from Asia Unbound

To Understand China’s Aggressive Foreign Policy, Look at Its Domestic Politics

Soldiers of the People's Liberation Army march outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China on September 8, 2020.
Soldiers of the People's Liberation Army march outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China on September 8, 2020. Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters

In the past six months, Chinese foreign policy appears to have taken a dramatic and aggressive turn. One way to understand this assertive foreign policy is through the lens of China's internal politics.

October 8, 2020

Soldiers of the People's Liberation Army march outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China on September 8, 2020.
Soldiers of the People's Liberation Army march outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China on September 8, 2020. Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters
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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

Christopher W. Bishop is Council on Foreign Relations international affairs fellow in Canada at the University of Ottawa Centre for International Policy Studies and a fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. A U.S. foreign service officer, he is currently on leave from the Department of State. These are his personal views, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of State or the U.S. government.

In the past six months, Chinese foreign policy appears to have taken a dramatic and aggressive turn. China has lashed out at Australia for questioning its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, bolstered its claims in the South China Sea, stepped up patrols around the Japanese-controlled Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, clashed with India in the Himalayas, and sent warplanes across the median line in the Taiwan Strait. It has also doubled down on efforts to defend Huawei by charging Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor with espionage after a Canadian court refused to stop extradition proceedings against CFO Meng Wanzhou, and warned the United Kingdom it would “bear the consequences” for excluding the telecom giant from its 5G network. Most striking of all, Beijing has cracked down on the once semi-autonomous region of Hong Kong, enacting a far-reaching National Security Law and arresting multiple pro-democracy activists.

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Chinese officials have defended these moves as responses to external “provocations.” Others, however, have argued Beijing’s new hard-line foreign policy represents a more fundamental shift under President Xi Jinping—a radical departure from an older approach associated with the late Deng Xiaoping and the proverb “hide your strength, bide your time.”

But another way of understanding China’s more assertive foreign policy—not just over the past six months, but since Xi Jinping became General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 2012—is through the lens of China’s internal politics. Although China is far from being an open, democratic society, it is not a black box. Moreover, while it may be difficult—and sometimes impossible—to know exactly how Xi and the CCP leadership make decisions, many of the pressures that shape Chinese decision-making are clear for everyone to see.

Consider a few visible points of reference. The outbreak of COVID-19 has been, as Xi himself put it, “a major test of China’s system and capacity for governance”—and arguably the greatest challenge the Communist Party has faced since the 1989 Tiananmen Square student protests. The lockdown required to control the virus caused China’s economy to shrink for the first time in over forty years, a painful blow after several years of slower growth and a trade war with the United States. Although the economy has started to recover, China’s GDP is now expected to grow only 1 percent for the year—far better than other major economies, but worrisome for a regime whose legitimacy is intertwined with economic growth and social stability. Preserving this stability continues to be one of the CCP’s top priorities, and the Chinese government reportedly spends more on “stability maintenance”—including police, internal security, and Uyghur “training centers” in Xinjiang—than it officially spends on national defense. Most significantly, Xi Jinping’s tenure has been marked by a drive to consolidate power by sidelining potential rivals and promoting those loyal to his leadership. Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, for example, has targeted over one million officials to date—including several members of the Communist Party’s Politburo—while Xi’s military reforms have increased his personal control over the People’s Liberation Army. Although Xi appears to have been successful, these moves have created quiet resentment across the country, which percolate upward as criticism from a few intellectuals and others brave enough to speak out. A new “rectification campaign” of China’s police and security agencies launched this summer suggests Xi is not yet finished accumulating power—and that some key parts of the party-state remain less than enthusiastic about his leadership.

Even if the worst of the pandemic is over, China therefore faces a looming economic and political crisis with a regime that feels weaker at home than it appears from outside. Moreover, it is not surprising that this sense of crisis—and these insecurities—have affected the tenor of China’s foreign policy. This does not mean that Xi Jinping sees foreign policy as an easy way of diverting attention from China’s domestic problems, like a Chinese version of Wag the Dog. More likely, Xi and his allies in China’s leadership feel constrained by their worsening political environment. Because they cannot afford to appear weak or indecisive at home, they may feel compelled to act strongly and forcefully abroad, especially given the popular nationalism the party-state has fostered since 1989. In fact, this phenomenon is the only reasonable explanation for the emergence of China’s combative “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy—named for a Ramboesque action movie—which has alienated many outside China, while winning kudos at home.

Nearly sixty years ago, German historian Fritz Fischer upended traditional explanations for Germany’s entry into the First World War by arguing that the country’s dysfunctional domestic politics, not the polarized European alliance system, was responsible for the disaster that followed. To understand the war, Fischer argued, one had to appreciate the Primat der Innenpolitik—the primacy of domestic politics—and the role it played in the making of foreign policy, rather than the other way around. The People’s Republic of China is not the German Empire, and Xi Jinping is not Wilhelm II. But Fischer’s thesis serves as a powerful reminder that a state’s aggressive international behavior can be rooted deep within its internal political dynamics. That lesson—and the question of war and peace it entails—are worth keeping in mind.

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