The contrast between the disarray in the West, on open display at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit and at last month’s Group of Seven (G7) meeting in Canada, and China’s mounting international self-confidence is growing clearer by the day. Last month, the Communist Party of China (CPC) concluded its Central Conference on Work Relating to Foreign Affairs, the second since Xi Jinping became China’s undisputed ruler in 2012. These meetings are not everyday affairs. They are the clearest expression of how the leadership sees China’s place in the world, but they tell the world much about China as well.
The last such conference, in 2014, marked the funeral of Deng Xiaoping’s dictum of “hide your strength, bide your time, never take the lead,” and heralded a new era of international activism. In part, this change reflected Xi’s centralization of control, the Chinese leaders’ conclusion that American power is in relative decline, and their view that China had become an indispensable global economic player.
Since 2014, China has expanded and consolidated its military position in the South China Sea. It took the idea of the New Silk Road and turned it into a multi-trillion-dollar trade, investment, infrastructure, and wider geopolitical/geo-economic initiative, engaging 73 different countries across much of Eurasia, Africa and beyond. China then signed up most of the developed world to the first large-scale non-Bretton Woods multilateral development bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).
China has also launched diplomatic initiatives beyond its immediate sphere of strategic interest in East Asia, as well as actively participating in initiatives such as the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. It has developed naval bases in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Djibouti, and participates in naval exercises with Russia as far away as the Mediterranean and the Baltic. In March, China established its own international development agency.
The emergence of a coherent grand strategy (regardless of whether the West chooses to recognize it as such) is not all that has changed since 2014. For starters, the emphasis on the CPC’s role is much stronger than before. Xi, concerned that the party had become marginal to the country’s major policy debates, has reasserted party control over state institutions and given precedence to political ideology over technocratic policymaking. Xi is determined to defy the trend-line of Western history, to see off Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” culminating in the general triumph of liberal democratic capitalism and preserve a Leninist state for the long term.
This approach - known as “Xi Jinping Thought” - now suffuses China’s foreign policy framework. In particular, Xi’s view that there are identifiable immutable “laws” of historical development, both prescriptive and predictive, was particularly prominent at last month’s foreign policy conference. If this sounds like old-fashioned dialectical materialism, that’s because it is. Xi embraces the Marxist-Leninist tradition as his preferred intellectual framework.
Given its emphasis on iron laws of political and economic development, a dialectical-materialist worldview means that there is nothing random about world events. So, Xi argues, if Marx’s analytical framework is applied to the current period, it is clear that the global order is at a turning point, with the West’s relative decline coinciding with the fortuitous national and international circumstances enabling China’s rise. In Xi’s words, “China has been in the best period of development since modern times, while the world is undergoing the most profound and unprecedented changes in a century.” Of course, formidable obstacles lie ahead for China. But Xi has concluded that the obstacles facing the United States (US) and the West are greater.
How such thinking will now drive China’s concrete foreign policy is anyone’s guess. But how one-party states, particularly Marxist states, choose to “ideate” reality matters a great deal: it is how the system speaks to itself. And Xi’s message to China’s foreign policy elite is one of great confidence.
Specifically, the Central Conference called for the country’s international policy institutions and personnel to embrace Xi’s agenda. Here Xi seems to have the foreign ministry in his sights. There is a strong ideological flavour to Xi’s apparent frustration with the ministry’s glacial approach to policy innovation. China’s diplomats were urged to bear in mind that they are first and foremost “party cadres,” suggesting that Xi is likely to push the foreign policy apparatus toward greater activism, to give full effect to his emerging global vision.
The biggest change to emerge from last month’s conference concerns global governance. In 2014, Xi referred to an impending struggle for the future structure of the international order. While he did not elaborate, much work has since been devoted to three inter-related concepts: guoji zhixu (the international order); guoji xitong (the international system), and quanqiu zhili (global governance).
Of course, these terms have different and overlapping meanings in English, too. But, broadly speaking, in Chinese, the term “international order” refers to a combination of the United Nations (UN), the Bretton Woods Institutions, the Group of 20 (G20), and other multilateral institutions (which China accepts), as well as the US system of global alliances (which China does not). The term “international system” tends to refer to the first half of this international order: the complex web of multilateral institutions that operate under international treaty law and seek to govern the global commons on the basis of the principle of shared sovereignty. And “global governance” denotes the actual performance of the “international system” so defined.
What is startlingly new about Xi’s remarks at the Central Conference was his call for China now to “lead the reform of the global governance system with the concepts of fairness and justice.” This is by far the most direct statement of China’s intentions on this important question offered so far. The world should buckle up and get ready for a new wave of Chinese international policy activism.
Like much of the rest of the international community, China is acutely conscious of the dysfunctionality of much of the current multilateral system. So, Xi’s wish to lead “reform of the global governance system” is no accident. It reflects growing diplomatic activism in multilateral institutions, in order to reorient them in a direction more compatible with what China regards as its “core national interests.”
Xi has reminded China’s international policy elite that the totality of China’s future foreign policy direction, including the reform of global governance, must be driven by these core national interests. In this context, China also wants a more “multipolar” international system. This is code for a world in which the role of the US and the West is substantially reduced.
The challenge for the rest of the international community is to define what type of global order we now want. What do existing institutions like the European Union (EU), the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), or the African Union (AU) want for the international rules-based system for the future? What exactly does the US want, with or without Trump? And how will we collectively preserve the global values embodied in the UN Charter, the Bretton Woods institutions, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?
The future of the global order is in a state of flux. China has a clear script for the future. It’s time for the rest of the international community to develop one of its own.
This is an edited version of an address delivered to the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.
Kevin Rudd, a former prime minister of Australia, is President of the Asia Society Policy Institute in New York.