The foreign policy of a country often provides valuable insight into its short-term and long-term objectives, as well as the nature of its relationships with other countries. China’s foreign policy is perhaps one of the most intricate and carefully planned in the world today; consequently, it also gives a good idea of what China is aiming to achieve in the decades to come, the countries its vision includes as potential allies, and those it sees as a threat.
Over the past several years, there have been multiple indications, directly from Chinese leaders and indirectly from their foreign policy decisions, that the country is actively pursuing a position at the top of the global hierarchy. History always provides a suitable lens to study the present; likewise, a look at Chinese history is necessary to fully understand the reasons and motivations behind current Chinese decisions.
The period from 1839-1949 is often called China’s “Century of Humiliation,” as the Chinese empire was overpowered by Western powers like Britain and France, as well as Russia and Japan. This subjugation experienced by the Chinese empire is regarded as a defeat to be extremely ashamed of in China. It started in 1839 with the First Opium War against Britain when China tried to put an end to the illegal opium trade being carried out by the British since addiction to the drug was having a widespread impact on society. China lost this war badly, and the Second Opium War, in which France fought with Britain, had the same result. Subsequently, China lost a number of wars, especially against Japan, and the rulers also had to sign several treaties after each loss, giving away valuable territory; Britain additionally made China increase the number of ports that allowed British traders in an effort to increase British influence and trade in the region.
These continuous losses finally led to the formation of the modern state of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Since then, the nation’s ambitions have been rising steeply. In a 2017 speech at the Party Congress, President Xi Jinping pledged to achieve the “Great Rejuvenation” of the country by 2049, the one-hundredth anniversary of the nation. The phrase is not new; Xi has been using this phrase to refer to sustainable yet accelerated development and a return to great heights since 2012. However, his 2017 speech provided more specificity and offered a multistage plan to achieve rejuvenation in a gradual manner across three time periods: 2020, 2035, and 2050. An important and especially relevant example his speech included was the military. Xi explained that the military would achieve mechanization by 2020, modernization by 2035, and would become a “world-class” military by 2050. Evidence of China’s intention to continue forward with this plan can be found in China’s 14th Five-Year Plan for 2021-2025. It envisions that China’s military will be fully “mechanized and informationized” by 2027.
The 2017 speech also provides information about China’s plan on the global level. Xi stated that China would focus on “global combat capabilities” and that China would “move closer to the center of the world.” The President was also optimistic about China’s progression towards the role of global hegemon that it is actively pursuing; he stated that the level of multipolarity in world order was “rapidly accelerating,” implying that he thinks Chinese influence is increasing rapidly.
To find more concrete signs of increasing Chinese influence in the world, one need not look farther than the principal global organization: The United Nations. Beijing has slowly started taking steps to replace the US from the leadership role in the UN - they have increased funding by more than five times even as the US stopped funding, and the number of Chinese personnel in the UN is also increasing at a significant rate. More than 25% of UN Specialized Agencies are now headed by Chinese nationals. China has also tried to introduce the notion of each country having its own human rights standards, with many labeling this as an attempt to popularize authoritarian rule. The United States would surely find these signs alarming. China is trying to replace and reduce US influence in any and all ways possible. These are further signs that the US might soon find itself in a much less promising position, with the exact opposite being true for China.
Another example of Chinese strategy is its relations with other countries. China had a considerably tense relationship with North Korea not so long ago, with Beijing being concerned about North Korea’s growing nuclear capabilities. However, in what is another sign of calculated decision-making, China has revitalized its partnership with North Korea in recent times. While China still has concerns about North Korea’s nuclear prowess, it has now accepted this reality and is actively working to increase its influence in Asia in any way possible. China sees the lack of progress in US-North Korea talks as an opportunity to exert its own influence in the region while reducing American influence at the same time. Therefore, the Chinese strategy on the issue of North Korea has far-reaching implications for foreign policy and politics.
China also abandoned its policy of neutrality in the conflict-ridden Middle-Eastern region in 2016. Realizing that the US has a strained relationship with both Iran and Saudi Arabia and that Russia will continue to remain neutral, China has seen economic opportunities and inserted itself into the conflict between the Middle Eastern countries. The region has a considerable portion of Earth’s conventional oil reserves and China’s manufacturing-focused economy’s need for resources like oil will only continue to rise.
Finally, China has also sought to increase its influence across a large number of countries in regions like Eurasia, South Asia, Africa, and the Middle-East through its highly controversial Belt and Road Initiative(BRI). This initiative essentially involves China investing large amounts of money to build infrastructure for increased transportation and travel capabilities between these regions. The main motivation behind this initiative lies in finding new markets for Chinese commodities in order to provide a boost to the slowing Chinese economy. BRI is controversial because several Western countries and experts have claimed that the initiative is an attempt to make comparatively smaller economies fall into a debt-trap to gain strategic advantages for China. Once such countries fall into a debt-trap and cannot pay back, they are allegedly pressured by China to support its political and geo-strategic interests. For instance, Tajikistan fell into debt and had to cede about 1158 square kilometers of territory to China; the country still owes $1.2 billion to China. Former Tanzanian President John Magufuli called BRI deals “exploitative,” explaining that Beijing wanted Tanzania to give China guarantees and a 99 years lease on a port construction. Countries at risk of falling into debt trap include Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Maldives, and many other South Asian nations.
This is by no means a complete list of strategic Chinese decisions. Other steps taken by China include regional assertion, such as military aggression against India and the continued crackdown on Hong Kong. It is safe to conclude that China is aiming for and beyond the stars its flag also embodies; it is making every effort to have more than one reason to celebrate its hundred-year anniversary in 2049. While not necessarily alarming, China’s progress will certainly result in a wave of implications and consequences across the globe.