence. Beijing has sent patrol craft near the islands, where they sometimes scuffle with Japanese ships. When Chinese planes flew over the islands recently, Tokyo scrambled eight fighter jets. Japan’s newly elected hawkish prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has promised even stronger responses to any future Chinese actions and says he may post government bureaucrats to these uninhabited islands to strengthen Tokyo’s claim; Beijing promises it won’t let that happen. More broadly, Abe wants to revise the Japanese constitution to allow construction of a more assertive military force, something China strongly opposes. All this happens while chauvinistic impulses in both nations—in part fed by political leaders seeking mass support—make it increasingly difficult for either side to seek compromise.

Abe did nothing to calm the controversy after winning the election. The islands are "Japan's inherent territory", he insisted, adding "There is no room for negotation on this point."

If Beijing’s claim to the Daioyus/Senkakus is debatable, its similar claims over most of the South China Sea and its various islets, specks of land far from Chinese shores, seem absurd by generally accepted (though not by China) international rules. However, a similar desire to control fisheries, oil and gas resources has fed Beijing’s nationalistic, bullying tactics against smaller rivals. Chinese craft have confronted those of Manila near islands close to the Philippines, while others have cut cables of Vietnamese boats exploring for oil near islands claimed by Hanoi. Beijing also has related territorial disputes with Brunei and Malaysia. Most recently, China’s Hainan Province asserted that its police vessels have the right to board any foreign ship that enters disputed waters, adding another dash of danger.

All concerned say they want to negotiate settlements, though none have retreated from maximalist stands. However, China wants to meet separately with its smaller neighbors, hoping to intimidate them in one-on-one talks, while the Southeast Asian nations want collective negotiations to strengthen their hand. The United States supports that multilateral approach, which China calls unwarranted interference in its own affairs. For the time being, Washington is trying to push all concerned into drafting a code of conduct for the islands; the goal would be to set peaceful rules for operations nearby while postponing the ownership question indefinitely. So far, China is listening but not buying.

But it has tried economic coercion to get its way. When Manila resisted Beijing’s claim to shoals near the Philippines, China—a nation plagued by adulterated food—suddenly discovered that imported Filipino bananas didn’t meet Chinese health standards. This fraudulent claim wiped out an important export market for Manila.

Resorting to military means is something China has tried before. According to China scholar Taylor Fravel of MIT, China has been involved in 23 border disputes since 1949 and has used force six times—always against relatively strong adversaries such as India, Vietnam and the Soviet Union. Sheer size has allowed it to browbeat smaller adversaries into settlements without relying on military power.

All this clashes with Beijing’s claim to want a peaceful Asian region so that trade and commerce can thrive and could bring about consequences it fears most, such as a militarily strong Japan. For example, the Philippines’ foreign minister, Albert del Rosario, recently told the Financial Times that his country would “welcome” expansion of Japanese armed forces because “we are looking for balancing factors in the region and Japan could be a significant balancing factor.” This is startling from an official of a country that suffered grievously from Japanese occupation in the 1940s, but it reflects a fear of China that has spread across the region. It also explains why the Philippines and Singapore, among others, allow U.S. planes and warships to visit their ports on a recurring basis.

Those visits are part of Washington’s “rebalancing” attention to Asia after years of being bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan. Though U.S. officials don’t like to say so publicly, much of this is designed to offset China’s growing ability to project power and thus reassure American friends in the region. But Washington also tries hard to convince Beijing that much more is involved, that both nations need a peaceful and prosperous Pacific and should cooperate to keep it that way. Thus avoidable squabbles over disputed isles should not be part of the plan, nor should China do things that prompt others to greatly strengthen their own military forces—in Japan’s case, in particular, by opting for nuclear forces someday.

The American line, in fact, is that rather than shut China in, the United States is trying to pull it out. Washington wants China to act like a full member of the international community in responsible ways, enjoying the benefits of global trade and political systems while also sharing the costs of maintaining them—in brief, paying to play. To date, the Chinese approach has been rather selective, pocketing gains when possible but avoiding the burdens of such problems as Iran, North Korea and climate change.

A Confused Policy Process

One cause of Beijing’s rather incoherent foreign policy is its decision-making system. There is no national-security council or other body to coordinate views of various ministries and share crucial information among them. As far as Washington knows, the foreign and defense ministries seldom confer or exchange intelligence, and it can get worse: some Chinese ships involved in the offshore-islands confrontations belong to the fisheries department of the Ministry of Agriculture, and Chinese diplomats may have no idea what orders they have. Not that it necessarily matters; the foreign ministry is perhaps the weakest of all Beijing agencies, causing U.S. officials to complain of “useless conversations” with diplomats who may be wise and sophisticated but have little influence on what party leaders choose as policy.

In candid talks with senior Communist officials, the Obama administration has tried to convince them to invent a policy-making system that coordinates differing ministry views, settles on a coherent strategy and avoids glitches. But doing so would be difficult. Chinese ministries (and the Politburo members who oversee them) relish their autonomy and defend their clients, and to date aren’t willing or able to step on bureaucratic toes. The People’s Liberation Army, for example, doesn’t even report to the government but to a senior Communist Party committee headed by General Secretary Xi. Just what the defense minister does isn’t entirely clear.

Yet there are optimistic signs. Administration officials claim the United States has more frank discussions these days with senior Chinese leaders than for many years, and with some good results. When the ships get too confrontational, for example, they claim they’ve sometimes been able to get Beijing to pull back rather than risk having an overeager gunboat captain start shooting. And Washington will use its influence to persuade Japanese prime minister Abe from sending officials to what he calls the Senkakus, in order to prevent a clash there while making clear Beijing understands the U.S. role.

But these are tactical matters. More important is whether or not Xi and his colleagues can be convinced to adopt broader strategies that promise long-term gains for everyone. And on this the jury is out. During recent months, then vice-president Xi and Vice President Joseph Biden spent much of two weeks in each other’s company, watching a Lakers game in Los Angeles, slurping noodles in a Beijing diner and—more to the point—discussing basic policies and attitudes of their governments. It’s hoped these unprecedented exchanges will help form the basis for better future relations, letting common interests trump the many contesting ones when the chips are down. But who knows?

Exactly what Xi thinks about China’s long term interests is still a mystery, as is his ability to shape whatever his Politburo colleagues decide should be national policy. A decade ago, the Chinese official in charge of negotiating entry into the World Trade Organization said he had to invent a term for “win-win solution” because the concept didn’t exist in the Chinese language. Whether it is shared by China’s new party leaders remains to be seen.

Robert Keatley is a former editor of The Asian Wall Street Journal and the South China Morning Post, both of Hong Kong.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/J. Patrick Fischer.