Published daily by the Lowy Institute

The 19th Party Congress: A more assertive Chinese foreign policy

President Xi Jinping's vision should raise alarm bells in Asian and Western capitals.

Photo: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images
Photo: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

In a landmark address that kicked off the 19th Party Congress, President Xi Jinping articulated his vision for China's future. The three-and-a-half-hour reading of the work report saw Xi wax poetic about the priorities of rejuvenating Chinese power and realising the Chinese Dream. Though Xi's primary focus was on domestic achievements, goals and challenges, his speech provides crucial insights into how China's strongman leader seeks to advance his country's role in the world.

The main takeaway for the international community is that Xi Jinping is extremely confident in China's growing national power and sees international trends working in China's favour. Against the background of China's expanding global interests, these assessments suggest that the international community may face an even more assertive China in the years to come.   

At the heart of Xi's vision for China's future is a two-stage plan he put forward to achieve China's second centennial goal of becoming a 'fully developed nation' by 2049, the centenary of the founding of the People's Republic.

The objectives laid out by Xi for the first stage, from 2020 to 2035, are primarily domestic, with the end goal of 'basically realising' socialist modernisation. The only reference by Xi to China's international role during this stage is that the country will become a 'global leader in innovation'. However, in the second stage, from 2035 to 2045, Xi set forth a more outward-looking agenda. By the middle of the 21st century, Xi asserted, China will have become 'a global leader in terms of comprehensive national power and international influence'.

Xi maintained that his articulation of China's future derives from an assessment of the international situation that is favorable to China.

After noting that the world is 'in the midst of profound and complex changes', Xi drew attention to what he described as 'trends of global multi-polarity' that are 'surging forward' and 'changes in...the international order' that are accelerating. He noted that 'relative international forces are becoming more balanced'. In another part of the speech, Xi declared that 'the Chinese stands tall and firm in the East'. These statements collectively suggest that Beijing is optimistic that the global balance of power is trending in its direction. China's judgment that the US is in decline (which can be traced to the onset of the global financial crisis in 2009) is even more certain today, as it sees US global leadership eroding under President Donald Trump.

China's prediction of US decline, combined with Xi's confidence in China's future, likely inspired Xi's unprecedented espousal of China's development path as a model for the world, especially developing countries. According to Xi, socialism with Chinese characteristics has 'blazed a new trail for other developing countries to achieve modernisation' and provides 'a new option for other countries and nations who want to speed up their development'. Moreover, it 'offers Chinese wisdom and a Chinese approach to solving the problems facing mankind'. Such statements express an apparent belief that China presents a credible alternative to liberal democracy.

While not explicitly tied to advancing concrete foreign policy objectives, Xi's message to the People's Liberation Army (PLA) regarding Chinese military priorities suggests a perceived need to be prepared to employ military power and hints at a greater willingness to do so in the future.

Underscoring that 'a military is built to fight', Xi called on the PLA to 'regard combat capability as the criterion to meet in all its work' and to focus on 'winning wars' if called upon to fight. By the end of the first stage in 2035, 'modernisation of our national defense and our forces' will be 'basically completed', Xi declared. At the mid-century mark, Xi expects the PLA will be 'fully transformed into a first-tier force'.

Such desires are not unusual – rising powers often seek to reinforce their expanding security needs with military might. However, the pairing of these objectives with Xi's ambition to increase China's international influence and serve as a development model reinforces the widely-held assessment that China harbours a deep-seated desire to displace the US as the dominant power in Asia. 

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, there was no mention of China's 'core national interests', which attracted much international attention several years ago. The task of safeguarding China's sovereignty, security, and development interests was primarily discussed in the work report in the context of Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan. Additionally, Xi opted to boldly highlight the 'steady progress' in the construction of islands and reefs in the South China Sea as a major achievement of his first term. That characterisation may suggest that China will prioritise strengthening its control over the contested waterway at the cost of rising friction with its neighbours and the US. 

Although Xi assured the world that China won't seek hegemony and will 'continue to play its part as a major and responsible country', the overarching vision he laid out should raise alarm bells in Asian and Western capitals.

The problem isn't the implicit rejection of Deng Xiaoping's guideline of keeping a low profile. China as a proactive leader would be welcomed if it worked alongside other nations to strengthen international rules and norms. But throughout his first term, Xi has sent conflicting signals about whether he intends to support a rules-based international order. China's growing participation in global governance measures, such as UN peacekeeping operations, have largely been overshadowed by Xi's other policies. Observers need only look to China's declaration of an air defence identification zone in the East China Sea and rejection of the UNCLOS tribunal's ruling in the South China Sea for examples of how Beijing responds when confronted by international norms and practices it finds unsavoury.

The portrayal of China as a governance model for other nations is especially worrisome, as it suggests a newfound willingness to offer an alternative to the Western liberal international order and directly confront the US, which has previously been eschewed.

As articulated in the Party Congress work report, Xi's vision for the future may signal an intention to double down on challenging elements of the prevailing world order that Beijing sees as contrary to Chinese interests. Should this come to pass, the international community might look back at the 19th Party Congress as the moment when China's long march toward reclaiming its great-power status was matched with the confidence needed to present China as a buttress against Western liberalism.

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