The Xi Jinping Administration's View of the International Order
– China's emphasis on United Nations diplomacy and liberal economic policies−

Shin Kawashima
Professor, the University of Tokyo


What outlook does the Xi Jinping administration hold on the international order? Last year the Chinese government described the current international order as facing an unprecedented turning point in the last 100 years. At this turning point, China is thought to assume what follows as its official outlook on the international order. In the domain of international politics, China assumes an order predicated on the Charter of the United Nations, whereas in the domain of the world economy, it assumes a free and open order of trade and economy.1

In the realm of international politics, China is currently opposing the values shared by Western countries and the security system led by the United States. It is not to say, however, that China is opposed to the existing international order as a whole. China is supportive of the United Nations and UN-related organizations. Also supportive of international economic institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank, and the WTO, China protests resolutely against protectionist trade and economic policies, and behaves as if it is safeguarding a free and open order of trade and economy. As a result, China appears rather to be a guardian of the existing order. However, this does not mean that China will accept liberal political values, but that in the military and security domain, China will confront the frameworks led by the United States. The US-China confrontation does not demand that Xi Jinping alters his views of the international order, but rather helps to consolidate his views by providing him with opportunities to criticize the current protectionist trends in the United States.

The purpose of this paper is to discuss the history and process of the formation of the Xi Jinping administration's view of the international order, through analyses of Xi Jinping's own words and discourses in China.

1. Political Continuity from the Hu Jintao Era and the New Points of Issue (2012-14)

Xi Jinping became General Secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in autumn 2012. He was not necessarily at the beginning assertive in his speeches. He took over Hu Jintao's words and made relatively cautious remarks on diplomatic problems. Terms and expressions that would constitute the nucleus of the diplomatic philosophy of the Xi Jinping administration began to appear in 2013.

First, in his speech in Moscow in March 2013, Xi Jinping criticized 19th and 20th century colonial imperialism and the Cold War model of the international order, and called for the establishment of a new type of international relations featuring win-win cooperation.2 Although this term had already been used in the Hu Jintao era, it became a keyword representing the nucleus of China's diplomatic philosophy after the beginning of the Xi Jinping era. Further, Xi Jinping proposed the One Belt One Road initiative, which was predicated on Hu Jintao's periphery diplomacy. The Belt and One Road initiative was viewed as a laboratory for realizing the new type of international relations.

The One Belt One Road initiative is a combination of China's development strategy and regional frameworks developed under the periphery diplomacy of the Hu Jintao administration, such as ASEAN, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Its mission is to lead the formation of order by providing global commons through infrastructure investment. Needless to say, the initiative has political and military implications, but it is also true that China placed emphasis on economic cooperation. This is because China's economic power is more influential than its political and military powers. Although China does not possess political and military powers capable of competing with the United States, in economic terms, China is, however, in a position to compete with the United States to a certain degree, and its influence is never small. For this reason, China endorses the existing international economic order and aims at strengthening its influence by utilizing economic power.

A certain degree of political continuity that Xi Jinping took over from the Hu Jintao administration was clarified in Xi's remarks at the Peripheral Diplomacy Work Conference held in Beijing in October 2013. Xi reiterated expressions related to the periphery diplomacy that Hu Jintao had employed, and said "We must strive for obtaining an excellent peripheral environment for our country's development, bring even more benefits to our country's development, and realize common development together with peripheral countries", or "We will more proactively fulfill peripheral diplomatic activities."3 These remarks indicate that Xi Jinping's foreign policy inherits part of the basic concept of Hu Jintao's --- "Keep a low profile and bide your time, while getting something accomplished." Xi struck off the phrase "keep a low profile …," and revised the latter half ("get something accomplished") into "encourage yourselves to do somethings" or "do something proactively," retaining the spirit of the old phrase.

On the other hand, the new type of international relations based on these economic relations needed some complements. For example, in September 2013, the Foreign Minister Wang Yi described about the concept of "righteousness and interest."4 His remarks complemented the perceived shortcomings of the Belt and Road initiative. There prevailed an apprehension that China's infrastructure investment expanding from Eurasia through Africa would serve only to increase China's profits. Wang brought out the peculiar Chinese concept of "righteousness," arguing that China would not pursue its profits, but take the side of the developing countries based on righteousness.

This is not, however, to say that the economy-oriented Xi Jinping administration has made no proposals in the military field. On the occasion of the fourth summit of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia held in Shanghai in May 2014, Xi Jinping stated to the effect that Asians should ultimately take care of themselves and address their own problems, adding, "After all, security in Asia should be maintained by Asians themselves." He defined a new Asian security vision according to which Asian security should be undertaken by Asians.5

China did not forget to emphasize its peaceful position in order not to invite a sense of vigilance against its military expansion. In this sense, Zhou Enlai's Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence and Mutual Non-Interference in Each Other's Internal Affairs are still recognized as relevant by the Xi Jinping administration. This position of the administration is demonstrated by discussions at a series of events commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence held at the end of June 2014 with the attendance of leaders of India and Myanmar.6

While proposing a new Asian security vision, the Xi Jinping administration did not loudly criticize the United States. As enunciated in the discussion at the Central Foreign Affairs Commission meeting held in Beijing at the end of November 2014, the administration planned to pursue with the United States a "major power diplomacy" while respecting each other's core interests.7

In short, the Xi Jinping administration from its inauguration in 2012 took over the foreign policy and the view of the international order held by the Hu Jintao administration and proposed a series of political concepts. This includes : the new type of international relations; the Belt and Road initiative; the concept of righteousness and interest; the maintenance of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence and Mutual Non-Interference in Each Other's Internal Affairs; the replacement of the former administration's foreign policy concept "Keep a low profile and bide our time, while getting something accomplished" with a new one --- "encourage yourselves to do somethings" or "do something proactively;" the new Asian security vision, and the major power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics.

2. The United Nations-Oriented Policy of China (2015)

These ideas proposed by the Xi Jinping administration were integrated into Xi's 2015 United Nations speech. At the end of September 2015, Xi Jinping delivered a speech at the UN General Assembly in New York. He elaborated on the policies of his own administration: "China will continue to participate in building world peace… No matter how the international landscape may evolve and how strong China may become, China will never pursue hegemony"; "China will continue to contribute to global development. We will continue to pursue common development and the win-win strategy of opening up." Furthermore, Xi stated to the world that China would welcome other countries "to board China's express train of development so that all of us will achieve common development." He did not forget calling on UN member states to share China's view of the international order, which China anticipates to replace the existing order that the West established.

What is above all of importance here is Xi Jinping's emphasizing an UN-oriented posture. "China will continue to uphold the international order. We will stay committed to the path of development through cooperation. China was the first country to put its signature on the UN Charter. We will continue to uphold the international order and system underpinned by the purposes and principles of the UN Charter." He made China's staying with the United Nations synonymous with its being an upholder of the international order. Meanwhile, at the same time, Xi did not forget to add that China is among developing countries.8 On the occasion of the UN Sustainable Development Summit, Xi Jinping manifested China's UN-oriented stance and showed its readiness in its support, financial and human, of multilateral frameworks, at the expense of its financial burden.9 This kind of UN-oriented stance by China was clearly shown to its people at home. At the 27th collective study meeting of the Central Politburo of the CPC in October 2015, Xi said, "The purposes and principles of the UN Charter are not dated," adding that "the fact that they have not been effectively implemented is to blame for rivalries and injustices today."10

The UN-oriented stance of Xi Jinping remained unchanged into 2016. From China's viewpoint, the existing international order was created by developed countries. Xi seems to have viewed it to be China's mission to "resolutely safeguard the international order and a system centered on the UN Charter principles," and to "push forward the international order towards a fairer and more rational direction."11

3. Xi Jinping's Hard-Line Posture from July 2016: The World Order and The International Order (2016-2017)

A ruling over the South China Sea issued by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in July 2016 changed the situation. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs went so far as to call it a piece of "waste paper." The international community considered China's reaction to be hostile and defiant against the existing international order. China refrained from irreparably criticizing the court decision, and instead confined its complaint to procedural questions. This act of China, however, gave rise to suspicions of China around the world.

On July 25, 2016, the US National Security Advisor Susan Rice visited China to meet with Xi Jinping. At this time, Xi Jinping commented on the concern that China is trying to challenge the existing international order, "When China grows strong, it will never seek hegemony. China does not intend to challenge the current international order or rules either."12 Xi Jinping also touched upon the so-called new type of major power relations. The concept can be assessed as an extension of the view on the international order and diplomatic philosophy that the Xi Jinping administration had forged until 2015.

Prior to this meeting, however, on the 6th of the same month, the chairperson of the National People's Congress Foreign Affairs Committee Fu Ying gave a speech at Chatham House in London, entitled "China and the Future of International Order." She distinguished the "world order" from the "international order," and defined the "world order" as the existing order led by the United States, and identified the "international order" as a new order that China will lead. Fu argued that the "world order" is generally called Pax Americana and consists of three elements: (1) American and Western values, (2) US military alliance networks, and (3) the United Nations and its organizations. This "world order," said Fu, shaped the historical background of the "international order" and functioned in the modern period of history; and the United States supported it and at the same time gained much benefit from it as the leader of the order. According to Fu, China is a contributor to the "international order." That "international order" in question is no other than the United Nations and its organizations embodying the principles of international law. Although the "international order" overlaps with the "world order," the two do not completely coincide. China is the founder, beneficiary and supporter of the United Nations, with, nonetheless, no intention of creating everything new.13 Fu quoted these statements as the words of Xi Jinping. The distinction of the "world order" and the "international order," as well as the conceptual arrangement that the United Nations should play the role of linkage between the two, has since then been cited by many researchers.

In January 2017, Xi Jinping delivered a speech at the UN office in Geneva and emphasized the importance of the United Nations with the expressions overlapping those of Fu Ying. Xi said, "China will firmly uphold the international system with the UN as its core."14

China's view of the international order that was outlined in greatest clarity in 2016 was evident in Xi Jinping's two-and-a-half-hour long marathon speech delivered at the 19th National Congress of the CPC in autumn 2017. Here, Xi emphasized two "100 years," and clarified China's national goal of catching up with the United States in 2049. As a concrete foreign policy, Xi also emphasized the Opening-up policy. In other words, China would do away with political closure; promote international cooperation and communication based on the Belt and Road initiative, and increase its connectivity. These policy measures would be beneficial to both developing and underdeveloped countries.15 Xi also made an important proposal of making the Central Foreign Affairs of CPC solely accountable for China's foreign policy. The proposal would connect central and local activities, and integrate diplomatic activities, central and local, together with administrative works, under the control of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission. Such an integration under the central organizations of policy decision-making processes was characteristic of the Xi Jinping administration, as was observed in other areas.

At the Conference of Chinese Diplomatic Envoys Stationed Abroad at the end of December 2017, Xi Jinping discussed in a comprehensive manner the incumbent administration's view of the international order and policy concepts up to that point of time, as well as the integration of internal and external policies proposed at the 19th National Congress of the CPC.16 In the 2018 New Year speech, Xi Jinping referred to some of China's new challenges. "China will," said Xi, "always contribute to the building of world peace and global development, and the safeguarding of international order", while "at present, various sides have both expectations and worries about the prospect of peace and development for mankind, looking forward to China expressing its stand and attitude." Xi said China would therefore increase its voice if necessary.17 We have already witnessed Fu Ying outline in her speech (2016) the transformation process from the "world order" to the "international order," as well as China's position there, and also witnessed Xi Jinping announce in his speech (2017) China's national goal of catching up with the United States in 2049. China seems to have gradually cultivated and nurtured discourses with opportunities in view to "increase its voice."

4. China's View of the International Order and Diplomatic Philosophy amidst the US-China Confrontation (2018-)

Under these conditions, the US-China confrontation gradually became apparent from the beginning of 2018. It is likely that China's increasingly defiant attitude toward the United States from 2016 through 2017 has irritated the United States. China did not thoroughly alter or adjust its own view of the international order or its diplomatic philosophy. Rather, criticizing the US protectionist stance on tariff issues, China made its position more distinct by emphasizing the significance of the "free and open" order in the international trade and economy.

In March 2018, Premier Li Keqiang also mentioned China's openness at the National People's Congress and said that China would push forward with an open economy.18 At the Central Foreign Affairs Commission meeting held in Beijing in June 2018 it was stated that "an accurate understanding of history, the overall situation and China's role and position in the world pattern … in order to have a correct assessment of international situation." In particular, regarding China's role, Xi Jinping asked Chinese decision-makers to "have a clear understanding of China's status and role in the evolving world pattern and formulate principles and policies of China's external work in a scientific way, through cool-headed analysis of international phenomena and China's relation with the rest of the world." Pointing out that "China has been in the best period of development in modern times," Xi Jinping outlined his conviction that China is about to provide a new opportunity of development in the world. He also called for a successful management of major-power relations, saying, "It is important to … build a framework for developing major-power relations in an overall stable and balanced way." This remark seems to have taken into account the inauguration of the Trump administration. Furthermore, Xi confirmed that diplomatic power must stay fully with the central Party leadership.19

At the Commemorative Event of the 40th Anniversary of China's Reform and Opening up in December 2018, Xi Jinping declared, "Our world is increasingly approached (sic) the center stage, the international community recognized builders of peace in the world, contributors to global development, defenders of the international order!" Xi showed his confidence that China is approaching the center of the world stage irrespective of the adverse effects of the US-China confrontation. Meanwhile, at the same time, Xi stated "When China grows strong, it will never seek hegemony," insisting that China would never become a hegemon.20

This tone of discourse continued until 2019. At the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on October 1, 2019, Xi Jinping succinctly repeated the national goals, and said, as if to give warning to the United States, "There is no force that can shake the status of this great nation. No force can stop the Chinese people and the Chinese nation forging ahead."21 But what is interesting is that amidst the US-China confrontation, China has used frequent opportunities to mention free trade and to oppose protective trade. For example, on the occasion of APEC meetings in November 2018, US Vice President Mike Pence gave a speech criticizing China, whereas Xi Jinping at the 26th APEC Economic Leaders' Meeting said "We need to adopt an open, inclusive and transparent approach to the various kinds of free trade arrangements."22


This paper has made a chronological analysis of the Xi Jinping administration's view of the international order and its diplomatic philosophy. In conclusion, China criticizes the US-centered order as the "world order," and declares to take leadership in the "international order" that features UN centrism in the area of international politics and free and open systems for the world economy. Specifically, China supports an international political order in compliance with the Charter of the United Nations and with a free and open trade and economic order. China opposes the values of Western countries and the US-centered security system; but on the other hand, it is supportive of the United Nations and related organizations. Also, in the area of the world economy, China is supportive of the IMF, World Bank, WTO, etc., while denouncing protective trade and economic policies and acts as a guardian of a free and open trade and economic order.

Xi Jinping took over in 2012, and developed until 2014 a new diplomatic philosophy represented by a new type of international relations and the Belt and Road initiative. In 2015 Xi made clear his commitment to UN-centrism. In 2016, the Xi Jinping administration made a distinction between the "international order" and the "world order," and defined the relationship between the "world order," the "international order," and China. In 2017, the administration set the target year at 2049 for the realization of the "international order." This points to China's will to catch up with the United States in the foreseeable future. In 2018, the US-China relations became tense, which, however, did not affect China's view of the international order or its diplomatic philosophy. Rather, China has come to manifest its position of safeguarding free and open international economic systems, condemning the protectionist stance of the United States.

As a result, China now looks rather like a defender of the existing order. But that does not mean that China will embrace liberal political values. In terms of military security, China unquestionably criticizes the US alliance system. If, without understanding this "puzzling nature" of China, we attempt to envisage the whole picture of China from a single point of view alone, we will misunderstand China's stance and intentions.

(This paper was translated into English by Tsutomu Inuzuka, SSDP Associate)

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