The shift of Chinese foreign policy towards proactiveness, by Leonardo C. Bandarra

One of the main elements of the 21st century international system is the simultaneously emergence of China as a great power (Buzan, 2011) and as a world-class economy. China not only ranks second among the world’s highest GDPs, but it also houses the world’s biggest population and a peculiar culture, which, unlike the Western one, highlights the relevance of harmony and balance as the best way to thrive. Therefore, the Chinese worldview consists of an unique perspective, under which the paramount shape of the international system would be a centralised and somehow hierarchical structure (SCHWELLER; PU, 2011; WATSON, 2002), that is, one shape that assembles the traditional patriarchal family configuration proposed by Confucianism with a States-made international arrangement.

For this reason, the rise of China has inspired among many theorists and policy-makers a singular mix of fear and allure. Since the establishment of market-socialism by former president Deng Xiaoping, the grand strategy outlined by the Chinese diplomacy to conduce its journey towards global centrality has been marked by the so-called Chinese “peaceful rise” (JISI, 2011), which is the deliberate choice to acquire legitimate systemic centrality within the existing institutional structures[1] developed by the international community after the Second World War (LI, 2011). This strategy entails economic prosperity, growing world trade hegemony, military stealth and a low-profile diplomatic performance, in order to ascend to the very centre of the international system without gathering foes (SCHWELLER; PU, 2011). After 2012, though, Chinese foreign policy under president Xi Jinping has slightly changed the Chinese “peaceful rise” grand strategy, through an increasing proactive approach towards global and regional issues (ZIEGLER, 2015). Thus, this essay aims to briefly analyse the new shift of the Chinese grand strategy in the light of the principles of its traditional “peaceful rise” grand strategy, in order to unveil some relevant turning points that may have cropped up in the last few years.

2. The Principles of the Chinese Grand Strategy

After being for almost a century in the brink of political havoc, China has found its path to economic growth following the establishment of a state-centred regime, which tries to conciliate party rule with geographically-restricted economic liberalism – that is, the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) (ALTEMANI, 2012). Through this hybrid political-economic model, China has sketched its peaceful rise to the centre of the Post-Cold War multipolar world order via an only one of its kind blend of growing trade influence worldwide and low-profile diplomatic performance. A cornerstone of its strategy is cooperation with other emergent countries, such as the BRICS, in order to gather support to reform the existing international institutions with the aim to turn them into tools to stir up Chinese economic and social prosperity.

There are three main principles of the Chinese grand strategy that must be highlighted: (a) non-confrontation, which implies an attempt to rise without gathering enemies; (b) reformism, which means trying to transform the existing international institutions in order to legitimise them; (c) cooperation, which suggests searching for partners that would help China to achieve its purposes regarding economic growing and surreptitious political rise.

3. The shift: Chinese foreign policy under president Xi Jinping

After president Xi Jinping took office in 2012, China started to search a more active role in the international system. It has kept following, to some extent, the three aforementioned main principles of the Chinese “peaceful rise” grand strategy, but it has also redefined some of its meanings. The scope of the principle of non-confrontation has narrowed, so as to enable a Chinese attempt to develop a more active role concerning its territorial claims, particularly in the South China Sea, and the defence of its boundaries, particularly in Tibet.

The principles of reformism and cooperation, conversely, have become strictly co-related. Due to the increasingly ineffectiveness of the efforts of emergent countries to reshape the existing international institutions, such as the quotas of the International Monetary Fund, China has sought to partner with other emergent countries in order to instigate the creation of new institutions in an attempt to build a friendlier international order. This could be exemplified, in the field of international economy and finance, by creation of new international organisations, such as the Beijing-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the BRICS Development Bank, both of them designed to counterbalance existing organisations like the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (BIRD). Another powerful example of Mr. Xi’s attempt to reform institutions through cooperation is the so-called “Silk Road Strategy”, which is an endeavour to turn Central Asia into a relevant hub for Chinese industries (The Economist, 2015) and a relevant economic link between Beijing, Moscow and Brussels.

Another vital field for the Chinese grand strategy is its bilateral trade relations, which work as an useful instrument to strengthen its authority worldwide. Beyond just increase its investments abroad, under Mr. Xi China has enlarged, its ambitions towards broader economic integration, especially with regards to arrangements such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum (APEC) (ZIEGLER, 2015). Moreover, it has become the major trading partner of all South American countries and has kept its significant  relations with African countries. It has also strengthen its ties with president Vladimir Putin’s Russia, chiefly after the imposition of sanctions against Moscow by the United States and the European Union in 2014, due to the Ukrainian civil war.

Regarding the problems Mr. Xi’s shift in Chinese foreign policy has created, two must be highlighted. First, the increase of China’s neighbours’ fears related to their territorial integrity, which could be well illustrated by the reinforce of the military cooperation between the United States and South Korea. Second, the increase of international pressure to push China towards greater adaptation to Western-inspired economic standards, as illustrated by the American objections to Chinese adhesion to the Trans-Partnership.

4. Conclusion

The Chinese rise to the centre of the international system is an issue that has galvanise the attention of both scholars and diplomats. It represents the return of a millenary  civilisation to the place where it believes it belongs, that is, a place of supremacy within the international order (KISSINGER, 2012). It also represents the emergence of an unique manner to deal with systemic transition, for China tries to consolidate a multilateral order exclusively through non-military means.

The Chinese “Peaceful Rise” grand strategy is mainly based on three main principles, i.e., non-confrontation, reformism and cooperation, and aims to reshape the existing international institutions by inside-out, through an increase in the participation of emerging countries on them. After the start of Mr. Xi’s presidential term, this grand strategy has changed in what regards its means. Mr. Xi has shifted the traditional “peaceful rise” strategy, which was chiefly designed under president Deng Xiaoping’s administration, with the intention to make Chinese global presence more proactive. He has thus reinforced China’s economic presence abroad and instigated the creation of new institutions. Notwithstanding the immediate benefits of such an active foreign policy, like the diversification of trade partners, Mr. Xi’s diplomacy may produce insurmountable problems, especially in his country’s neighbourhood. Only time answer  whether Mr. Xi’s foreign policy is a diplomatic masterstroke or just a very premature gambit.

[1] By “institutions” we understand the existing set of international organisations, norms, rules and values that govern the relations between States (SIMMONS; MARTIN, 2007).


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Leonardo C. L. A. Bandarra is a master candidate at the Institute of International Relations of the University of Brasilia, Brazil (

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