The new logic of China's global influence

By Chunrong Liu, Executive Vice Director, Fudan-European Centre for China Studies

China’s growing influence on the global stage is indisputable. For international relations theorists and foreign policy observers, a consolidated leadership as well as the strategic visions articulated in the recently concluded 19th Communist Party of China (CPC) National Congress stimulate a new round of debate focusing on how China will influence the world in a time of increasing complexity and uncertainty.                                              

To understand the global implications of the 19th Party Congress, one has to weigh three critical dynamics associated with this political meeting: the construction of a new cognitive framework, the formation of a strong leadership, and the power of the domestic-international nexus. A nuanced analysis on these conditions is key to understanding the new faces of China’s global impact.

Unlike the “harmonious society” rhetoric of Hu Jintao’s era, which was derived from the Confucian wisdom, Xi Jinping’s thought is based on analysis of international and domestic developments as well as a historical review of the Party’s mission. The CPC has begun using new ideological tools to diagnose governance problems, make sense of its own ambiguous signals, and justify its strategic visions. Xi’s thought constitutes a new cognitive framework to prescribe new policy actions, both domestically and internationally.

In the new era, “Chinese wisdom and a Chinese approach” is being offered as a means of solving the problems facing mankind. This would justify the historic rise of China, becoming the agent for interconnected growth and shared prosperity in the global community. China’s commitment to globalisation has been manifested in the Belt and Road Initiative, and was also widely felt in Xi’s speech at Davos early this year.

President Xi proclaimed that “mankind has become a close-knit community of shared future,” and that “China must have the courage to swim in the vast ocean of a global market”, acknowledging a world of extensive converging national interests and mutual dependence. Xi added that China’s foreign policy will be guided by the vision of building “a new form of international relations” featuring mutual respect, fairness, justice, and win-win cooperation.

While the narrative of “win-win cooperation” is not new, the notion of “fairness and justice” exhibits fresh elements showing China is increasingly sensitive to the dark sides of globalisation and is becoming morally conscious in global affairs. China cannot be expected to become a leading country by merely signing up to a pre-existing order. Rather, China’s new global influence will feature a normative dimension as it aspires to be a driver and regulator of globalisation and a reformer of the global governance system.

China’s domestic political climate and power structure can explain important aspects of its foreign policy behaviour. Power distribution within the CPC has long been characterised by some form of factionalism, or “fragmented authoritarianism”, in which policy processes are often disjointed and rampant corruption undermined governing efficiency. Over the last five years, there has been a visible power recentralisation through a massive anti-corruption campaign and new decision-making mechanisms in the form of “small leading groups”.

Largely as a consequence of the sweeping anti-corruption campaign, the 19th Party Congress witnessed a phenomenal turnover in the Central Committee and Politburo. In addition, tightened discipline has contributed to Party solidarity centred on Xi’s ever-stronger leadership. In his work report, Xi presents the revised Party as “a vibrant Marxist governing party that is always at the forefront of the times, enjoys the wholehearted support of the people, has the courage to reform itself, and is able to withstand all tests.”

Forming a strong organisational weapon with centralised power does not come without dilemmas, and institutionalising Chinese politics in a functionally differentiated, market-based society remains a daunting challenge. Nevertheless, comprehensive and structural reforms necessitate an effective and visionary leadership. Internationally, this will help China negotiate a new global order in a more instrumental and coherent manner.

As China has globalised and become an economic centre of gravity, domestic developments have had important imprints on foreign relations. Indeed, the deeper China transforms itself, the more it transforms the world.

The 19th Party Congress outlined a clear road map for realising socialist modernisation and national rejuvenation whereby the country’s economy will be transformed from a phase of rapid growth to high-quality development. Policy measures on poverty reduction, an innovation-driven economy, as well as the actions of the green agenda stand to produce positive spill-over effects by opening ample opportunities for durable international cooperation.

Moreover, Chinese perspectives and Chinese solutions in socioeconomic development may have growing international impacts. For instance, the Chinese approach to human security, which is intimately connected to reducing poverty and improving living conditions, would resonate with many developing countries.

As the curtain fell on the 19th CPC Congress, one may expect something new and positive from China. In general, it is good news that the Party Congress reaffirmed China’s strategic commitment to globalisation, multilateralism, free trade, economic development and combating climate change. While enormous homework is yet to be done, China is placed in a new conjuncture from which it can play a critical role in stabilising the global system and generating new dynamics for globalisation.

Originally published in the think tank Friends of Europe.