China's Party Congress: a dose of foreign policy realism is needed

In the final article of three on the 20th Chinese Communist Party Congress, which opens on 16 October, Yu Jie argues that Beijing must show more pragmatism about Taiwan and the West.

The World Today Updated 12 October 2022 Published 11 October 2022 3 minute READ

How important is foreign policy at the congress?  

The political reports delivered to the delegates of the week-long 20th Chinese Communist Party Congress, which happens every five years, follow a Marxist-Leninist formula. Economics and the means of production form the base, while politics and society fill in the superstructure. 

We can expect sections on the work of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), ideological discussion, economics, domestic politics, foreign affairs, cultural reform and social developments. Usually, the report prioritizes big domestic political issues.  

The political report typically sheds some light on the status of, and relationships between, senior party members. It can also provide insights into the political fortunes of various interest groups. The report acts as a summary of the party’s achievements and its plans – expressed as the lowest common denominator of consensus between competing factions. 

The congress will address foreign affairs issues with long-lasting implications for the rest of the world

This year’s congress should be no different, and the political reshuffle that takes place is likely to signal how Beijing intends to rise to the many challenges at home and abroad. 

Given China’s growing power and its fraught relationship with the West, this year’s congress is expected to feature serious discussion on weighty foreign affairs issues affecting Beijing, and which will have long-lasting implications for the rest of the world.  

Which geopolitical issues will be priorities?  

When it comes to foreign affairs, China’s priorities rarely change. The CCP seeks to create a stable external environment to foster its domestic economic development. This conservative maxim was advocated in the 1980s by China’s then-paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, and it will continue to guide Beijing’s relationships after this congress. 

While we don’t know the exact details of this year’s political report, we can expect discussion on relations with the US-led West, a possible shift in the relationship between Beijing and Moscow, and elaboration on China’s ties with the Global South.  

Notably, it’s likely that a separate chapter of the political report will see Taiwan treated alongside the special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau, signalling the party’s commitment to its claims over the contested island.  

Despite a chorus of nationalistic rhetoric surrounding the issue of Taiwan, Beijing will be careful not to stumble into an international conflict which risks causing colossal damage on all fronts. The choice of language on the so-called ‘Taiwan question’ in this political report will serve as a bellwether as to how, if at all, the party might fundamentally shift its views regarding Taiwan and deviate from the principle of ‘peaceful reunification’, the policy stated at every congress since 1979. 

How have China’s relations with the West worsened?  

President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, the first by an American president to the Communist nation, kicked off five decades of relative stability. However, as China’s global influence has grown, so have Washington’s fears.  

US-China relations, once stable and cooperative, are now volatile and competitive

The relationship has transitioned from the cooperation and relative stability that existed under President George W. Bush and President Hu Jintao in the early 2000s, into one characterized by volatility and competition under Xi Jinping, Joe Biden and Donald Trump. These tensions are almost certain to continue in Xi’s likely third term. 

Elements of China’s relationship with the West, such as cooperation over military and aviation technology, are becoming far more competitive. At the same time, trade and investment, once viewed as strong ties, have been rapidly deteriorating – as seen, for example, by several major publicly listed Chinese state-owned enterprises and large private companies withdrawing from the New York Stock Exchange.  

Will Beijing stand by the Kremlin despite Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?  

At the same time, Beijing’s close relationship with Moscow and its lack of opposition to Russia’s war in Ukraine have put China in an awkward position. The CCP has realized that cooperation with its long-standing ally and neighbour must come with substantial limits to avoid undermining its own political priorities and interests.  

Russia’s recklessness may spur Xi and the CCP’s senior leadership to minimize the economic, financial and political risks associated with the Kremlin’s pursuit of war against a country aligned with, and supported by, the West.  

Will China continue to support its regional partners?  

On its ties with the Global South, Beijing began to rethink its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as the US-led Indo-Pacific strategy gained geopolitical momentum. Regions of Southeast Asia and South Asia received a lot of funding and resources for BRI projects, as seen with Chinese support for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.  

Xi also recently introduced the Global Development and Global Security initiatives, which the political report should flesh out. 

Beijing is fully aware that it can only prosper if its regional partners prosper

Beijing is fully aware that it can only prosper if its regional partners prosper, and it can only achieve resource security and border stability if its southern and western neighbours in Myanmar and Afghanistan cease to fight over land and resources. 

Chinese foreign policy over the last five years has been a strange combination of high-octane rhetoric and patient pragmatism. To respond to this contradiction, the congress could be used as an opportunity to inject a dose of realism.  

Read the two further articles in this series: the first is a guide to why the Chinese Communist Party Congress matters; the second discusses the key domestic policy themes that Xi Jinping is expected to outline at this year’s congress.