Great (Power) Expectations: Charting the Evolution of Chinese Foreign Policy

Beijing is capitalizing on the COVID-19 pandemic to win friends and shape perceptions around the world. Yet China’s energetic “mask diplomacy” of sending medical equipment to nations in need is just the latest example in recent years of the country becoming more active in international affairs. Chinese capabilities are clearly rising, but what’s the end game?

Questions of intent present obvious difficulties given a propaganda and censorship system that offers only a narrow view into deliberations inside Zhongnanhai. But the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) does telegraph its thinking through an official mouthpiece, People’s Daily, considered “one of the most important ideological signaling devices for the regime”.

Trends in People’s Daily messaging can therefore signal changes in CCP policies and positions. Data on three questions related to COVID-19 diplomacy sheds light on changing perspectives in Beijing: 1) Does China want to play a larger role in the world? 2) Does China want to inject its norms into global politics? 3) Did China’s assertive diplomacy begin with Xi Jinping?

1.  Does China want to play a larger role in the world?

First, despite mishandling the novel coronavirus outbreak, China eventually brought the domestic contagion under control, prompting Beijing to launch a diplomatic offensive to provide aid, equipment, and expertise to dozens of other countries. A major theme in state media coverage of the campaign is China as a “responsible great power” (负责任大国).

This framing places COVID-19 diplomacy within a decades-old discourse on establishing a stronger Chinese presence on the world stage. People’s Daily articles that mention “responsible great power” show the concept emerged during the Jiang Zemin era in the 1990s (see Figure 1). It then saw significant uptake under Hu Jintao after the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-2009, before further elevation at the start of Xi’s tenure. Usage of the term surged this year, with the number of articles in 2020 already almost three-quarters of 2019’s total, suggesting that Beijing saw the chaotic global pandemic response as an accelerant for its longstanding aspirations.

A related phrase—“great power responsibility” (大国担当)—also took off dramatically in 2020 (see Figure 2). In People’s Daily, this phrase is often used in conjunction with “responsible great power” but tends to be associated with actions actually taken to fulfill China’s potential role in global governance. That Beijing only recently began to tout “great power responsibility” could indicate an evolution under Xi, from China “talking the talk” to “walking the walk” when it comes to international leadership, with mask diplomacy a case in point.

Figure 1. People’s Daily Articles That Mention China as a “Responsible Great Power”Note: Trend-line shows the three-point moving average.
Source: People’s Daily Image and Text Database (1946-2020). 

Figure 2. People’s Daily Articles That Mention “Great Power Responsibility”Source: People’s Daily Image and Text Database (1946-2020).

2.  Does China want to inject its norms into global politics?

As China became conspicuous in the global pandemic response, many commentators worried that Beijing could use this “crisis as an opportunity” to export features of its authoritarian model to democratic polities as well as developing states.

Some of this concern may be traced to Xi’s Report to the 19th Party Congress, which caused a stir when he said “socialism with Chinese characteristics” offered a “China Solution” (中国方案) to humanity’s problems. A People’s Daily search confirms “China Solution” is closely linked to Xi’s leadership, with the term’s usage peaking around the Party Congress in 2017 (see Figure 3).

Since then, however, the idea’s prevalence has waned in official discourse, perhaps in response to foreign backlash or to the US-China trade war. Although the “China Solution” has not been prominent in propaganda related to COVID-19, Beijing may still seek international audiences for its ideas while curbing its enthusiasm to focus on domestic recovery.

Figure 3. People’s Daily Articles that Mention the “China Solution”Source: People’s Daily Image and Text Database (1946-2020).

3.  Did China’s assertive diplomacy begin with Xi?

So far, two geopolitical results of the COVID-19 pandemic are a renewed push by the United States to bolster Taiwan’s representation in international organizations and a reported increase in Chinese pressure against neighboring states in the contested South China Sea (SCS). What unites these issues is that Beijing regards both “national reunification” with Taiwan and the “territorial integrity” of the SCS as “core interests” (核心利益)—non-negotiable redlines.

But the concept of “core interests” is not more prominent under Xi than when it was codified under Hu (see Figure 4). Such consistency likely signifies that the CCP’s defense of “core interests” embodies a widely supported policy consensus that leaves little room for compromise, regardless of political currents in the Chinese capital. This finding indicates not only that Xi is less “exceptional” than commonly understood but also that new types of public goods diplomacy that Beijing pursues will not ameliorate underlying security disputes.

Figure 4. People’s Daily Articles That Mention China’s “Core Interests”Source: People’s Daily Image and Text Database (1946-2020).

Charting the frequency of key terms in People’s Daily can add quantitative punch to the analysis of Chinese politics, although this approach is best complemented by in-depth qualitative research. For one, the simple data presented above do not distinguish between the varying levels of authoritativeness of different types of People’s Daily articles.

Nonetheless, this preliminary examination of a few trends in official CCP discourse shows that this approach can yield insights. We can see that some Xi-linked concepts like the “China Solution” have not enjoyed a continual upward trajectory, and that Xi’s level of focus on China’s “core interests” exhibits significant continuity with that of his predecessors. Overall, the COVID-19 pandemic seems to have provided an opening for Beijing to shoulder more of the “great power responsibility” expected of a “responsible great power.”

Neil Thomas is a Senior Research Associate at MacroPolo. You can follow him on Twitter here and read more of his work on politics, political economy, and US-China relations here. The author would like to thank Chris Roche for assistance with data collection and Iza Ding, Zhiking Huang, and Ryan Manuel for feedback on an earlier version of Figure 2.

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