The rise of China and its integration into the world community are among the most important phenomena of the post-Cold War era. Since its inception as a superpower, China has been guided by a distinct foreign policy approach, the ideological underpinnings of which are constantly undergoing various changes. Although China’s foreign policy is multifaceted and influenced by many factors, including historical, economic, and strategic, examining its underlying ideologies is crucial to understanding China’s motivations and aspirations in international relations. This report attempts to present the main ideologies shaping China’s current foreign policy and their impact on global relations. The report covers the period from 1949 to the present day.
In the current phase of geopolitical turning changes, when the current system of international relations is no longer collapsed and the world is on the brink of nuclear war, the superpowers of the world are doing their best to have a more improved and leading position in the future world order. China, due to its ambition to occupy a leading position in the geopolitical and geoeconomic dimensions, is trying to make the most of the situation and strengthen its positions. And this circumstance is included in the “Foreign Relations” Law of China, which came into force on July 1, 2023. In the law, a clear reference is made to all the ideologies by which China is currently guided, in particular, Article 3 of the law states: “The People’s Republic of China adheres to Marxism-Leninism, Maoism, Deng Xiaoping’s Theory, Jiang Zemin’s Theory of Triple Representation, Hu Jintao’s Scientific Concept of Development, and Xi Jinping’s Idea of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era in the development of foreign relations.”
In order to better understand the ideological developments of China’s foreign policy, we will consider them in the phased context proposed by Professor Qin Yaqin. Before considering the ideologies in phase context, it is worth noting that since the establishment of communism in China, China’s foreign policy has been controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, especially during the Maoist era (1949-1976). The ideology of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism was the official approach in relations with other countries. And only after the Fourteenth Congress of the Communist Party of China in 1992, Deng Xiaoping’s “socialism with Chinese characteristics” became the guiding ideology, including in foreign policy.
Professor Qin Yakini puts forward the point of view according to which the development and establishment of the Chinese version of foreign policy ideology and theories of international relations took place in three stages: the planning stage (1978-1990), the theory research stage (1991-2000) and the theory- innovation phase (2007 to present).
During the planning phase (1978-1990), both Marxism and Leninism were dominant, but no conscious attempt was made to construct a theoretical paradigm. This was the stage when, on February 22, 1974, Mao Zedong officially proposed his “Three Worlds Theory,” according to which the “First World” consisted of the wealthy and nuclear-armed USSR and the United States, the “Second World ” includes Japan, Europe, Australia and Canada, and the “Third World” includes the underdeveloped countries of Asia, Latin America and Africa. Setting the stage for a new diplomatic direction, China begins to prioritize the Third World in its foreign policy after Mao’s speech. Marxism-Leninism and Maoism became the main principles and tools by which to measure the contradictions in the field of foreign policy using dialectical materialism.
During the theory study phase (1991-2000), dominant Western international relations theories such as liberalism and realism became the main means of explaining Chinese foreign policy decision-making processes in China. After the Fourteenth Party Congress of the Communist Party of China in 1992, Deng Xiaoping’s “socialism with Chinese characteristics” was taken as the basis for foreign policy ideology. Attempts were made to use traditional Chinese philosophy and the achievements of the Western theoretical field to develop foreign policy ideology. At the Sixteenth Party Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2002, Jiang Zemin proposed the theory of “Triple Representation” as a foreign policy ideology and a Chinese theory of international relations. The theory of “Triple Representation” was mentioned in party documents as a political thought within which the Chinese Communist Party was expected to represent advanced social productive forces, advanced culture, and the interests of the people.
In the stage of theory innovation (2007 to present), the “scientific concept of development” formulated by Hu Jintao at the Seventeenth Congress of the Communist Party of China began to become the ideological foundation of foreign policy, in which emphasis was placed on “harmonious world” and “harmonious society”, which cannot be achieved without peaceful development. It can be clearly seen that while Jiang Zemin emphasized building a “good society” by 2020 by maintaining high growth rates, Hu Jintao emphasized “balanced and sustainable economic development.” Moreover, the rise of interest in constructivism coincided with the official debate on China’s peaceful rise, which led to a rethinking of both China’s national interests and the Chinese strategy for peaceful development in the world.
In 2012, after the Eighteenth Congress of the Communist Party of China, President Xi Jinping spoke about the “Chinese Dream” and the “Belt and Road Initiative”. For the domestic audience, he placed more emphasis on building a prosperous society by eradicating poverty for nearly 50 million people by 2020 as part of China’s economic reform, restoring the ancient Silk Road. For the external audience, he emphasized the positive role of the Belt and Road Initiative in connecting Europe with Asia and restoring the ancient Silk Roads. Now there is talk about the possible inclusion of countries in Western Asia or the Middle East, Latin America and Africa in China’s “One Belt and One Road” initiative. The establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the BRICS New Development Bank, the holding of the G-20 Summit in Hangzhou, and the speech of Chinese President Xi Jinping at the 2018 World Economic Forum, where he highlighted the benefits of globalization, as well as China’s leadership role in the Paris Climate agreement in 2016 to build an inclusive, just global economic order cannot be ignored. Therefore, there is a clear shift in China’s foreign policy from Deng Xiaoping’s 24-character strategy of “restraint and bide your time,” under which Xiaoping promoted the idea that China would never claim leadership, will never seek hegemony, will never seek to become a sphere of influence, and will never interfere in the internal affairs of other countries, even if one day it becomes a superpower, towards Xi Jinping’s ambition to assume the role of global leader in geopolitical and geoeconomic dimensions.
In addition to the above-mentioned directions, two very important ideologies, which are very relevant in the current Chinese politics, were also referred to in a separate point. We are talking about the “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence” proposed by Zhou Enlai, the first Premier of the People’s Republic of China, and Xi Jinping’s idea of “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”. We would like to refer to these two ideological strands in separate points, because both President Jiang Zemin at the 16th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2002 and Xi Jinping at the 20th National Congress in 2022 emphasized them and are the cornerstones of the Chinese both for domestic and particularly for foreign policy.
Thus, Jiang Zemin said in his 2002 speech: “We will continue to improve and develop relations with developed countries. Based on the fundamental interests of the people of all countries concerned, we will expand the points of convergence of common interests and properly settle differences based on the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, despite the differences in social system and ideology.”
Xi Jinping said in his speech: “China adheres to the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence in establishing friendship and cooperation with other countries. It is committed to promoting new types of international relations, deepening and expanding global partnerships based on equality, openness and cooperation, as well as combining interests with other countries.”
The “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence” have had and continue to have a significant impact on China’s foreign policy. These principles were proposed by Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai on December 31, 1953, during a discussion with the Indian delegation on the disputed territory of Tibet. Emphasizing the importance of mutual respect for sovereignty, non-interference, and peaceful coexistence, the Five Principles were enshrined in the Ten Principles of the 1955 Bandung Conference and became the fundamental set of principles underlying China’s foreign policy during and after the Cold War. They continue to shape China’s approach to international relations and guide its foreign policy decisions today. Here are the principles of Peaceful Coexistence and the scope of their impact on China’s current foreign policy.
- Mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. China attaches great importance to the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity of other nations. It supports the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries and the approach of resolving disputes peacefully through dialogue and negotiation. This principle underlies China’s position on issues related to territorial disputes, such as the South China Sea case, where China emphasizes the importance of the parties involved respecting the sovereignty and finding peaceful solutions.
- Principle of non-interference in each other’s internal affairs. China adheres to the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries. It recognizes the importance of respecting the independence and sovereignty of nations in determining their own political, economic and social systems. This principle influences China’s approach to diplomacy, as it seeks to develop cooperative relations based on mutual respect and non-interference, rather than imposing its own values or governance models on other countries.
- Principle of equality and cooperation for mutual benefit. China emphasizes the principle of equality and mutual benefit in its foreign policy. It seeks to promote fair and balanced relations with other nations, regardless of their size or power. China seeks to engage developing countries in mutually beneficial cooperation, trade and investment partnerships, emphasizing win-win results. This principle is evident in China’s approach to economic globalization, where it advocates inclusive growth, trade liberalization, and cooperation that benefits all parties involved.
- Principle of peaceful coexistence. China promotes the principle of peaceful coexistence as the pillar of its foreign policy. It aims to maintain peace and stability in the international system and actively contributes to global peacekeeping efforts. China advocates dialogue, consultation and cooperation among countries to face common challenges and build harmonious relations. This principle guides China’s engagement in multilateral organizations and forums, where it seeks to promote consensus and cooperation for global development and security.
Xi Jinping’s “idea of socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era” has had a significant impact on China’s foreign policy. This ideological framework, introduced by Chinese President Xi Jinping, outlines the basic principles and strategic goals of China’s development and governance. Here are some key aspects of its impact:
- Assertive diplomacy. As a result of Xi Jinping’s foreign policy, China presents itself as the most assertive and self-confident player in international relations. He promotes the idea that China should be actively involved in the formation of the new world order, promote its interests and protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity. This assertive approach is evident in China’s initiatives such as the Belt and Road Initiative, through which China seeks to expand its economic ties with other countries and influence globally.
- Diplomacy characteristic of superpowers. Xi Jinping’s idea underscores China’s aspirations to become a great power. He calls for realizing the “Chinese dream” of rejuvenating the nation, which includes a vision of a prosperous and strong China that will play a leading role in world affairs. This ambition is reflected in China’s efforts to expand its military capabilities, increase its diplomatic influence, and actively engage in regional and global multilateral forums.
- Basic interests and national security. According to Xi Jinping’s idea, the protection of China’s core interests and national security are top priorities. He claims that China will protect its sovereignty, territorial integrity and political stability. This emphasis on national security is evident in China’s approach to sensitive issues such as the Taiwan, South China Sea, and Hong Kong issues, as China seeks to protect areas it considers an integral part of its territory.
- Economic diplomacy. Xi Jinping’s foreign policy emphasizes economic development as a primary goal. He encourages the promotion of China’s economic interests abroad through initiatives such as the Belt and Road Initiative, which seeks to improve connectivity, infrastructure development and trade relations with other countries. China’s economic diplomacy aims to further expand its access to the world market and promote Chinese industry and technology.
- Versatility with Chinese characteristics. According to Xi Jinping’s idea, China should play an active role in shaping global governance and promoting the idea of the world as a “community with a common destiny.” While China recognizes the importance of multilateralism, it also emphasizes the need to reform the existing world order to better suit the interests of developing countries. China is actively involved in initiatives such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, BRICS, and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, where it seeks to strengthen its influence and propose alternative models of global governance.
It is important to note that the impact of Xi Jinping’s ideology on China’s foreign policy is a topic of ongoing analysis and debate among scholars and experts. Although this reference provides a general idea, the concrete implementation and interpretation of Xi Jinping’s idea may vary in different policy areas depending on the period.
China’s foreign policy is a complex interplay of pragmatism, global ideologies, historical experience, and the evolving ideologies of the Communist Party. Although China no longer prioritizes exporting the revolution, it remains committed to safeguarding its core national interests and economic development. The country’s foreign policy is formed due to the synthesis of ideological approaches, maintaining flexibility based on the period context. Understanding the ideological underpinnings of China’s foreign policy is essential to understanding its motivations, ambitions, and actions in world politics and international relations.