Recent Chinese initiatives that imply a more pro-active approach in foreign and defense policy are the product of ongoing debate in Beijing over how to define PRC national interests toward China’s periphery. Departing from Beijing’s approach during most of the reform era, they suggest a decreased emphasis on Deng Xiaoping’s longstanding exhortation for China to remain modest and maintain a low profile in its external relations. Among the many questions this raises for China's external relations going forward, the most important is how Beijing will reconcile the contradictory policy imperatives of deepening positive relations with neighboring countries while more firmly advancing China’s territorial and resource interests and claims.


Michael D. Swaine
Swaine was a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and one of the most prominent American analysts in Chinese security studies.
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On October 24–25, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) held an unprecedented work forum (zuotan 座谈) on Chinese diplomacy toward the periphery (zhoubian 周边), that is, those land and maritime areas adjacent to China. This was reportedly the first major meeting on foreign policy since 2006 and the first forum specifically on periphery diplomacy since the establishment of the PRC in 1949. It was attended, most notably, “by the entire Standing Committee of the Politburo, various organs of the Central Committee, State Counselors, the central leading small group with responsibility for foreign affairs, and Chinese ambassadors to important countries.”1

While reflecting the growing significance of these areas for Chinese national security and economic development, the forum was also presumably held at least in part to respond to increasing tensions between Beijing and many nearby states in recent years due to worsening territorial and resource disputes. Such tensions are arguably undermining China’s longstanding effort to strengthen positive and beneficial political, economic, and security relations with its neighbors.

The forum’s apparent objective was to improve Beijing’s management of its relations with the periphery and resolve existing problems by embedding PRC diplomacy toward this critical region more fully into China’s overall strategic objectives of peaceful, reform-based national development, the strengthening of security along the Chinese border, and the protection or advancement of Chinese territorial and natural resource claims.2 Specifically, Chinese media reported that the work forum aimed to “establish the strategic objectives, basic principles, and overall setup of the peripheral diplomatic work in the next five to ten years, and define the line of thinking on work and the implementation plans for resolving major issues facing peripheral diplomacy.”3

In addressing such ambitious objectives at the work forum, General Secretary Xi Jinping reportedly provided policy guidance designed to “1) enhance political good will; 2) deepen regional economic integration; 3) increase China’s cultural influence; and 4) improve regional security cooperation.”4 However, Xi also “directed efforts to socialize the region to accept China’s view of its ‘core interests’ and validated efforts to enforce PRC sovereignty and territorial claims against rival disputants.”5

These initiatives imply a higher level of Chinese pro-activism in foreign and defense policy and a broader definition of PRC national interests toward its periphery than has characterized Beijing’s approach during most of the reform era. In particular, they suggest at the very least a decreased emphasis on Deng Xiaoping’s longstanding exhortation for China to remain modest and maintain a low profile in its external relations.6 They also raise many questions and potential problems for China's external relations going forward. This includes, most importantly, how Beijing will reconcile the potentially contradictory policy imperatives of deepening positive relations with neighboring countries while more resolutely advancing or protecting China’s territorial and resource interests and claims.7 While Xi Jinping’s remarks at the work forum and elsewhere address this issue to some extent (as discussed below), there is little doubt that it and other related issues continue to generate significant discussion and debate in China, given the overall importance of periphery diplomacy to the success of Beijing’s reformera policy objectives, as well as the inherent tensions resulting from the simultaneous attempt to improve relations with neighboring states while advancing contentious sovereignty and resource claims.

This article examines views among Chinese leaders and officials and between the leadership, informed observers or analysts, and various scholars and commentators regarding periphery diplomacy, focusing primarily on commentary and statements appearing during and after the October 2013 work forum. As in several previous issues of CLM, our examination of Chinese views on this topic distinguishes between three basic types of Chinese sources: authoritative; quasi-authoritative; and non-authoritative.8 In examining these sources, particular attention is given to: a) the authoritative PRC government viewpoint (if publicly available); b) variations that might exist among Chinese commentators (both authoritative and otherwise), in both substance and tone; c) those views that appear to constitute a mainstream or consensus approach; and d) those views that appear most controversial among Chinese observers. Our analysis of these sources is primarily based on a qualitative assessment of individual views appearing in a wide range of Chinese official and unofficial media.

The article examines Chinese views on four basic aspects of periphery diplomacy, presented below as four sections: definitions and features; rationale and objectives; methods and challenges of implementation; and evaluations and implications.

In examining Chinese views on this topic, the article seeks to answer several specific questions about China’s foreign policy: How do the Chinese define their nation’s periphery, and what do they think are or should be the core elements of China’s diplomacy toward its periphery? What has motivated this new emphasis on China’s periphery, and what are the primary and secondary objectives of periphery diplomacy? What diplomatic and other measures, including military force, is Beijing using, and in what manner, to attain its goals toward the periphery? How is Beijing attempting to balance the need to maintain beneficial relations with periphery states and the need to protect and advance its territorial and resource claims? How should periphery diplomacy relate to China’s larger foreign and domestic policy goals, including the maintenance of constructive relations with the United States? Are there significant differences on these issues among authoritative Chinese sources, between authoritative and non-authoritative sources, and between civilian and military sources?

The article concludes with a summary of the findings and an assessment of some implications of the preceding analysis for Chinese foreign policy, the regional order, and U.S.-China relations in particular.

*The author is greatly indebted to Audrye Wong for her invaluable assistance in the preparation of this article.

This paper originally appeared in the China Leadership Monitor.


1 Pei Guangjiang and Wang Di, “Steadfastly Take the Path of Peace and Development, Create A Good International Environment for Chinese Nation’s Great Rejuvenation— Series of Report Meetings on Propaganda and Education on Socialism With Chinese Characteristics and Chinese Dream,” People’s Daily, November 22, 2013; Bonnie Glaser and Deep Pal, “China’s Periphery Diplomacy Initiative: Implications for China Neighbors and the United States,” China-US Focus, November 7, 2013. According to Xinhua reporting on the event, those “attending the meeting were members of the CPC Central Committee Political Bureau, members of the CPC Central Committee Secretariat, state councilors, members of the leading group for foreign affairs under the CPC Central Committee who are in Beijing. . . . Also attending the forum were responsible comrades from various provinces, autonomous regions, municipalities, from the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, from relevant departments of party, government, army, and mass organizations, from relevant financial organs, from key state-owned enterprises; representatives from envoys stationed in relevant countries, from some permanent international and regional organizations; special commissioners from offices of the mission of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Hong Kong and Macau; some special affairs ambassadors, special envoys and representatives.” See “Xi Jinping Delivers Important Speech at Peripheral Diplomatic Work Forum, Stresses Need to Strive for Excellent Peripheral Environment for Our Country and Promote Our Country’s Development and Bring More Benefits for Peripheral Countries; Li Keqiang Chairs the Forum; Zhang Dejiang, Yu Zhengsheng, Liu Yunshang, Wang Qishan, and Zhang Gaoli Attend the Forum,” Xinhua, October 25, 2013.

2 Michael D. Swaine et al., “China’s Military and the U.S.-Japan Alliance: A Strategic Net Assessment,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (2013).

3 “Xi Jinping Delivers Important Speech at Peripheral Diplomatic Work Forum.”

4 Timothy Heath, “Diplomacy Work Forum: Xi Steps Up Efforts to Shape a China- Centered Regional Order,” China Brief, Vol. 13, No. 22, November 7, 2013.

5 Ibid.

6 Douglas Paal, “Contradictions in China’s Foreign Policy,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, December 13, 2013.

7 Philip C. Saunders, “China’s juggling act: balancing stability and territorial claims,” PacNet #33, Center for Strategic and International Studies, April 29, 2014.

8 Several types of PRC sources are considered authoritative in the sense of explicitly “speaking for the regime.” They generally include MFA and MND statements and briefings and remarks by senior civilian and military officials appearing in the leading Chinese Communist Party Central Committee (or CCP CC) and military (People’s Liberation Army or PLA) newspapers: People’s Daily (人民日报) and Liberation Army Daily (解放军报). Authoritative statements include, in descending order of authority, PRC government and CCP statements, MFA statements, MFA spokesperson statements, and MFA daily press briefings. Authoritative commentaries in People’s Daily and Liberation Army Daily include, in descending order, “editorial department articles,” editorials, and commentator articles. Several types of usually homophonous, bylined articles appearing in the People’s Daily are considered quasi-authoritative in the sense that, although indirect and implicit, they are intended to convey the view of an important PRC organization. A major example of this is articles using the byline “Zhong Sheng” (钟声), which is an apparent homophone for “the voice of the Central,” and appears to be written by the editorial staff of the People’s Daily International Department. Other quasi-authoritative homophonous bylines include “Ren Zhongping” (任仲平), homophonous with “important People’s Daily commentary”), “Zhong Zuwen” (仲组文), homophonous with “CC Organization Department article”), and “Zhong Xuanli” (钟轩理), homophonous with “CC Propaganda Department commentary”). Many types of low-level commentary and signed articles appearing in a wide variety of PRC and Hong Kong media convey notable yet decidedly non-authoritative views. Such articles appear in the PRC government news service (Xinhua), CCP and PLA newspapers, the Hong Kong–based (and People’s Daily–owned) Global Times (环球时报), and many minor PRC and Hong Kong newspapers and academic publications. Despite the view expressed by some pundits, nothing published in the Global Times is “authoritative” in any meaningful sense, “because the newspaper is a commercial vehicle and doesn’t stand for the People’s Daily, even though it is subordinate to that organ.” Alice Miller, personal correspondence, June 27, 2012.