Last November, the Chinese Communist Party and the government convened the first Foreign Affairs Leading Group meeting in eight years. What brought that about?

This meeting is only held when there is a new policy. It is attended by central leaders as well as all the provincial party secretaries and governors. At this last meeting, Xi Jinping altered China’s longstanding foreign policy, set by Deng Xiaoping.

There are three aspects to the change. First, Deng called for keeping a low profile in foreign affairs, but Xi’s policy strives for achievement. Second, Xi said he will give first priority to relations with surrounding countries. Relations with major countries like the U.S. will come after that. Third, Deng said that China would not take a leadership role in world affairs and would not be involved in other countries’ conflicts. Xi, on the other hand, says China is able and willing to offer more “public goods” to the world, such as initiatives and visions for enhancing regional cooperation.

Yan Xuetong
Yan Xuetong is one of China’s leading experts on China’s foreign policy, national security, and U.S.-China relations. At Tsinghua University, he is dean of the Institute of Modern International Relations.
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Deng and Xi’s goals are fundamentally different. Deng’s policy was aimed at accumulating wealth. Xi’s policy is aimed at gaining international respect and rejuvenating the nation.

Deng’s foreign policy only cared about economic relations with other countries. As long as we could make money through business with foreign countries, that was fine. Who could you make money with? In Deng’s period it was with big nations, such as the U.S. and European countries. China focused on getting investment and technology from these countries, and we didn’t need to give that much concern to poorer countries. After all, there was no market in these neighboring countries.

But Deng’s policy was losing efficiency. In the latter part of Hu Jintao’s regime, our relationship with Japan continued to worsen. Not only that, our relations with ASEAN members also began to deteriorate.

What was happening? By 2012, China was the largest trading partner of 124 countries, but we were still focused on the U.S. and Europe, and were ignoring our relations with our neighboring countries. Imagine what happens when your major trade partner ignores you?

A good example is the free trade agreement that China began with ASEAN in 2010. If we implemented the agreement, reduced tariffs on all products, and cheap, high-quality goods from China entered the ASEAN markets, their economies would suffer. They were scared, but we did not realize that. We had big problems with Vietnam and Indonesia. So Premier Li Keqiang said, “Ok, let’s upgrade our FTA.” What does upgrade mean? It means that China will abolish tariffs and offer free market entry, but we will allow the ASEAN countries to keep their tariffs. Keeping a low profile, like Deng proposed, does not work anymore.

China’s traditional policy was to deal with economically stronger countries. But now there is only one country that is bigger economically than China -- the U.S. The remaining 200 countries have smaller economies.

The policy now is to allow these smaller countries to benefit economically from their relationships with China. For China, we need good relationships more urgently than we need economic development. We let them benefit economically, and in return we get good political relationships. We should purchase the relationships.

The reverse is easy to understand. If we cannot make these neighbors benefit from the relations, these countries will ask, “Why should I be on good terms with you?”

What makes good neighborly relations so important right now?

China cannot achieve national rejuvenation without friendly relationships with surrounding countries. There is a difference between “not opposing” China and “supporting” China. We need their support.

The world has already changed. The economy is not based on natural resources anymore. The problem today is overproduction. Every country produces too many things. The problem is not about finding minerals to produce products, but the fact that you cannot find markets to sell them to.

The future competition between China and the U.S. is not over so-called strategic spots. No country is a strategic spot anymore. It is going to be about how to use regulations to manage the world. For instance, when China [set out] to establish the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the U.S. never cared about where the investment was going to; they said you cannot lend the money without regulations set up by the World Bank and the IMF. The question is about the conditions for lending the money.

You cannot make the rules by yourself. To make market rules, you need the majority of countries to support you. That is why we need friendships more than business.

Are Chinese scholars divided over this?

Yes, and I am in the minority. When Xi first delivered a speech in October 2013 about the need to focus on neighboring countries, the majority of academia did not realize that this was a major shift in policy. That is why, today, the majority of academia is still sticking to Deng’s policy.

How does Japan fit into China’s neighboring countries policy?

Japan is the most important country in the region for China. Japan is more important than Russia. But Japan has the worst relationship with China. China really needs to turn Japan into a friendly country. If we can make Japan into a friendly country, our international environment will change dramatically. The problem is that it is very difficult. The Chinese government does not have the confidence to make the [Shinzo] Abe administration friendly toward China.

My understanding is that Prime Minister Abe prefers to have a bad relationship with China. If you want to make the relationship good, both sides need to have the motivation to do so. If we cannot make the relationship better, at least we have to prevent it from getting worse.

In Xi’s vision of the world, is North Korea or South Korea more important?

It is very clear. Kim Jong Un came to office before Park Geun-hye. But there has been no summit between China and North Korea since. Xi has already met with Park six times. Our relationship with South Korea is much better than our relationship with North Korea. I don’t know why people still say that China is North Korea’s ally.

As for South Korea, I think they are clever. They understand that the world is moving into bipolarization, not multipolarization. If the world is bipolarizing, the best strategy for midlevel countries like South Korea is to maintain an equal distance between the two superpowers. We did the same in the 1980s. We tried to maintain an equal distance between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

Initially, Xi’s foreign policy seemed to focus on the relationship with the U.S. There was talk of establishing a “new type of major power relations.” What happened to that?

Personally, I think this is very difficult to implement. The Americans were hesitant at the beginning, then they were prepared to accept it, and then stepped back again. From my understanding, the U.S. does not trust this idea. They don’t think it works. The reason is that they do not understand it. They say, “How new is it? New compared to what?” The Chinese government cannot give a clear a definition. Because we cannot give them a clear picture of what this is, the Americans doubted our motivation.

What do you think of China’s soft power strategy? Confucius Institutes are facing opposition in the U.S., Canada and Sweden.

Most people, both foreigners and the Chinese government, think that soft power is cultural power. My view is very different from this. I don’t think soft power is based on culture. Political leadership is soft power. I don’t think these Confucius Institutes will play a very important role in improving China’s soft power.

For instance, when Xi came into power, we adjusted our Africa policy and China’s political influence there increased dramatically. Previously, there was a strong voice in Africa that said China was conducting economic colonialism. People said that China was investing in Africa to try to get the minerals. That kind of criticism stopped after Xi came into power. It is not because we established more Confucius Institutes. It is because we sent combat troops for the first time to Africa. We sent 700 soldiers to maintain peace there.

Public opinion comes not from what you say but what you do. Xi also visited Pacific islands. In 2,000 years of history, China’s No. 1 leader had never visited these countries. You have to spend money, time, energy, and also show your respect to them. If you never visit them, they do not believe in you as a friend.

Which past dynasties does Xi look to as models?

The two dynasties we are proud of are the Han dynasty and the Tang dynasty. The best period, regarded by historians, is a period in the Tang dynasty we call the “Golden Years of Zhenguan” (A.D. 627 to A.D. 649). Things were harmonious at home and China had good relations with surrounding countries.

Why did China lose that prosperity?

This is not just China’s dilemma but one faced by all empires. It was the same with the British, the Romans, the Egyptians and the U.S.

Many say that the reason is imperial overstretch. My view is that empires decline due to a lack of reform. Other empires emerged because they carried out reform. The reason I have confidence in Xi’s policy is because he will carry out more reform than any other country, be it the U.S., Japan, Russia, India or Germany, during this era.  

What is your take on the Islamic State group and its killing of hostages?

This is not a tragedy just for Japan but for every country. If there is one thing we can learn from this, it is that the counterterrorism campaign must be international. No country can handle an attack like this on its own.

However, we do not have a common definition of terrorism. There are three traditional elements to terrorism. First, terrorism is an attack on civilian people and civilian infrastructure. Second, it creates social fear. And third, it is for a political purpose.

There is a problem when you start calling attacks on military facilities terrorism. In Afghanistan and Iraq, when militants attacked American military forces, they called it a terrorist attack. How can you make the distinction? If attacking a military facility is terrorism, war is terrorism for both sides.

Once we can agree on the common definition of terrorism, we have to involve the Arab countries. The Islamic State established a country mainly on the territories of Syria and Iraq. If we want any solution, we must get these two countries to participate. I don’t think anybody else has the right to say whether they can establish a state or not. Only the people there have the ownership of the land. Only they can make a decision. So, first we have to talk with the government of Syria.

I know Western governments hate Bashar al-Assad, but you have to talk to him. The NATO countries want to make a decision for the Arab people without talking to them. They may have been able to do that 100 years ago, but not today.

This article was originally published in the Nikkei Asian Review.