Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Opinion: From Japan to the U.S., China embarks on a bolder foreign policy

By Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, special to CNN
updated 11:58 PM EST, Sun November 24, 2013
China has adopted a bolder foreign policy since President Xi Jinping came to power
China has adopted a bolder foreign policy since President Xi Jinping came to power
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • China is busy designing and implementing a bolder foreign policy
  • Move comes in light of an anticipated U.S. decline
  • Xi Jinping effectively ending the traditional Chinese policy of non-intervention
  • Likely to see an even more self-confident foreign policy as Xi continues his decade of rule

Editor's note: The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, Director of Asia-Pacific Programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace

(CNN) -- Many expected Xi Jinping to focus on internal politics in his first year in office and not make major external moves, but in fact China is busy designing and implementing a bolder foreign policy in light of an anticipated U.S. decline.

This strategy was made clear this weekend as Beijing mapped out airspace over a disputed island chain in the East China Sea and released rules that it says must be followed by all aircraft entering the zone -- under penalty of intervention by China's military.

READ: U.S.: China claim of air rights over disputed islands 'creates risk of incident'

Unlike his predecessors, Xi is making foreign policy with the mindset of a great power, increasingly probing U.S. commitments to its allies in the region and exploiting opportunities to change the status quo.

China's recent rhetoric and actions show a move from a defensive, reactive, and image-conscious policy to a proactive approach designed to further China's vital interests.

Officials in China have begun using new diplomatic language, with decades-old terms sloughed off to allow more room to maneuver.

Noodle making robot popular in China
Impact of China easing 'one child' policy
Why did China ease its one-child policy?
China to relax one child policy

Traditional mantras like "non-interference" and "hide our capacities and bide our time" are no more under Xi, whose new slogan is the "Chinese dream," a vision for the national rejuvenation of the Chinese people.

And in the U.S.-China relationship, U.S. diplomats used to frame the debate with terms such as "responsible stakeholder" in the global system. But China has now put forth its own catch phrase: a "new type of great power relations," in which the U.S. recognizes China's core interests and respects it as an equal.

China's reforms: Letting the economy fly more freely

China's actions also demonstrate a more activist external strategy.

Regionally, maritime security interests have taken precedence in China's strategic rationale.

Even before officially taking power, Xi was made head of the maritime small group that presided over Beijing's swift and decisive response to Japan's September 2012 purchase of three disputed islands in the East China Sea from their private owner.

By declaring territorial baselines around the islands, increasing the number and length of its law enforcement patrols, and introducing military forces in the vicinity, China has challenged Japan's de facto control of the area and moved to solidify its own claims.

China's demarcation of a new "Air Defense Identification Zone", which includes the disputed islands - known as the Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan - underscores these goals.

READ: How Japan is using YouTube in islands dispute

In the South China Sea, China has played a double game, calling for the peaceful settlement of disputes through bilateral negotiations and engaging in a wide-ranging charm offensive, while simultaneously trying to gain control of disputed territories.

The cancellation of President Obama's October trip to the region, forced by the U.S. government shutdown, greatly assisted Xi.

It left him as the star attraction at regional gatherings where U.S.-China rivalry features strongly, and Xi made the most of the attention by announcing a slew of new deals across Southeast Asia.

China initially left the Philippines out of its largesse to punish it for submitting their maritime dispute to international arbitration and to warn other Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries against doing the same.

Central Asia and the Middle East

Xi has also acted strongly to protect other interests. He swept through Central Asia in September to forge closer trade ties at a time when the U.S. is disengaging from Afghanistan and the region.

READ: How's Xi's doing? Here's his report card

China has recently splashed cash there to secure access to petroleum resources beyond the reach of the U.S. navy. And China and Russia continue to engage in joint multi-polarity to keep the U.S. in check while furthering their energy relationship.

In the Middle East, where traditionally China has been content to have the U.S. play the decisive political role, Xi has made moves calibrated to establish a presence without becoming mired in the region's disputes.

With China expected to become even more dependent on oil from the region, Beijing realizes that instability there could jeopardize supply.

In May, Xi received both Mahmoud Abbas and Benjamin Netanyahu, issued a 'four point peace plan,' and offered to host an Israeli-Palestinian peace summit. While the components of the plan are not new and the offer has not been accepted, the initiative showed that as its power and interests grow, China will act when affected by issues outside its neighborhood.

North Korea

Closer to home, Xi has sharply distinguished himself from his predecessor in dealing with North Korea.

Where Hu was indulgent , Xi has laid down some "house rules," signing up to sanctions and employing bolder rhetoric against the wayward neighbor.

READ: War of words heats up China, Japan tensions

But when North Korea walked back its provocations, Xi angered the U.S. and South Korea by dispatching Vice-President Li Yuanchao to Pyongyang to attend a military parade marking the 60th anniversary of the end of the Korean War.

His presence was a potent symbol, showing that China's pique over North Korea's earlier actions didn't preclude Beijing from trying to repair relations there.

American preferences on North Korea are less and less central to China's decision-making; unless the U.S. takes measures on the Peninsula that China sees as undermining its regional security.

Xi has also doubled down on involvement in Myanmar, which plays an increasingly important role in China's energy security and where China fears that American engagement efforts are part of a U.S. strategic encirclement of China.

Taken together, Xi's decisions and words illustrate a more active strategy. And we are likely to see an even more self-confident Chinese foreign policy as he continues his decade of rule.

Because Xi's domestic agenda and China's external agenda are intertwined. Xi's crafting of the "Chinese Dream" as a vessel for party legitimacy also more closely yokes the party's fortunes to its performance as a defender of national interests and ambitions.

And in his pronouncements on ideology, and by establishing a new national security council, Xi has made clear that he sees a link between ideological menaces to one-party rule and strategic threats abroad, especially from the United States.

Nationalists, especially online, continue to demand that the government use its new-found international heft to more actively and directly defend China's global interests. Xi is likely to make efforts to deliver, and in so doing will effectively end the traditional Chinese policy of non-intervention.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, Director of Asia-Pacific Programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:09 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
The Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, set off a media kerfuffle this month when he spoke about his next reincarnation.
updated 10:18 AM EDT, Sun September 28, 2014
He's one of the fieriest political activists in Hong Kong — he's been called an "extremist" by China's state-run media — and he's not old enough to drive.
updated 10:57 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
China has no wine-making tradition but the country now uncorks more bottles of red than any other.
updated 5:29 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Christians in eastern China keep watch in Wenzhou, where authorities have demolished churches and removed crosses.
updated 1:38 AM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
Home-grown hip-hop appeals to a younger generation but its popularity has not translated into record deals and profits for budding rap artists.
updated 1:45 AM EDT, Tue September 9, 2014
Reforms to the grueling gaokao - the competitive college entrance examination - don't make the grade, says educator Jiang Xueqin.
updated 8:18 AM EDT, Fri September 5, 2014
Beijing grapples with reports from Iraq that a Chinese national fighting for ISIS has been captured.
updated 10:00 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
CNN's David McKenzie has tasted everything from worms to grasshoppers while on the road; China's cockroaches are his latest culinary adventure.
updated 8:57 PM EDT, Thu September 4, 2014
Beijing rules only candidates approved by a nominating committee can run for Hong Kong's chief executive.
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
China warns the United States to end its military surveillance flights near Chinese territory.
updated 11:12 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
China has produced elite national athletes but some argue the emphasis on winning discourages children. CNN's Kristie Lu Stout reports
updated 1:13 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Chinese are turning to overseas personal shoppers to get their hands on luxury goods at lower prices.
updated 5:08 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Experts say rapidly rising numbers of Christians are making it harder for authorities to control the religion's spread.
updated 12:52 AM EDT, Mon August 11, 2014
"I'm proud of their moral standing," says Harvey Humphrey. His parents are accused of corporate crimes in China.
updated 3:42 PM EDT, Wed August 6, 2014
A TV confession detailing a life of illegal gambling and paid-for sex has capped the dramatic fall of one of China's most high-profile social media celebrities.
updated 12:10 AM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
President Xi Jinping's campaign to punish corrupt Chinese officials has snared its biggest target -- where can the campaign go from here?
updated 3:12 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
All you need to know about the tainted meat produce that affects fast food restaurants across China, Hong Kong, and Japan.
updated 10:30 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Some savvy individuals in China are claiming naming rights to valuable foreign brands. Here's how companies can combat them.
updated 5:11 AM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Is the Chinese president a true reformist or merely a "dictator" in disguise? CNN's Beijing bureau chief Jaime FlorCruz dissects the leader's policies
updated 11:44 PM EDT, Mon July 7, 2014
With a population of 1.3 billion, you'd think that there would be 11 people in China who are good enough to put up a fight on the football pitch.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT