Spring/Summer 2015
Number 28

China’s Changing Foreign Policy Priorities

Da Wei and Sun Chenghao

BEIJING—For almost two decades, the question of whether China should focus primarily on its immediate neighborhood or on the world’s major powers (particularly the U.S.) has been a hotly debated topic among the country’s foreign policy elite. In the 1990s, the answer seemed clear; the China-U.S. relationship was viewed as a “priority among priorities.” During the first decade of this century, the two directions became more equal when President Hu Jintao made regional diplomacy a “priority” of his government, while ties with major powers simultaneously became “key.” Now, neighborhood diplomacy has gained more prominence still in the strategy of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

One signal of this shift emerged during the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s November 2014 Central Conference on Work Relating to Foreign Affairs. At that event, President Xi stressed that China “should promote neighborhood diplomacy, turn… neighborhood areas into a community of common destiny, continue to follow the principles of amity, sincerity, mutual benefit and inclusiveness in conducting neighborhood diplomacy.” By contrast, when he elaborated on the issue of how to deal with “major countries,” Xi merely said that “we should manage well relations with other major countries, build a sound and stable framework of major-country relations.” The emphasis on the former over the latter was clear.

This has proved to be more than mere rhetoric. Over the past several years, Beijing has worked extensively to deepen its economic links with neighboring countries. Thus, China proposed the “Silk Road Economic Belt” and “21st-Century Maritime Silk Road” (collectively known as “the Belt and Road Initiative”) during President Xi’s Fall 2013 visits to Kazakhstan and Indonesia. More recently, China has proposed the creation of an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) to build basic infrastructure in the region. In these efforts, and others, China’s goal is the promotion of economic prosperity and greater integration in the region.

This reorientation has a security dimension as well. At the Fourth Summit of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA), which took place in Shanghai in May of 2014, President Xi proposed a new security concept for China, and called for the establishment of a new framework for regional security cooperation. In addition, the possible expansion of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to include countries such as India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and even Turkey will provide another cooperative mechanism for building the “Silk Road Economic Belt” and conducting regional diplomacy.

Like it or not, the adjustment of China’s foreign policy priorities is natural. For most of the world’s countries, their immediate neighborhood represents a natural priority. This is most certainly the case in Asia, home to the most robust and promising economies in the world, where 1/3 of the world’s population lives, and where four countries (Russia, India, Pakistan and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) currently possess nuclear weapons. The Obama administration has already engaged in a “pivot” of its strategic priorities to Asia-Pacific. Why, then, should we be surprised when China emphasizes the importance of its neighborhood?

China’s shift in foreign policy priorities is not necessarily bad news for the United States. After all, China’s leadership has been very clear in its view that the U.S. will remain the leading power in the world for the foreseeable future. Beijing believes that America can play a role helping China achieve its “Chinese Dream” of modernization, if the bilateral relationship remains constructive. It can also hinder or even undermine China’s rise, should relations deteriorate. For these reasons, the U.S. remains a critical country for China. It is also why China has proposed to build a “new model of major country relationship” with America. As President Xi has outlined, such a relationship would mean no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect and mutually beneficial cooperation in a number of spheres. The goal is to achieve a long-term framework with the United States within which both countries can coexist peacefully via constructive cooperation and healthy competition.

There are other benefits as well. Given the fact that the U.S. is rebalancing its foreign policy resources to Asia-Pacific, China’s shift may decrease the risk of strategic collision between the two countries. The “Belt and Road” will go westward and southward from China, toward Southeast Asia, South Asia, Central Asia and beyond. This approach means that China and the U.S., which is now focusing on East Asia and the West Pacific, may face fewer divergences and disputes. Indeed, the “Belt and Road Initiative” could actually create opportunities for China and the United States to cooperate economically, since both Washington and Beijing have a shared interest in the stability and development of Afghanistan, Pakistan, South Asia and Central Asia.

Thus, while it may not seem like it at first blush, China’s shift of foreign policy priorities away from America and toward its neighborhood may actually be good news for the bilateral relationship in the long run.

Da Wei is Director of the Institute of American Studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.

Sun Chenghao is Research Fellow at the Institute.