The consensus among outside analysts that China’s foreign policy has recently (since about 2010) become more “assertive” has fueled a new round of discussion on the possible causal relationship between China’s domestic politics and its external behavior. The issue is whether tensions between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and other states stem from China simply being a great power, or from China’s unique internal characteristics—an authoritarian state, ruled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), with a particular historical background. Both explanations are partially correct.
The two most recent U.S. presidential administrations have embraced the idea that China’s domestic political characteristics generate external conflict. Under the Trump administration, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo argued that the United States and other free countries could not be safe in a world where the CCP controls China. President Joe Biden has attributed the crisis in U.S.-China relations to the PRC’s authoritarian political system.
Much of China’s foreign policy, however, is not idiosyncratic, but is typical of relatively large and powerful countries. This may be called “great power behavior with Chinese characteristics.” Beijing has its own unique way of describing its behavior, but the bottom line is pressuring or forcing smaller and weaker countries to accept a self-interested Chinese agenda while arguing that this agenda makes the world a better place—just as previous great powers such as Britain, the United States, Russia, and Japan have done. Where America had the Monroe Doctrine, China similarly demands a sphere of influence on its periphery, sometimes using the justification of irredentism, but if necessary by getting right to the point that “China is a big country, and other countries are small countries.”
Nevertheless, there are five aspects of the PRC’s unique domestic political milieu that generate conflict with other states.
First, the over-concentration of power in a single paramount leader sets up the country for disastrous policy decisions. A notorious example was the Great Leap Forward of 1958–1960, when Mao Zedong tried to accelerate China’s industrialization by mobilizing peasants to produce steel in their backyards. Without proper training or equipment, the farmers predictably delivered large amounts of useless pig iron rather than steel, and the decrease in agricultural production led to mass starvation, with estimates of the consequent deaths starting at 20 million. Mao’s unchecked powers not only created but also worsened the situation. Many subordinates were afraid to tell Mao his policies were failing, and even Mao’s senior general, Peng Dehuai, suffered punishment for dissenting. These abuses of power resulted in Mao’s successors instituting a rule-by-committee approach, in which the Party’s general secretary would counsel with the other Politburo Standing Committee members before announcing major decisions. The Post-Mao leadership also eschewed wrapping the general secretary in a personality cult.
Xi Jinping has, in effect, re-instituted a governance model that is a proven failure. It should not be surprising, then, that despite starting with a position of immense Chinese global prestige and economic leverage, “chairman of everything” Xi has lowered China’s international reputation, persuaded many of the world’s leading economies to partially decouple from China, and stimulated a wave of both internal and external balancing against the PRC. An autocrat who makes all the decisions relies on the strength of only one brain rather than many. And contrary to PRC propaganda, Xi is clearly not the smartest man in the universe, as anyone who has read the much-celebrated (by PRC officials and media) Xi Jinping Thought can confirm.
Second, PRC foreign policy primarily plays to the home crowd. In foreign policy, effectiveness (i.e., advancing the state’s interests in security, prosperity, and prestige) and popularity (the citizenry believing the government is standing up for the country’s rights and dignity) are often at odds. In some cases, the government understands that smoothing over conflicts and facilitating cooperation is in the country’s best interests, but the public wants to see a demonstration of national strength of outrage that will damage important international relationships.
To bolster Party legitimacy, the PRC government has cultivated an ethos of grievance against foreigners who have allegedly wronged China. Consequently, instead of maintaining a careful balancing act, the Xi regime’s conduct of foreign affairs is excessively and unhealthily weighted toward impressing the Chinese domestic audience.
The result is that much of China’s diplomacy panders to Chinese nationalism. This is manifested in Chinese overreaction to perceived slights and reduced space for Beijing to compromise on territorial issues that are closely watched by the Chinese public. It also explains the phenomenon of “Wolf Warriorism,” in which PRC officials have turned the traditional idea of diplomacy on its head by intentionally aggravating foreign relationships in order to curry favor with the Chinese mass public.
The third feature of PRC domestic politics that negatively impacts China’s foreign relations is perpetual one-party rule. Internal sclerosis carries over into China’s external behavior. In a competitive system, two or more parties would try to out-compete each other in putting forward good foreign policy ideas and calling each other out for bad ideas. But there is no such thing in the PRC political system as a “loyal opposition,” an absence that limits constructive policy criticism. China’s system also lacks the natural periodic re-evaluations and course corrections that result from the replacement of one ruling party by another. With no possibility of obtaining an electoral mandate, the Party tries to compensate by doubling down on virtuocracy. China “always stands for peace, stability, and justice,” and the PRC government does not acknowledge that any of its foreign policies have ever been flawed, mistaken, or botched.
The result is a risk-averse incapacity for negotiated compromises or creative solutions to difficult foreign policy problems. Beijing’s Taiwan problem is an example. In recent decades the Party has trapped itself into the position that Taiwan must officially become a province of the PRC or face war. This is based on a nineteenth-century view of sovereignty that disregards the twentieth-century principle of self-determination. In 1979, PRC leaders first suggested the idea that Taiwan should accept unification under the principle of “one country, two systems.” At no time since then has the idea attracted significant support in Taiwan. Incredibly, Beijing continues to this day promoting “one country, two systems” as the solution to the cross-Taiwan Strait tensions, even after China has made a mockery of this idea by dismantling civil liberties in Hong Kong in violation of previous pledges.
Fourth, much of the historical baggage that Chinese leaders carry—and it’s a lot of baggage, given China’s claimed history of 5,000 years—encourages conflictual interaction with foreign governments.
The Chinese have traditionally viewed international relations as hierarchical. They believe that for centuries China was the most advanced, powerful, and influential state and that the Chinese emperor was the rightful ruler of tianxia (“everything under heaven,” or the entire known world). Furthermore, many Chinese believe Asia’s golden age featured an arrangement in which neighboring kingdoms paid tribute to China in exchange for protection and trading privileges.
This inherited outlook adds friction to the PRC’s relations with other Asia-Pacific states. Most Southeast Asian elites fear a reprise of Chinese domination. China has resumed employing its economic power to force other states to pay tribute in the form of recognizing Chinese sovereignty over disputed territory. China is hostile toward U.S. strategic influence in the region, seeing America as a usurping outsider, and cannot accept Japan or other major regional states as equals.
The CCP promulgates a questionable interpretation of pre-modern Chinese history in which China was a peace-loving country that never committed aggression against another kingdom. Then, in the modern era, China suffered the “Century of National Humiliation” (bainian guochi), with European colonialism and the Japanese invasion. This historiographical package is the basis of the widespread inability of today’s Chinese to empathize with neighbors, who perceive their security threatened by some PRC actions. Chinese, in turn, typically believe that, since they are culturally and historically proven to be non-aggressive, but rather have only been victims of other countries’ aggressions, Chinese actions are thus almost by definition defensive and therefore justified—and any arguments to the contrary reflect “ulterior motives.”
Finally, the PRC’s authoritarian government sees political liberalism as a threat. Xi’s government has specifically identified liberal thought as a grave danger to the Party’s monopoly of power, which is the overriding objective of all PRC policies, both domestic and foreign. The CCP has long believed the United States tries to use democratization as a tool to overthrow the Party, with the ultimate goal of weakening China and maintaining U.S. leadership in Asia. Accordingly, PRC propaganda disparages “Western-style democracy” and what it calls “interference in other countries’ internal affairs in the name of so-called democracy.” The advance of liberalism internationally would isolate the PRC and undercut Beijing’s influence and prestige, while increasing the demand by Chinese citizens for political liberalization inside China. Democratization in PRC partner countries would disrupt the Chinese government’s preferred mode of conducting business, which can generally be described as “corruption of local elites.” Hence the permanent PRC hostility toward liberal currents in global affairs that many other countries regard as positive, such as encouragement of transparency and accountability in government, promotion of civil liberties, and acceptance of the principle of “responsibility to protect.”