Table Speech

Shift in Chinese Foreign Policy and the Xi Jinping Administration

October 5, 2016

Mr. Shin Kawashima
The University of Tokyo Professor

 The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague recently issued a highly unfavorable verdict for China, which denied the legality of China’s claim to the waters within the “nine-dash” demarcation line, encircling a major part of the South China Sea. The Chinese government reacted against the ruling and made a request to Prime Minister Abe not to raise the contentious territorial issues at the G20 Summit. Chinese President Xi Jinping met US President Obama twice during the Summit, with a smile on the first day as the two countries ratified the Paris Agreement on climate change. The following day, however, they engaged in bitter discussions over the disputed waters. These meetings best exemplify the current foreign policy taken by China, which has undergone dramatic changes since Xi Jinping took office in 2012. Consequently, views on China have shifted, including assessments of Xi Jinping’s Administration by academic circles.

 Japanese academics tend to make harsh assessments on Chinese society, focusing on greater control exerted over the media and universities by the current Administration. Academics in the USA had given the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) a high mark up to 2014. We witnessed, however, a shift in their views on the future of Chinese Communist rule in 2015. The article by Professor David Shambaugh in the Wall Street Journal (dated 6 March, 2015) reflects this shift, in which he criticized the CCP for losing the “flexibility and resilience” to adapt to social and economic changes and had come to take a more repressive and authoritarian governing structure. The dominant interpretation among academics in the USA today is that challenging domestic issues have led to an increasingly rigid political administration in China. Such issues include declining economic growth rate forecasted around 5-6% in the so-called “new normal” develop phase as well as rapidly aging population that weighs on the social security system.

 As internal administration comes to lack flexibility, so does diplomatic capacity. Chinese diplomacy is based on five standpoints. Firstly, China claims itself to be a “developing major country” despite dramatic increase in its GDP and becoming the world’s second largest economy. This way, China exempts itself from financial burden shouldered by developed countries, while it maintains its involvement in the international community without belonging to G7 or OECD. Secondly, China upholds socialism as its political and economic doctrine. The majority of China’s key industries, including basic infrastructure, energy and steel, are run by state-owned companies. China also stresses its relations with socialist states. The third point is China harbors a strong sense of victimhood over territorial issues. China claims its historic rights over the islands in the South and East China Sea and therefore it is rightful to retake control of them. The fourth point is not having any allied nations except Russia. As China enhances its presence in Asia and the international community, many point out the need for China to form a new alliance. The last and obvious point is China’s emphasis on national sovereignty.

 The Chinese diplomatic policy has been transforming since the late 1990s. The late Deng Xiaoping based his diplomatic policy on keeping a low profile, promoting international collaboration and putting emphasis on the economy. This collaborative diplomacy culminated in 2005 when Hu Jintao articulated the “Harmonious World” perspective at the UN General Assembly. The Beijing Summer Olympics (2008), the 60th Anniversary of the People’s Republic of China (2009) and the Shanghai Expo (2010) propelled economic growth and fueled the conservative discussions centered on sovereignty and national security. Chinese diplomacy shifted towards a conservative stance in 2009 and the current Xi Jinping Administration has been following the same path.

 Another major shift is that China has come to articulate its diplomatic stance in Asia, claiming the “new Asian security ideology” in which China aims to take a lead among Asian countries in ensuring regional security. On the other hand, China does not contest for power in the international community and respects multilateralism.

 Now, how should Japan deal with China? Japan has close economic ties with China despite some outstanding security issues. This places us in a unique position among the other G7 as well as East Asian countries. As the majority of G7 countries have no sovereignty issues with China, they take a cooperative attitude. Not a few countries in Southeast Asia share similar territorial issues with Japan yet they are not powerful enough to stand face-to-face with China. Japan should, therefore, provide extensive explanation on the situation and our diplomatic stance. We can learn much from the comprehensive Chinese-American relations based on strategic dialogue not limited to economic and financial topics but encompasses research on cultural, social and liberal arts fields. Japan should strive to form a multilayered relationship with China, without making concessions on territorial issues.

 Another point is the Japanese people’s sentiment towards China. According to the latest survey conducted by Genron NPO, a Japanese independent think tank, over 90% of Japanese respondents had an unfavorable impression of China, while the percentage dropped slightly for the Chinese to around 70%. We should note that 70% of the respondents in both countries agreed on the importance of Japan-China relations. It is therefore imperative to try to get a proper understanding of the actual condition and form a balanced relationship at an individual level.