17 June 2014

China’s ‘global personality’ – the interaction between its identity and foreign and security policy approaches – cannot be reduced to any single overriding concept. It is complex and dynamic, and features multiple layers. It is also in a period of flux, magnified by a sense (especially among Chinese elites) of global shifts in traditional economic balance and political power.


Dr Tim Summers

Senior Consulting Fellow, Asia-Pacific Programme (based in Hong Kong)


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.


The ambiguity and evolution are reflected in debates in China around the implications of its rise for its traditional identity as a developing country, whether it should become more ‘revisionist’ in seeking to change international or regional order, and how assertive its foreign and security policy should be. There is also debate about the nature of China’s complex and changing global environment.

China is not the only driver of change in its global personality. Perceptions and policy choices by other countries that are global actors are important, especially the United States and Japan. The United States remains the single most important of these, and discussion of its policy choices has so far dominated the (non-Chinese) literature about the ‘rise of China’.

Influencing perceptions of and the discourse about China is part of Beijing’s diplomatic challenge, but the spread overseas of Chinese commercial and individual interests makes this more difficult. Longer-term implications of China’s rise depend on the interactions not just between strategic and tactical decisions made by the Chinese and other governments, but also arising from the global political and economic impact of Chinese non-state actors.

The underlying context is uncertainty about the extent and impact of the rise of China, which so far is greater at a regional than global level, China’s economic size is not yet matched by its diplomatic and other influence, and its rapid but uneven development has created new domestic risks. Still, China’s global influence has spread substantially. In the country itself, the idea that it has become a major power has become stronger.

Foreign and security policy under new leadership

The Chinese leadership in place since 2012 has introduced a number of innovations in foreign and security policy, including the idea of building a new type of major-power relationship with the United States and changes to the style of diplomacy. The establishment of a new National Security Commission is significant and not limited to foreign policy: it looks likely to strengthen policy coordination and integration across relevant domestic and external issues.

Engagement with the existing international order remains strong. But there is a growing element of gradual revisionism in Chinese policy-making towards elements of regional and international order. This involves an emphasis on the United Nations as the primary international institution for addressing global issues. China will continue to pursue a more active international role, such as through UN peacekeeping missions, but remains reluctant to offer support at the UN for intervention in problem areas around the world.

Geographically, China’s primary policy focus will be on relations with the United States and in Asia. The new leadership has also emphasized strategic relations with Russia. Europe has been less of a priority, but is still considered a major power. China’s ‘omni-directional diplomacy’ underpins its growing engagement across all continents.

The new type of major-power relationship with the United States is intended to avoid conflict between it and a rising China, and to develop into a relationship characterized by equality, including in Asia. It remains to be seen how feasible this is, which will depend partly on US responses and partly on how far the Chinese leadership chooses to test the United States’ ‘bottom line’ (e.g. through the November 2013 announcement of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea).

This is related to the development of firmer or more assertive Chinese policy in Asia in recent years. However, current uncertainty in East Asia should be seen not simply as the result of China’s rise and others’ responses to it, but also as a consequence of the ongoing renegotiation of regional order by many regional actors.

China’s relationship with Japan is likely to remain poor. However, it remains strategically important to China, though its precise objectives are unclear. The state of the relationship is also intimately linked to the renegotiation of regional order.

There is little prospect of significant change in policy towards the Korean peninsula. Southeast Asian countries have sought to ensure US security engagement and assurances, but they do not want to become entirely dependent on it and need to maintain good relations with China. Organizations such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are important for these countries in ensuring their voice is heard in the region.

China will continue to engage in multilateral institutions, especially those with an economic focus. Regionally, there is a preference for institutions that are limited in scope to East Asia rather than the Asia-Pacific, although it is likely to remain engaged with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, East Asia Summit, ASEAN Regional Forum and ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus. China sees US-led initiatives such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership as efforts to renegotiate elements of international order, but it will seek to join the TPP in due course if the institution takes off.

International governance on cyber security is an interesting test case for Chinese policy, given that it is being developed at a time of China’s rise. An important part of the Chinese approach is promoting the idea of ‘sovereign virtual territory’, and ideally seeking consensus on new rules under the United Nations.

Policy implications

The implications of China’s rise will be affected by the choices made not just in the country, but elsewhere. Subject to the constraints of relative power and influence in the international system, there is therefore space for other countries to engage in shaping the future global and regional order. 

The policy choices of the United States and Chinese responses to them will have the greatest impact. China has shown little interest in the idea that it might develop some sort of ‘G2’ structure with the United States for oversight of global affairs, and currently its main strategic aim for this relationship is to avoid a negative spiral. Other countries should also try to influence the direction of US–Chinese relations.

Different layers and ambiguity in China’s global personality imply different behaviours in different contexts. A coherent and logically consistent approach may not emerge across issues, meaning policymakers will need to deal with each separately.

If strategic difficulties in the US–Chinese relationship continue, these could pose particular challenges for other countries whose strategic interests have been aligned closely with the United States, but for which the rise of China may offer as many opportunities as threats. Dealing with these dilemmas requires innovative assessments of national interest: at issue are relationships not just with China but with the United States, and questions of regional order and governance.