Emerging Markets

China Signals A Change In Priorities, Raising The Risk Of Tension With The Developed World

By Timothy Heath

Image Credit: REUTERS/Greg Baker/Pool

Image Credit: REUTERS/Greg Baker/Pool

China’s decision to elevate in priority its relationship with its neighbors over that with the United States and other great powers, confirmed at the recently concluded Central Work Conference on Foreign Relations, heralds a major shift in its diplomacy. The decision reflects Beijing’s assessment that relations with countries in Asia and with rising powers will grow more important role in facilitating the nation’s revitalization than relations with the developed world. This suggests that over time, China may grow even less tolerant of Western interference in PRC interests and more confident in consolidating control of its core interests and pressing demands to reform the international order. Washington may need to step up coordination with its Asian partners to encourage Chinese behavior that upholds, rather than challenges, the principle tenets of the international order.

“General Framework for Foreign Relations”

At the Central Work Conference, Xi Jinping changed the order of the general framework for foreign relations (zongti waijiao buju). The general framework is a simple, but authoritative, list of broad categories of countries. It provides the conceptual schema upon which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) hangs general instructions on how to approach foreign policy. In itself, the general framework says very little about how to conduct foreign policy. It does, however, provide one important clue- the list’s order has long been understood to suggest a sense of priority, especially in the reform era. Relations with country types at the top of the list, in other words, are understood to have a stronger bearing on China’s prospects than those at the bottom of the list.  The general framework frames virtually all official analyses, documents, and policy directives related to diplomacy. This schema thus provides a simple, easily identifiable layout to help officials and bureaucrats prioritize foreign policy work and interpret directives from central leaders.

The order of the framework has remained consistent, having undergone changes only a few times since the PRC’s founding. In its original revolutionary incarnation, Mao proposed a framework of “first world, second world, and third world,” which referred to the capitalist, communist, and developing worlds. At the start of reform and opening up, Deng redefined this framework to “great powers (daguo), neighboring countries (zhoubian – also called the “periphery”), and “developing countries” (fazhan zhong de guojia). The only change since 1979 has been the addition of new categories. Jiang Zemin added “multilateral organizations,” by the time of the 16th Party Congress in 2002. Hu added “domains” (lingyu) or “public diplomacy” a few years later, as can be seen in the 18th Party Congress report.

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