There are many opinions about China’s foreign policy strategy under the new leadership. This article addresses the shifts in China’s approach to international issues since Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang have come to power, including the analysis of the reasons behind these changes, as well as the challenges that the new leadership faces in implementing them. It highlights the discourse that has been used to explain China’s policies and how that discourse impacts these challenges.
The 18th Party Congress of November 2012 witnessed the appointment of Xi Jinping as the party’s general secretary, symbolizing the beginning of China’s new political era. Though only a little over a year has passed since the leadership transition has taken place, we can already observe some important shifts in China’s approach to foreign policy making and international relations. They are reflected in changing discourse. Below I highlight seven important shifts in the conceptual and practical focus of China’s foreign policy that are apparent thus far.
1. Promoting the concept of the “China Dream,” featuring high aspirations
Xi Jinping elaborated on the so-called “China Dream” on November 29, 2012, at a large formal political gathering (at the national museum), which brought together members of all political bureaus and standing committees. According to the public understanding of this concept, it encompasses two key goals: doubling the per-capita income from about USD 600 to 1,200 by about 2020, which will bring China into the club of developed nations as it celebrates the CCP’s one hundred years in power; and becoming the number one economic power by the middle of this century, as China celebrates the 100th year anniversary since the establishment of the People’s Republic. Showcasing the ideal of a national dream sets the stage for a new narrative.
2. Declaring the goal of becoming a strong maritime power
The report from the 18th Party Congress states that in the near future China has to “increase its exploitation of water resources, develop a maritime economy, protect the water/oceanic ecosystem, persist in protecting the national maritime interests, build up maritime power.” In other words, the new leadership formally included the establishment of maritime power into its national strategy. This goal generally includes three aspects: a) effective management, control, and protection of previously neglected maritime space (for instance, parts of the South China Sea and East China Sea); b) use of assertive maritime diplomacy to exert significant influence on regional and international maritime regulations and practices; c) the effective and rational use of maritime resources within and outside of China’s sovereign space to become one of the world’s most powerful maritime economies. Guided by these principles, the Chinese government and armed forces have recently enacted a number of firm steps to protect China’s maritime and air or space interests. Three key steps are of special significance. First, on July 24, 2012, the PLA established a garrison command zone in Shansha, Hainan province, responsible mainly for overseeing maritime security in the South China Sea (west, east and south areas). Like other military sub-areas in China’s prefecture-level cities, the Sansha garrison command, a division grade unit, is subservient to both the higher-level military authorities and local party committees and governments at the same level. Moreover, at the same time, the State Council decided to immediately establish a city of Sansha, to have general jurisdiction over the affairs of the South China Sea. Third, on November 23, 2013, China’s Ministry of Defense announced the establishment of the ADIZ over the East China Sea, and expressed the intention of establishing similar defense zones in other places when necessary. These acts symbolize China’s determination to guard its sovereignty over the South China Sea and reinforce its maritime power.
Discourse on becoming a maritime power stands in stark contrast to hesitation a decade earlier to highlight “China’s rise,” showing that China is no longer keeping a low profile.
3. Putting forward the concept of a “China-US new type of great power relations”
On June 7-8, 2013, Xi and Barack Obama met at the Sunnylands summit. Xi has made an important summary of China’s expectations of this relationship: “no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect, win-win collaboration.” As for implementing these different facets of the Sino-US relationship, Xi put forward various recommendations: promoting mutual dialogue to a new level, initiating new dimensions of pragmatic cooperation, establishing a new model for great power cooperation, exploring new ways of managing the differences, and vigorously working on establishing a new model of US-China major power relations in the military domain. In my view, the Chinese leadership understands that this is the most important bilateral relationship, and is also the only relationship that can bring about major challenges to China’s development. On the positive side, this relationship can continuously provide China with new impetus, but on the negative side, it can constitute the biggest external threat to China’s rise. Moreover, the underlying significance behind the so-called new pattern of the bilateral relationship is to contain uncertainty and avoid comprehensive confrontation. This attitude conforms to the earlier position on the relationship advocated by Deng Xiaoping and the leaders who followed him. The latest formulation, however, showcases a more global, multilateral view on the Chinese side, reflecting Xi’s vision of approaching the US-China relationship from a global perspective. This concept has attracted great attention, raising the profile of one relationship well above others and serving to keep discussions focused on positive outcomes rather than on the danger of polarization.
4. Presenting new thinking and official formulations on periphery diplomacy (or diplomacy with neighboring countries)
Considering the complex and troubling relations between China and its neighbors in recent years, the attitude of the new generation of Chinese leaders toward these countries is very interesting. The foreign policy work conference held on October 24-25, 2013, in Beijing, was the first of this kind in Chinese history, with all the standing committee members of the Politburo in attendance. It determined the strategic goals, basic guidelines, and overall direction of China’s foreign policy towards neighboring countries for the next five to ten years, and clarified the ideas and implementation plans for resolving major diplomatic issues in the region. Xi Jinping noted that China’s border regions are of high strategic importance in terms of geographic positioning, natural environment, and mutual relations. A solid, multipolar, and long-term perspective is necessary in considering border issues. China’s diplomacy with neighboring countries in the new era emphasizes friendly and good-neighborly relations. Projecting the concepts of friendliness, trust, and kindness, China firmly seeks to befriend, comfort, and enrich the neighbors. Xi stressed that China must forcefully promote regional security cooperation, which is a common goal for all the neighboring countries. In doing so, it is necessary to persist with mutual trust, mutual gain, equality, and collaboration, and advocate comprehensive and cooperative security arrangements. It is vital to promote security cooperation with neighboring countries, as well as to actively participate in regional and sub-regional security cooperation, deepening the relevant cooperation mechanisms and enhancing strategic mutual trust. China must make as many friends as possible. It must make the notion of the destiny of an interdependent community come alive by linking up the China Dream with the hopes for a better life held by people in the neighboring countries and the prospects for regional development. It is obvious that China’s new thinking about periphery diplomacy demonstrates its shifting position away from a passive, disadvantageous diplomacy of the past era, towards that of leadership in shaping the security structure in Asia. New wording alerts all concerned to this major shift in international relations.
5. Setting the goal of the two “Silk Roads”
Linked to the new thinking introduced above, in the course of their recent visits to Central and Southeast Asia, Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang have officially announced China’s new “Silk Road” plan towards neighboring countries and launched the Chinese version of the “Marshall Plan.” In September 2013, Xi made an announcement in Kazakhstan of China’s goal to construct the “Silk Road Economic Belt” together with Central Asian countries. The first part of this plan features strengthening highway connections. The SCO is negotiating an agreement on facilitating transportation networks, working hard to build up a transportation artery from the Pacific Ocean to the Baltic Sea. This cross-border transportation infrastructure would link East Asia, West Asia, and South Asia, while reaching into Europe. The second part of the Silk Road plan centers on promotion of trade efficiency, including removing trade barriers, enhancing the quality of the regional economy, and achieving a win-win result. The third step is to strengthen currency circulation, which means gradually establishing monetary exchanges and account settlements between China and Central Asian countries under their current and capital accounts. As a result of this, circulation costs would be considerably reduced, the regional financial system would be more immune to risk, and the regional economy would become more competitive internationally.
In October 2013, Xi and Li, while visiting Indonesia, Brunei, Thailand, and Vietnam, made several announcements of China’s “maritime silk route” plan in Southeast Asia. When speaking at the Indonesia Congress about China’s Southeast Asia policy, Xi mentioned that it is willing to strengthen maritime cooperation with ASEAN countries in order to build up the China-ASEAN “Maritime Silk Road” of the 21st century. This cooperation includes making the best use of the China-ASEAN Investment Cooperation Fund set up by the Chinese government, developing a partnership system of maritime cooperation, and establishing a China-funded Asian infrastructure construction bank. During the same time period, Li took advantage of his attendance at the East Asia Summit to promote China’s plan for high-speed train exports (the so-called “Pan-Asia Railway Network”) as a way to resolve the South China Sea dispute. Li also tried to forge a consensus between China and Southeast Asia on maritime disputes. For instance, during his visit to Vietnam, he elaborated on win-win new thinking about land, maritime, and financial cooperation between China and Vietnam. This helped mitigate the tension between China and Vietnam over the recent South China Sea escalation. The conception of these two “Silk Roads,” therefore, has become an important part of China’s new diplomatic strategy.
6. New thinking and measures on the “integrated destiny” of China and Africa
In March 2013, during his first state visit as China’s leader, Xi met with the leaders of eleven African states and the African Union. At one breakfast meeting arranged by the Chinese side, he pointed out that China and Africa share a common destiny of prosperity and adversity, and he announced four key points defining China’s new Africa policy. 1) China will strive hard to serve as a safeguard of Africa’s peace and stability, support African countries in solving regional problems independently, actively take part in the negotiation and settlement of Africa’s burning issues, and encourage African countries to solve problems through dialogue and consultation. 2) China will try hard to facilitate Africa’s economic development by actively encouraging Chinese enterprises to expand their investments in Africa while taking seriously their social responsibilities. 3) The Chinese government will stand as a supporter of a strong, unified Africa by deepening cooperation with the African Union, Africa’s sub-regional organizations, and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development. 4) China will strive to facilitate Africa’s equal participation in international affairs and call on the international community to make constructive contributions to Africa’s peace and development. Following his visit the topic of a “China-Africa Community of Common Destiny” has been widely discussed by Chinese media and official sources. It is significant, given China’s growing ties with the continent. China’s is currently Africa’s number one trade partner. The total volume of trade in 2000 was USD 10 billion, and it has expanded at a rate of over 30 percent per year, reaching USD 198.4 billion in 2012. China also holds a powerful position as a major investor and contributor of military forces to the UN missions in the African continent, participating in sixteen peacekeeping operations, sending approximately 20,000 troops, and taking part in anti-pirate operations in the eastern African waters. The ideal of “integrated destiny” serves to highlight the enduring, close relationship of China and Africa.
7. Increasing great power responsibility
China’s new leaders represent the first generation of leaders born after the founding of the PRC, and have a stronger sense of global responsibility than their predecessors. The two important manifestations of this shift are the “viewpoint on justice and interests” (yiliguan), and the theory (or doctrine) on public goods provision. Xi has recently stressed a number of times that China as a great power should have a correct view on justice and interests. Talking of yi means talking of morality and justice. It means that while pursuing one’s own interest it is important to take into account those of others, which at times can involve abandoning one’s gains for the sake of justice. Leading diplomats, including Foreign Minister Wang Yi and the director of the NPC Foreign Affairs Committee, Fu Ying reiterated the importance of a “viewpoint on justice and interests” as a guiding principle of China’s foreign policy, serving as a foundation for the expansion of foreign aid and the international supply of public goods. Fu, for instance, pointed out that “the public goods China can provide to the world are the ones it is relatively better at producing, such as global economic opportunities and models for eradicating poverty and enhancing environmental protection that can be used by other developing countries.” At the UN conference held in New York on September 2013, Wang Yi carefully elaborated on the prospect of China’s provision of more public goods in the domain of global security:
China will participate in global affairs more actively and comprehensively, closely cooperating with all other countries, handling complex global challenges jointly with others, and solving all kinds of difficult issues facing the human race. We will utter China’s voice, contribute China’s wisdom, put forward China’s proposals, demonstrate China’s role, and work hard to provide more public goods for the international community. China will forcefully carry out the correct “view on justice and interests” and actively construct a community of interdependent destiny for China and developing countries. In interacting and cooperating with developing countries, China will always stress justice when serving its own interests, place justice before its interests, and wholeheartedly provide developing countries with assistance that is within China’s capacity in order to facilitate their realization of independent and sustainable development. China will become more active and constructive in participating in and in dealing with international and regional hot issues, in negotiating peace and in ending conflicts, and in safeguarding world’s peace and stability.
This is a message with high-sounding principles that serve China’s soft power.
8. Leadership style to exude more flexible pragmatism, combining a “carrot and stick” approach
In the past year the new leadership received positive public approval because of its use of simple language and its flexible and dynamic personalities. In comparison to their predecessors, the new leaders have made fewer standard speeches, told more stories, and have used language accessible to the public when explaining foreign policy priorities. Their speech style reflects that of their work, which has featured a combination of gentleness and firmness. My personal observation is that Xi admires and wishes to adopt Vladimir Putin’s leadership style, particularly his tougher and bolder approach to defending national interests. At the same time, in comparison to Putin, Xi is more skillful at handling the national economy and improving people’s livelihood. Xi and Putin are both leaders with strong character, representing the demands of winning the support of the majority of the public of the two nations, each of which has a strong tradition of centralized power and is accustomed to the importance of ideology.
Xi Jinping exhibits differences between China and the major western powers, as well as traditional non-western powers. Embodying the new image and aspirations of foreign policy makers of a rising power, Xi is also different from past CCP leaders in subtle ways. Specifically, he differs in his emphasis on strategic planning, taking initiatives, actively promoting innovation, and establishing “bottom-line thinking.” Although so far it is still hard to foresee the consequences of the aforementioned trends, they undoubtedly signify some important adjustments in China’s approach to foreign relations. They are also well reflected in the rhetoric that accompanies foreign policy, alternately representing the “carrot” and the “stick” approach.
To explain why China’s leadership has greater global aspirations, the following elements cannot be overlooked. First, from the perspective of the generational succession of political leaders, this is the first post-‘49 generation, i.e., the top leadership of the Communist Party born after the establishment of the PRC. Their personal experience of China continuously growing stronger after its reform and opening and their awareness that the various countries of the world hold China in high regard make this generation of leadership willing to look to the future, more eager and better able to create a new chapter of “China contributes to the world.” Second, in light of China’s comprehensive power, there are more cards and sufficient grassroots support in the hands of Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, especially vast foreign currency reserves and a capacity for foreign investment, the largest population in the world, and vast foreign construction brigades, as well as domestic manufacturers ardently seeking foreign markets, sufficient to cause the first generation of Chinese leadership to cry out to advance to the world. Third, analyzing the external environment, the rapid expansion of China’s foreign interests, China’s surging dependency on foreign energy and its huge volume of cargo trade, also demands that the present government compared to past governments pay more attention to managing the international security environment, increasing international cooperation, and providing more international common goods and strategic assistance. The shift in China’s diplomatic philosophy from “taoguang yanghui” to “jiji zuowei” is one of the important driving forces in the transformation. Finally, the development of the Internet and various information media allows the Chinese public and politicians to have a better understanding of foreign criticism and requests. Inside China the debates about China’s international role are more open and diverse; although there are some differences in direction, radical nationalist emotions, and proposals based on various strategic frameworks, all, at a minimum share the wish that the “new giant” will have a louder international voice and provide more comprehensive support for China’s national interests. Overall, China at the start of the 21st century is experiencing a transitional stage from a comparatively inward-looking great power to a more active great power, the adjustment in the attitudes of China’s leadership with lofty aspirations and high aims a? of this. Overall, China at the start of the 21st century is experiencing a transitional stage from a comparatively inward-looking great power to a more active great power, the adjustment in the attitudes of China’s leadership is a political refraction of the transition. Although it is like this, we must recognize that the leadership generation of Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang with lofty aspirations and high aims still face many difficulties and challenges. Below I discuss the nature of some of the main challenges.
Explaining the Changes and the New Challenges
The first overarching factor behind the latest foreign policy shifts introduced above is the rapid rise in China’s comprehensive strength since 2008, boosting national self-confidence. In the past five or six years China’s rapidly growing national strength, demonstrated by its emergence as the world’s second largest economy with the world’s second highest military expenditure, has greatly motivated the new generation of leaders. The Beijing Olympics of 2008 represents the key milestone. Like the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, symbolizing Japan’s rapid recovery from the war and its transformation into the world’s second largest economy, the Beijing Olympics gave rise to an unprecedented spark in nationalistic emotions and a strong sense of national consciousness. In the discourse widely used, these changes could be readily detected
The most obvious manifestation of China’s rising national strength is its rapid economic growth in recent years. According to some reports, in 2010, China’s GDP for the first time surpassed that of Japan (Japan: USD 5.47 trillion vs. China: USD 5.88 trillion), a shift perceived in China as indicative of the end of assertive Japan versus humiliated China and the beginning of China’s rejuvenation. Symbolizing the power transition in East Asia, the economic shift in favor of China has incited different reactions from the public, mass media, and political figures in China and Japan, in some ways provoking Japan’s recent contentious behavior towards China. The recent global economic crisis further highlighted China’s relative strength in the global economy. The post-2008 economic crisis in the West strongly contrasted to the economic situation in China, which featured continuous healthy economic growth. This crisis has several important characteristics. First, it started in the major superpower, the United States, spread to advanced economies of Europe and Japan, and finally expanded into a global crisis. Second, the crisis started in the financial industry, but then had major consequences for the general economy, such as the ensuing high unemployment rate. Third, there is no sign of the crisis ending in the near future. In contrast to other crises of the past fifty years, this one has revealed the deep-seated failures of the western system, drastically weakening the dominance of the Western world in global economic development since the end of the Second World War. Admittedly, China, as other emerging powers, also suffered seriously in the crisis. It slowed down some facets of China’s development, but generally, China’s performance has been relatively good among the large economies. This, in turn, led to discourse indicative of greater pride, in economic terms and in other respects.
The growth in China’s military spending is another important factor in China’s rising self-confidence. Since 1997, China’s military spending has been growing at a double-digit rate. By 2008, China’s military budget had become the second largest in the world, surpassed only by that of the United States. Three factors have facilitated China’s rise in military spending in recent years. First, the compensation of military personnel has considerably increased. The raise in 2007 is widely regarded as the biggest one in China’s military history. The second factor is a sharp increase in non-combatant responsibilities of the Chinese armed forces. The number and range of activities in which the Chinese military has participated since 2008 are unprecedented. They include flood and earthquake relief, anti-terrorism, peacekeeping, and diaspora evacuation. The third factor is the Chinese military’s increasing use of high-tech equipment and participation in experiments, including the launch of China’s first aircraft carrier “Liaoning,” and the deployment of “Jiaolong,” a deep-sea research submarine at 7,200 meters below sea level.
With this rising national strength, the current Chinese leadership appears to be more self-confident than ever before. The official statement put forward during the 18th Party Congress stands as one of the most vivid demonstrations of this sentiment. At this meeting, the CCP leaders for the first time put forth a statement on “self-confidence in path, theory, and system.” No matter how many challenges lie ahead, the confidence Chinese people have in the development of their nation, and the expectations they hold for China’s role in international affairs, might outweigh that of the people in any other emerging country. And the optimism shared by Chinese people might be stronger than that of citizens of other global powers. This outlook represents the return of the Chinese nation with thousands years of powerful civilization and tradition, back from severe hardship into a great power stature. Discourse about the history of Chinese civilization is expressive of this resurgent optimism and claims to uniqueness.
As evident in recent speeches and statements made by Xi and Li, the new Chinese leadership possesses global consciousness and aspirations, with greater expectations of progress and higher self-confidence. This disposition is, on the one hand, a legacy of Mao’s toughness, especially when it comes to safeguarding China’s sovereignty and security interests, but, on the other, it is a legacy of Deng Xiaoping, as the new leadership keeps pursuing the core principles of his reform and opening up, in the hopes of maintaining the rapid development China has achieved in the past three decades through cooperation and peaceful diplomacy. Philosophically, this new combination of leadership traits can be understood as “sublimation” (yangqi), a phrase often used by Premier Li. The new generation of leaders is going to build an “upgraded version” of China’s development. It represents the first “post-49” generation of leadership in the PRC. The new Chinese elites are less weighed down by historical memories and more driven by future ambitions. Distinct from the China led by Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao, present-day China is neither a great country suffering from oppression and partial division nor an impoverished and economically marginalized part of the world. On the contrary, it is a great country where multi-faceted development is rapidly taking place, and where ambitions and aspirations outpace the material strengths, as reflected in the narratives being presented.
Fulfilling the ambitions noted above, however, will be no easy task for Chinese leaders. Various diplomatic and international challenges face them in the years to come. The first pressure comes from the extremely powerful domestic nationalism and global ambition. China, one of the world’s oldest civilizations, has been a backward semi-colonized country suffering from external aggression in the recent past, now with a chance to “revive its influence and reassert its pride.” For the common Chinese people, the “middle kingdom” once again has become a respected country. The public is proud of the nation’s recent accomplishments, including hosting the Beijing Olympics, surpassing Japan in GDP (and likely to outpace the United States in the not distant future), sending astronauts to walk in space, and achieving rapid modernization of national defense. To political leaders, the intense nationalistic emotions of 1.3 billion people are truly a “double-edged sword”: if properly mobilized, they could become a powerful force that helps to strengthen social solidarity, to construct a modern nation-state, to expedite national defense and military modernization, to resist any external pressure and threats, and to extend China’s influence in international relations. If not, they could force policy-makers to adopt a hard line on one or another disputed international issue at the cost of flexibility needed in international negotiations and strategic planning. There is a risk of public nationalism spinning out of control and exacerbating the existing conflicts. It will be a challenge to combine vibrant nationalistic emotions with a humble attitude of remaining open-minded and willing to learn from others. The language one uses plays an important role in achieving balance between arrogance and humility.
The second challenge is that of settling the thorny disputes over maritime sovereignty in the context of the new round of the global “Blue Enclosure Movement.” In reality, this problem has emerged at the beginning of the 21st century, in large part as a result of the earlier enactment of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. It can be said that party officials and Foreign Ministry officials during the Hu Jintao era were vexed by this issue, especially in the several years following the Beijing Olympics when problems in the South China Sea and East China Sea kept surfacing, with few solutions at hand. Looking at China’s relations with Southeast Asian countries, for instance, five ASEAN nations have disputes with China over maritime sovereignty, islands, fishing areas, and continental shelf demarcation. In the years leading up to these confrontations, China’s relations with ASEAN developed smoothly, facilitated by the establishment of an FTA, which allowed for more win-win cooperation. China’s relations with ASEAN countries evolved rapidly, outpacing the relations between ASEAN and Japan. But as the China-Philippines and China-Vietnam maritime tensions have escalated, other ASEAN countries have become concerned. China’s relationship with Southeast Asian countries has become strained and delicate. The Japan-China dispute in the East China Sea, namely the Diaoyu (Senkaku) Island standoff, is an even more serious and complicated issue. In fact, all the countries that have maritime or territorial disputes with China such as South Korea, North Korea, and India, are closely watching how this dispute unfolds, seeking to grasp China’s bottom line and its loopholes. At the same time, under the aura of China’s growing national strength, much of China’s public and media are irritated by these “offenders,” demanding that the government and military take tougher measures to punish them and seek more opportunities to reclaim its territories. This has become one of the most serious diplomatic challenges for China. It is also a challenge for commentators and analysts in choosing the appropriate language.
This leads us to the third challenge: how to deal with the US “pivot to Asia” or “strategic rebalancing” to prevent the superpower from becoming the “obstacle” to China’s peaceful development. The new generation of leaders and the majority of Chinese perceive the world’s superpower as an “all-around champion,” and also the only Western country capable of seriously impeding China’s peaceful rise and national rejuvenation. The US policy towards China is shaky and ambivalent. China’s rise, especially its increase in military spending, fast economic growth and aerospace development, naturally contributes to US suspicions. China’s relations with the United States, however, cannot be compared to those between the United States and the Soviet Union. The economic interdependence and social interaction between China and the United States are much deeper than what existed between the Soviet Union and the United States. The international opportunities and governance problems of the globalization age further differentiate this bilateral relationship from that between the two former adversaries. That is also why US policy towards China has been difficult to define and finalize, and why the two states’ strategic suspicion and strategic interdependence continue to coexist and alternate in importance. Discourse remains caught between arousing suspicion and welcoming interdependence.
The fourth challenge concerns China’s complicated ethnic conflicts and growing ethnic and religious conflicts worldwide. Specifically, China faces difficulty in managing the rise in ethnic separatism domestically and in handling similar international disputes without compromising China’s domestic stability and unity. Many other countries, especially emerging powers, have been dealing with similar challenges. A mistake in handling these sensitive issues can cause internal and external instability, potentially disrupting the initial strategic agenda and slowing down national development. In China, the development gap between coastal areas and border regions populated by ethnic minorities has been increasingly since the opening up reforms. Moreover, since the end of the Cold War, separatism, terrorism, and radical religious forces have been on the rise in neighboring areas, spilling over into China’s territory. Decision-makers are, therefore, now faced with increasing difficulty in managing domestic ethnic problems.
The fifth challenge stems from China’s increasing dependence on energy. Given that China currently has the world’s largest manufacturing sector and is undergoing the fastest process of industrialization and urbanization, the rapid increase in China’s energy consumption is inevitable. But China’s own petroleum reserves and production capacity can only meet a portion of its huge demand. China has been developing new energy sources, including nuclear power, wind power, hydropower, and natural gas, at a rapid pace, but the proportion of total energy consumption covered remains insignificant (currently less than 10%). The energy gap forces China to depend on cooperation with and imports from certain resource-abundant countries. One priority is to ensure that the growing energy demand is met, developing guidelines on domestic productivity enhancement, energy conservation, and industrial structure adjustments, as well as conducting international strategic planning, especially making arrangements with resource-abundant countries and drawing contingency plans for various external threats to the energy supply.
The sixth challenge has to do with enhancing the government’s public credibility. The Chinese people tend to think that the government is too weak in diplomacy, while foreign countries tend to point to China’s growing assertiveness. The people are not satisfied, as they complain about rising inflation and other life pressures, while the foreign media and public often mistakenly believe that China has inexhaustible national revenues and foreign reserves and its people are only becoming richer over time. These increasingly contrasting interpretations are both a warning and a mystery to Chinese leaders. The rise of radical nationalism, especially the emergence of the “angry youth”, means that many are venting their anger and dissatisfaction, reflecting the seriousness of the inequality gap. Regardless of their radical and one-sided nature, these escalating emotions and complaints have forced the government to seriously consider addressing the inequitable distribution, curbing the corruption of officials, and reforming the political system. The misunderstanding and non-acceptance of China by some foreign countries cannot be easily generalized. Some deliberately misrepresent China because they are jealous of it and preoccupied by its rising strength; some misjudge it because they do not know enough about China’s realities, perhaps confused by the choice of discourse. Some misperceptions are a result of the ineffective persuasiveness of China’s foreign public relations effort, and some are a result of incompatibility between the domestic system and international standards. However, in general, the worsening of China’s international public image is an indisputable fact.
The final challenge for China is how to define its position in the world while, on the one hand, having to realize continuously increasing and globalizing national interests, and on the other, having to assume more global responsibility in accordance with domestic and external demand. China’s immense market, combined with its unique culture, can easily draw the leaders’ attention primarily to domestic affairs. Compared to many other developing powers, China’s social system and ideology are more distinct from Western-dominated international institutions and value systems. In facing these differences in the periphery and the global setting, leaders lack the experience and skills for providing international public goods. Although China has managed to project a clearer image of itself as a great power in the sphere of economics and trade, it is obvious that China’s global political role (including its political philosophy for the human race) remains vague. China’s global security goals and strategies are inconsistent, and China’s influence in the global social and cultural spheres remains minimal. These are challenges to address through the language used to discuss the issues at hand.
In conclusion, my assessment is that China is presently only a great power in the economics and trade realm, while it is still dealing with constraints in other spheres, facing major challenges to its rise. Both the opportunities and the challenges that China’s new leaders are facing are unprecedented. This is a complicated phenomenon of the greatest importance to international relations in the early 21st century, and it will have seminal and overarching consequences. Recent choices of language need to be assessed for how they influence China’s response to challenges.