Tim Summers
Senior Consulting Fellow, Asia Programme (based in Hong Kong)
China is in a period of flux in its approaches to foreign and security policy. This is stimulated by domestic changes but is also part of a response to a shifting global environment and a wider renegotiation of aspects of international order.
Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives to attend the opening ceremony at the fourth Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) summit in Shanghai, China, on 21 May 2014. Photo by Ali Ihsan Cam / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images.Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives to attend the opening ceremony at the fourth Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) summit in Shanghai, China, on 21 May 2014. Photo by Ali Ihsan Cam / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images.

China’s rise was highlighted again recently by reports that World Bank calculations of purchasing power parity could put the Chinese economy ahead of the US this year. China’s global influence has clearly spread substantially over recent decades, though the extent and impact of the country’s rise remain debated, and its economic size is not yet matched by influence in other areas.

Within China itself, the idea that the country has become a major power has become stronger. Put alongside Chinese analysis of global flux, this has resulted in changes in China’s approaches to foreign and security policy.

The impact of these changes remain uncertain. As set out in a new report on China’s Global Personality , there are several debates in China about the country’s approach to international affairs: around the implications of its rise for its continued identity as a developing country, whether it should become more ‘revisionist’ towards international affairs, and how assertive Chinese foreign and security policy should be.

So far, China’s post-2012 leadership has taken forward a number of areas of policy change. Institutionally, the creation of a new National Security Commission, chaired by Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping, is likely to strengthen policy coordination and integration across a broad range of domestic and external issues.

The Chinese leadership has also promoted a much-discussed ‘new type of major power relationship’ in its approach to the US. The aim here is to avoid conflict between the US and a rising China, and to work towards a relationship characterized by equality, including in Asia – this therefore does not imply a desire to be a regional hegemon. The outcome, however, remains to be seen, and US responses so far have been cautious.

In dealing with disputes in East Asia, Chinese policy has become more assertive since around 2010, though the leadership has also set out its desire to deepen relations with its neighbours, and Beijing has been among the first to reach out to new Indian Prime Minister Modi. However, there are clear limits to this: relations with Japan in particular are likely to remain poor, and those with Vietnam have deteriorated substantially over recent weeks.

These issues are not simply bilateral, but should be seen as part of a wider renegotiation of regional order, involving not just China, but Japan, the US, and others. The last few years have seen changes in US approaches to the ongoing evolution of the international order and in particular to East Asia – the so-called ‘rebalance’ strategy, including ongoing – but slowing – negotiations for a trade and investment Trans-Pacific Partnership. And Japan’s security policy has been changing under Prime Minister Abe.

The idea of renegotiation can also be seen in the debates around institutions of global economic governance, such as the International Monetary Fund. Our research finds that China’s engagement with the existing international order remains strong, but there is also a growing element of gradual revisionism from China (and maybe others) within that order. China’s approach is consistent with the open and rules-based way that international institutions have developed, but it looks for its voice to be considered more in the setting of those rules.

The view from Europe

The implications of this analysis are that the questions policy-makers need to address should not be framed simply in terms of dealing with the rise of China and the changes in Chinese approaches this brings. Instead, the framework should be one which takes account of global flux and policy changes by other actors.

This means that there is space for European governments, for example, to engage in shaping the future global and regional order. In doing so, there could be particular challenges if strategic difficulties in the US-China relationship continue − the perceptions of opportunities and threats in Asia as seen from Europe may increasingly diverge from Washington’s. As China’s rise continues, it will not just affect relationships with China – Europe’s relationships with the US, and their stances on questions of regional order and governance in Asia, will also be called into question.

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