Xi Won't Change

China's foreign policy is likely to remain largely the same due to domestic pressures.

Since the Eighteenth National Congress of the Communist Party of China last November, much of Western media has predicted that Xi Jinping will adopt a more assertive foreign policy in order to solve the territorial disputes between China, Japan and other neighboring countries. This has been worrisome for some of China’s neighbors and their Western allies. Will Xi’s foreign policy become more assertive? The answer is no. Xi does not intend to challenge the current global order. In fact, it will be very difficult for him to dramatically alter Hu Jintao’s moderate foreign policy.

Although Xi holds three top posts—in the party, government and military—his fundamental objective is to maintain the party system. If he took a tougher stance, the party would face more challenges from the international community and internal opposition. This would do more harm than good to his primary goal. Xi is not an elected leader in modern democratic sense, but a result of the negotiation among various elite groups in China. His foreign policy must represent the common interest of these factions. In addition, many Chinese officials have interests overseas and fear further deterioration of relations with other countries, particularly Japan and the West.

China is not ready to implement a more assertive foreign policy. And China will not be able to take a tougher stance without more internal coordination and support. The voice of China’s foreign policy currently comes from different departments. They are not well coordinated and lack a strategy with a long-term vision. Thus China does not have a system for making consistent and workable foreign policy, and the top leader has not gained sufficient power to fully manage foreign relations. It will take Xi some time to reorganize the system and put any new policies in place.

At the same time, it is unclear if Chinese economic and military muscles are powerful enough to support a more assertive foreign policy. Japanese marine and air forces are strong. The United States claims that the 1960 U.S.-Japan Security Treaty covers the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, which makes Sino-Japanese relations more complicated. In addition, China is facing a mountain of domestic problems, including corruption in the military. It is not wise for China to adopt a tougher foreign policy in dealing with territorial disputes with various countries at the same time as it tries to maintain domestic social stability. The Chinese government has learned the lesson that a combination of internal violence and external conflict can contribute to the collapse of the regime.

Today nationalistic feelings remain strong. And a more assertive foreign policy could add fuel to the fire of the Chinese nationalism. But this could also get out of control and possibly turn against the current government. It is possible that the current standoff between China and Japan is only a means for the government to strengthen the people’s faith in the current regime. In the meantime, the stable growth of China’s military expenditures has enhanced the government’s bargaining power in the international system and preparedness for worst-case scenarios.

The new leader of the China might not have any other choice but to continue implementing Hu’s moderate foreign policy of peaceful development—with some minor modifications. Ample evidence indicates that Xi is a pragmatic leader and will not put foreign policy at the top of the party’s agenda. Instead, he is more likely to focus on China’s domestic issues, improving living standards and quality of life, and lubricating potential conflicts between the government and the people.

In order for China to play a more prominent role in the international system and solve territorial disputes with its neighboring countries, new Chinese leaders will continue efforts to rebalance the relationship between China and the United States—while at the same time restoring the economic and military alliance with Russia. To do so, it is also necessary for the Chinese government to carefully balance the principles of Chinese territorial integrity with the economic development, harmonize party legitimacy with Chinese nationalistic feeling, and weigh the interests of elite groups against Xi’s ambitious goal of a great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. Considering these challenges, it is unlikely that China’s foreign policy will change significantly during the first five-year term of Xi’s presidency.

Jinghao Zhou is an associate professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in New York. His most recent book is China's Peaceful Rise in a Global Context: A Domestic Aspect of China's Road Map to Democratization.