China’s Foreign Relations Today

China’s President Xi Jinping has garnered a lot of attention from the international community as being a “new generation of leader” in Chinese foreign policy. Xi has certainly turned heads with respect to a tighter grip on domestic politics – he appointed himself leader for life by abolishing state term limits in March 2018, he has taken a harder stance against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang and created “reeducation camps,” and is cracking down against his enemies in a so-called anti-corruption campaign – but has China changed fundamentally in the international arena?

Chu Shulong, Professor at the School of Public Policy & Management at Tsinghua University, describes several new axioms that Xi Jinping has espoused in his new take on Chinese foreign policy, and provides a distinct point of view as a reputable Chinese scholar in political science. The first is Xi’s cornerstone foreign policy project, the Belt and Road Initiative. Chu emphasizes the importance of Belt and Road as a means of Chinese people doing business with the world: he considers it to be an extension of China’s “Going Out Policy,” which encouraged Chinese firms and business actors to invest in external ventures. By connecting the world through the Belt and Road, it will ostensibly facilitate Chinese commercial transactions. Secondly, China’s creation of the Belt and Road leads to the country’s engagement with lesser developed nations in regions like the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. In these areas of the world, China has been financing infrastructure projects to help these countries modernize their connectivity routes; many China skeptics have purported that this is a form of “debt trap diplomacy” – essentially bankrolling countries so that China has some kind of geopolitical leverage – but Chu claims that it is natural for countries to run deficits and China holding the debt of lesser developed nations should not be a threat. He points to the fact that China even holds a percentage of American debt. Thirdly, Chu discussed China’s affairs in the South China Sea, claiming that the Chinese solely chose to build islands in areas where the country had maintained de factocontrol for decades. Although Xi has been more aggressive than his predecessor Hu Jintao, Chu argues that the Chinese posture in the South China Sea is not as dire as the West perceives it. Fourthly, he commented on Xi’s continuance of military modernization, particularly with respect to a potential crisis in the Taiwan Strait. Chu contended that the Chinese government believes it should continue to fortify its weapons systems in case of a security emergency with Taiwan.

Finally, Chu addressed the status of U.S.-China relations. Surprisingly enough to Western observers, Chu claimed that the general opinion within China is that the United States has not changed much in its foreign policy posture vis-à-vis the PRC. He notes that the U.S. has indeed changed domestically, economically, and societally since the election of Donald Trump, but the President has not changed American foreign policy toward China. Chu pointed to Trump’s personal rapport with Xi and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s positive reinforcement of the U.S.-China relationship. Although it is widely accepted in the West that the United States has shifted from a strategy of engagement toward one of strategic competition, Chu believes that despite ups and downs, the relationship is still generally positive and boils down to how parties on both sides view the notion of change.

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