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  • China Leadership Monitor

CLM Insights Interview with Suisheng Zhao

Suisheng Zhao. The Dragon Roars Back: Transformational Leaders and Dynamics of Chinese Foreign Policy. Stanford University Press, 2023. 358 pp. ISBN-10-1503634140; ISBN-13-978-150363414.

Suisheng Zhao CLM Issue 76 June 2023
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Cover of The Dragon Roars Back: Transformational Leders and Dynamics of Chinese Foreign Policy. Stanford University Press, 2023.

Insights Interview

Your book applies a “leadership-centered” approach to study Chinese foreign policy during three different eras. What makes your approach distinctive and more useful than other approaches to study Chinese foreign policy? What are the practical difficulties in using this approach?

Structural realism and regime-type theory have been used most often to explain the dynamics of Chinese foreign policy. Structural realism argues that China’s relative power determines its foreign-policy behavior. A more powerful China inevitably redefines its national interests expansively and makes a more confrontational foreign policy. But this theory cannot explain the transformation of Chinese foreign policy since the founding of the PRC. When China’s relative power was seriously constrained, Mao’s foreign policy was confrontational. China fought six wars, including with the US and the Soviet Union. Deng Xiaoping moderated Chinese foreign policy and avoided confrontation, even though China’s relative power had not fundamentally changed. Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao continued Deng’s moderate policy at a time when China’s relative power was increasing significantly. Xi Jinping shifted Chinese foreign policy to a more confrontational direction, even though China’s economic growth was slowing down. Scholars have argued that China is now overreached and is setting foreign-policy objectives that are beyond the country’s capacity. The regime-type theory attributes China’s confrontational policy to its authoritarian system. Only regime change can bring about a fundamental policy change. But China’s foreign policy has experienced many twists and turns, even as the authoritarian state has remained in place since the founding of the PRC in 1949.

My book develops a leadership-centered approach to focus on the role of Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and Xi Jinping, respectively, as transformational leaders. They each charted a unique course for Chinese foreign policy: a revolutionary foreign policy; a developmental foreign policy, or a big-power foreign policy. These transformational leaders were game-changers not only because they presented new visions but also because they demonstrated political wisdom to navigate through the jungle of CCP power politics, mobilize domestic ideational and institutional resources, and strategically explore the international distribution of power and international norms and rules to advance their respective foreign-policy agendas.

Deng’s foreign policy of strategic restraint and patience is generally considered a highly successful one for China. What motivated Xi Jinping to replace it with a foreign policy of strategic assertiveness? What makes Xi, who did not have much foreign-policy experience before he assumed power, so confident that his strategy will serve China better?

Although Deng Xiaoping’s moderate foreign policy served China’s economic development objectives, Xi Jinping abandoned developmental moderation and advanced assertive big-power diplomacy to reclaim China’s lost global position of power. His new vision as well as his confidence rely on a belief that the world has experienced profound changes unseen in a century, during which time the East has been on the rise and the West has been on the decline, creating an opportunity for China’s inevitable rise. Xi’s belief matches the Chinese people’s rising nationalist aspirations and confidence after the country’s successful hosting of the 2008 Summer Olympics as well as their frustration with so-called anti-China forces that oppose China’s rise to its perceived rightful place.

What are the basic contours of Xi’s foreign-policy strategy? What are his main objectives? How would you assess the effectiveness of his foreign policy?

Xi Jinping’s foreign-policy strategy is aimed at realizing the “China Dream of Great Rejuvenation.” To achieve this objective, Xi has emphasized a “fighting spirit” and “baseline thinking,” and he has set red lines to proactively shape the external environment rather than to react passively. Xi’s commitment to China’s peaceful rise is now conditioned by external accommodations to China’s core national interests and it is premised on reciprocity. Aggressively asserting China’s core interests in its sovereignty and territorial claims, Xi moved from strategic ambiguity to clarity and scaled up land reclamation on and around the disputed islands in the South China Sea. He also sharpened the military threat to force Taiwan to accept China’s hardened terms of peaceful unification. Taking tit-for-tat actions, Xi no longer bends to American pressure. Instead, he unconditionally accommodates China’s interests that are built on an anti-hegemonic coalition with Russia and Iran, both of which share China’s sentiments against US global dominance.

Xi’s triumphalism is premature. His projection of power has alienated would-be valued partners and it has unified rivals. His hubris approach has awakened Washington and the European countries to push back against China’s great power ambition. Many of Beijing’s neighbors have joined ranks to hedge against the China threat.

A decade after Xi’s rise to power, it is now clear that the West, led by the United States, is vigorously pushing back against Xi’s foreign-policy agenda. Did Xi anticipate this backlash? How has he responded to the pushback?

Xi’s assertive foreign policy has inevitably met with pushback and resistance from the US and many other countries. Regardless of whether or not Xi anticipated such a backlash, he perceives these actions as threats to the security of the Chinese Communist Party and China’s national security. Reflecting his sense of insecurity, Xi elevated security to a status previously reserved only for development. If China’s security interest conflict with its developmental interests, Xi will sacrifice those developmental interests. His decision to emphasize security has increased his risk tolerance of escalation and economic blowback.

Is the Chinese foreign-policy making process functioning differently under Xi than it did under his predecessors? How would you characterize today’s foreign-policy making process? What are its advantages and pitfalls?

My book devotes an entire chapter to Xi’s restructuring of the Chinese foreign-policy-making hierarchy. Establishing personal loyalty to him as the most important political principle, Xi emphasizes a top-level design to cut through bureaucratic roadblocks and develop a strategic vision, carry out strategic planning, and make tough foreign-policy decisions. In particular, he has strengthened foreign-policy coordinating organizations with himself as the head, including the creation of a State Security Commission and the upgrading of the Foreign Affairs Leading Small Group to a Central Foreign Affairs Commission. And he has become chairman of everything, personally planning and promoting numerous policy decisions. Xi has also politicized foreign-policy bureaucracies, emphasizing political loyalty over the professionalism of Chinese diplomats.

Xi’s institutional restructuring has changed the incentive structure of the Chinese foreign-policy bureaucracies and diplomats. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which reportedly once received calcium tablets in hopes that it would develop a backbone, has recast itself as the party’s vocal defender and it has become the wolf warrior ministry. Former Foreign Ministers Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi, known professionals under Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, have become wolf warriors under Xi.

But Xi does not have Mao’s charismatic authority. He commands obedience primarily through coercion and fear. Those who have dared to disagree with his policy are deemed to be “arbitrarily commenting against the center” and “maliciously slandering party and state leaders.” Therefore, he has minimized the opportunities for any erroneous decisions he has made to be corrected and he has increased the possibility of intended or unintended consequences in a foreign venture of no return. Xi’s personalization of Chinese foreign-policy making has made Chinese foreign policy incoherent, irrational, and unpredictable.

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