Chinese Foreign Policy in an Evolving Global Landscape

China’s rapid economic growth and increasing political influence have led to significant changes in its foreign policy over the past few decades. As China has emerged as a major global power, its leaders have had to craft foreign policies that allow it to pursue its interests in an evolving geopolitical landscape. This has involved both continuity based on long-standing principles and interests, as well as shifts to adapt to new conditions.

This article provides an overview of the major themes, priorities and strategies that characterize contemporary Chinese foreign policy. It begins with background on the historical context that shapes China’s approach to foreign affairs. The article then examines China’s key relationships with major powers like the United States and Russia. It also analyzes China’s policies towards its Asian neighbors and developing countries in Africa, Latin America and elsewhere. The article additionally looks at China’s participation in global governance institutions and its pursuit of new initiatives like the Belt and Road Initiative. It concludes with an assessment of the impact of Xi Jinping’s leadership on Chinese foreign policy strategy and priorities.

Historical Context

China’s contemporary foreign policy strategy has been profoundly shaped by its historical experience as a great power prior to the 19th century and by its decline in the face of Western imperialism and Japanese aggression in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Chinese leaders see the past 150 years as a historical aberration and believe China is simply resuming its rightful, historic status as a major power. As such, today’s leaders are determined to avoid past mistakes and weakness.1

At the same time, China’s “century of humiliation” at the hands of foreign powers bred deep anxieties about sovereignty, territorial integrity and foreign influence that persist to this day.2 China’s hesitate integration into the Western-dominated postwar order further reinforced these sensitivities. Moreover, its alignment with the Soviet Union (1950-1960) left a legacy of concerns about vulnerability to unstable alliances. These historical experiences continue to be reflected in China’s fear of containment, obsession with state sovereignty, suspicion of foreign involvement in “internal” affairs and reliance on pragmatic partnerships over allies.3

Key Priorities and Principles

Chinese foreign policy strategy reflects the priorities and principles outlined by successive leaders, recently synthesized under Xi Jinping’s banner of the “Chinese Dream” of national rejuvenation.4 These priorities include:

  • Preserving the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) monopoly on power. This shapes policies regarding dissent, foreign media and other perceived threats to regime security.
  • Defending sovereignty and territorial integrity. China has outstanding disputes over Taiwan, the South China Sea, Sino-Indian border and other areas.
  • Securing China’s economic growth and access to foreign markets, investments, resources and technology. China’s economy is deeply intertwined with the global economy.
  • Expanding China’s global influence. China seeks greater voice in shaping global rules, norms and institutions.
  • Maintaining stability in China’s regional environment. China prioritizes stability, reciprocity and mutual benefit in relations with neighboring countries.

To pursue these aims, Chinese foreign policy adheres to certain principles:

  • Non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs
  • Respect for state sovereignty
  • Reciprocity, mutual benefit and win-win cooperation
  • Multipolarity and avoidance of alliances
  • Incrementalism and pragmatism5

These principles reflect the historical lessons and strategic thinking that guide Chinese foreign policymaking. They provide consistency amidst the dramatic changes in China’s external environment.

China’s Rise and its Impact on Foreign Policy Strategy

China’s rapid rise over the past forty years from an isolated, developing country to the world’s second largest economy and military has enabled it to pursue more ambitious foreign policies.6 As China’s interests and capabilities grow, it has shifted from former leader Deng Xiaoping’s advice to “hide capacity and bide time.” President Hu Jintao expanded China’s international activism under the concept of “peaceful development.”

Under Xi Jinping, China has become even more assertive in safeguarding its interests. Xi’s “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” agenda reflects strong ambitions to restore China to its perceived rightful place as a dominant force in Asia and major player on the world stage.7 China’s growing power has fueled greater willingness to use leverage to advance its interests.8 This has led to heightened tensions with the U.S. and other countries. Nonetheless, Chinese leaders feel recentralized control under Xi reduces risks of escalation or confrontation.9

Internally, Xi and other leaders regard U.S. and Western influence as harmful to regime security. They see controlling the CCP’s narrative as critical to maintaining political stability.10 Externally, leaders believe the world has long misunderstood and underappreciated China’s peaceful intentions. Under Xi, China has dialed up public diplomacy to better convey its messaging.11 Officials have also warned that China will not compromise on core interests such as Taiwan, instead preparing the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to defend them.12

In summary, China’s foreign policy has become more ambitious and assertive as its power has grown. But leaders still see non-confrontation as vital to sustain a benign external environment for continued development.13 Managing increased competition with the U.S. and neighbors while avoiding open conflict thus remains a major challenge.

Major Power Relations

United States

Managing China’s relationship with the United States is arguably the foremost priority in Chinese foreign policy. 14 U.S.-China ties have grown increasingly competitive and antagonistic, raising risks of confrontation.15 Chinese leaders see the U.S. as the chief obstacle to China’s security and development goals, through its alliances, military presence and perceived attempts to undermine the CCP.16 Yet leaders also want to prevent ties from deteriorating further to avoid economic decoupling or conflict.17 China thus treads a fine line between competing with and engaging the U.S. across economic, political, security and global governance spheres.

On security issues, China’s rapid military modernization aims to deter U.S. intervention in regional disputes.18 Chinese analysts see U.S. policy as aimed at strategic competition and containment.19 But leaders temper this with constant rhetoric that China does not seek hegemony or to displace the U.S. as the global superpower.20 Xi’s speech to the 2019 National People’s Congress exemplified this “striving for achievement” while managing competition prudently.21 Officials strongly protest U.S. arms sales, sanctions and high-level exchanges with Taiwan but stop short of major retaliation.22 China responds to U.S. freedom of navigation operations and surveillance near its coasts through shows of force but avoids hazardous maneuvers.23 Such incremental assertiveness reflects determination to defend Chinese interests yet aversion to open conflict.

On economic issues, China leverages substantial interdependence to constrain U.S. actions that threatens its development.24 But it has moderated retaliatory tariffs and easing of import restrictions to conclude the 2020 trade deal.25 China touts win-win cooperation on climate change and global health but rebukes U.S “politicization” of issues like human rights.26 Overall, China engages in calibrated efforts to shape international norms and opinion to its advantage while limiting backlash.27 For example, China presents its governance model as superior on issues like COVID while rejecting foreign criticisms.28

U.S.-China relations have clearly suffered from spiraling distrust and strategic rivalry in recent years. Yet leaders maintain extensive high-level bilateral dialogues, people-to-people exchanges and substantive cooperation on shared interests.29 Both sides understand that escalatory cycles of action and reaction ultimately serve neither country’s interests. This creates space for re-stabilizing ties, despite increasingly heated rhetoric. 30


China’s partnership with Russia has strengthened considerably as both balance against perceived U.S. pressure. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping describe ties as their “best in history.”31 Frequent exchanges, military cooperation and aligned voting in the UN signal common cause against Western-led unipolarity.32 Both see the U.S. as seeking to stoke unrest along their peripheries.33 This perception has motivated joint military exercises, arms sales and infrastructure projects that improve interoperability.34

However, China remains ambivalent about aligning too closely with Russia given uncertainties about its long-term trajectory.35 China does not endorse Russia’s attempts to recreate a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe through Ukrainian intervention.36 While generally abstaining from criticism, China has moderated backing for actions seen as destabilizing the broader international order upon which its development depends.37 For example, Xi called for “respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries” after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.38

Economic ties are also highly imbalanced, with China the much larger trade partner. China leverages this importance to secure energy deals on favorable terms.39 Pragmatism thus tempers solidarity with Moscow. Rhetoric about a “no limits” Sino-Russian partnership papers over divergent interests in Central Asia, the Arctic and other areas.40 Also, China does not support Russian revisionism that violates international law or its territorial integrity principles.41 Ultimately, alignment with Russia remains a marriage of convenience rather than deep strategic convergence.42

European Union

China has cultivated multifaceted relations with the European Union (EU) and its members rooted in deep economic interdependence. China is the EU’s largest trading partner while the EU is China’s largest export market.43 However, growing concerns over technology gaps, investment security and human rights have increasingly strained political ties.44 The EU now explicitly describes China as a “systemic rival” on technology, trade and governance issues while cooperating on climate, development and other areas.45

Beijing has worked to overcome European wariness through constant high-level outreach and proposals for enhanced bilateral cooperation.46 Chinese leaders highlight shared interests in defending multilateralism and addressing global issues like climate change.47 China deploys massive trade and infrastructure deals to deepen economic bonds with EU members like Greece, Portugal and Eastern European states.48 However, many Europeans remain skeptical of deals that may erode European unity, technological advantages and human rights principles.49

The EU has recently strengthened investment screening and 5G equipment restrictions targeting Chinese firms like Huawei.50 China threatens retaliation while accusing Europe of bias and politicizing economic issues.51 Nonetheless, China continues engaging leading EU members Germany and France to prevent bloc-wide backlash.52 For example, Xi signed multiple commercial agreements during his 2019 visit to Paris.53 China also works through organizations like 17+1 and the China-CEEC Think Tank Network to shape narratives in Central and Eastern Europe.54 Such persistent outreach limits European unity on issues liketechnology restrictions, human rights criticism and maritime disputes.55

This multidimensional EU strategy exemplifies China’s pragmatic efforts to temper criticism and rally cooperation with major powers on shared interests. As the EU shifts towards a more competitive stance, China will likely double down on divisive diplomacy to constrain its pushback.56

Asian Regional Relations

Asia remains China’s priority region despite growing global ambitions. Chinese leaders perceive a benign Asian periphery as vital to sustaining China’s economic trajectory and security.57 China thus promotes multipolarity and win-win cooperation rhetoric throughout Asia. However, its assertiveness on disputed maritime/border claims has worsened tensions with several neighbors.58 China must balance defending its interests with regional stability to advance mutual development.


Relations with Japan exemplify this duality. Japan is critical for China’s economic modernization and regional influence. But suspicions over history and competing claims over the East China Sea strain ties. Xi and Japanese Prime Minister Abe made tentative reconciliation efforts from 2014-2020 by holding leadership summits and pursuing crisis management mechanisms.59 However, public opinion remains negative on both sides.60

China attempts to compartmentalize tensions to expand economic cooperation and cultural exchanges. It has proposed joint development of East China Sea hydrocarbon resources.61 But differences over maritime boundaries remain unresolved. Beijing strongly protests Japanese actions seen as challenging the status quo like deploying a radar station in the East China Sea.62 China also leverages economic ties to punish perceived provocations. For example, it imposed rare earth mineral export restrictions after Japan detained a Chinese fishing captain in 2010.63 Nonetheless, leaders understand that letting ties deteriorate further would undermine stability and development. This shared interest will likely restrain future escalation despite lingering mistrust.64

South Korea

Relations with South Korea reveal similar patterns. Booming trade and investment are tempered by tensions over history, security alliances and deployment of THAAD missile defense. China imposed economic sanctions after South Korea decided to host THAAD in 2016.65 But it moderated pressure to resume high-level exchanges and prevent further backlash.66 South Korean President Moon has since worked to repair ties by promising no additional THAAD deployment.67 However, public opinion remains hostile in both societies.68 Leadership summits and dialogues have only partially mitigated this distrust due to China’s strong protests of bilateral military drills.69 Still, the high costs of political estrangement ensure some minimum cooperation.70


Engaging the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) plays a key role in China’s regional strategy.71 China became ASEAN’s largest trading partner in 2020 after signing the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).72 Chinese leaders and state media constantly reaffirm mutual interests in stability and development through ASEAN centrality.73 However, China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea has heightened tensions over recent years.74

China leverages potential sanctions and trade restrictions to pressure ASEAN states to not confront its maritime claims.75 But it moderates coercion to avoid pushing countries like Vietnam solidly into alignment with the U.S.76 Beijing has negotiated various crisis management and confidence building measures with ASEAN like hotlines and maritime emergency protocols.77 China also offers Mekong River water management and transboundary haze cooperation to build goodwill.78 These mechanisms constrain escalatory behavior and smooth frictions.

ASEAN remains divided on strongly countering China’s maritime assertiveness due to economic dependence and political differences.79 Countries directly affected like Vietnam, Philippines and Malaysia balance challenging Chinese encroachment at ASEAN with engaging Beijing bilaterally.80 For example, after resisting China’s negotiation overtures for years, Philippine President Duterte revived economic and infrastructure deals to induce Chinese concessions.81 China in turn permitted Filipino fishermen to operate around Scarborough Shoal again.82 Such incremental developments reflect how China leverages both carrots and sticks to advance its regional interests.


China’s ties with India exemplify how unresolved borders threaten regional stability.83 Despite growing economic bonds, the China-India relationship has deteriorated sharply recently due to escalating tensions along their contested frontier.84 Repeated standoffs reflect China’s determination to resist challenges to claims it has held for decades. Talks since the 1990s have failed to resolve basic mapping discrepancies.85

In response to recent Indian infrastructure construction, China has undertaken aggressive patrols across the Line of Actual Control (LAC). The 2020 Galwan Valley clash highlighted the potential for such frictions to spiral out of control.86 Both sides continue bolstering border defenses despite dialogue to disengage forces.87 With nationalism rising in India, future crises could risk open conflict.88 This threatens the cooperative relations China seeks with its Asian periphery to sustain regional stability.89 Though miscalculation dangers remain high, Chinese and Indian leaders recognize renewed war would severely damage both countries’ development. This imperative for restraint will shape crisis management when future incidents inevitably occur along their disputed border.90

Relations with the Developing World

China’s developing country diplomacy centers on Africa, Latin America, Central Asia, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Chinese leaders believe these relationships expand its economic opportunities, resources and political influence.91 Through constant summitry, trade deals and assistance packages, China has cultivated positive relations across Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Central Asia.92 However, China faces rising backlash in places over perceptions of ensnaring countries in debt traps, enabling authoritarianism and exploiting resources.93 Balancing morality and interests remains an enduring challenge of China’s developing world activism.


China’s comprehensive engagement with Africa represents its most ambitious developing world outreach. Bilateral trade rose from $10 billion in 2000 to over $180 billion in 2017.94 Chinese leaders constantly tour the continent striking deals, while welcoming their African counterparts to Beijing.95 At the 2018 Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) summit, Xi pledged another $60 billion in financing for African development.96 State media touts this partnership as a “win-win” model of South-South cooperation.97

However, many Africans have grown wary of China’s intentions and influence. Complaints about labor abuses, environmental damage and opaque loan terms on large projects abound.98 Zambia’s fate as the first pandemic-era default on Chinese financing highlights unsustainable debt burdens.99 China rejects criticisms by citing its policy of “no interference” in African nations’ internal affairs.100 But rising anti-China sentiment has complicated its balancing of economic interests and soft power cultivation.101

In response, China has doused down rhetoric on massive new financing pledges. It now speaks of sustainable development, corporate social responsibility and debt restructuring.102 At FOCAC 2021, Xi vowed to revamp investment and assistance to better align with African economic needs.103 China has also stepped up cultural diplomacy and media engagement to improve its image across Africa.104 These shifts reflect learning but also continued determination to sustain China’s substantial influence.

Latin America

China’s expanding ties with Latin America similarly highlight its developing world activism. Since the 2000s, Chinese trade, investment and political outreach have achieved major inroads through intensive summitry and financing packages.105 China is now the top trade partner for Brazil, Chile, Peru and several other Latin American nations.106 It has become the second largest source of FDI inflows into Latin America as well.107 These economic bonds support robust political ties. Half of Latin American countries are now included in China’s Belt and Road Initiative.108

However, China faces familiar backlashes against perceptions of exploitative investment practices and close ties with authoritarian leaders.109 Countries like Mexico and Argentina have canceled or downsized major railway projects over corruption and feasibility concerns.110 China has responded by promising to refocus lending on transparent, sustainable investments like renewables.111 It has diversified engagement to appeal across the political spectrum, such as pursuing trade talks with pro-market presidents in Brazil and Colombia.112 Despite setbacks, China remains committed to expanding its economic and political foothold in Latin America given its resources, markets and diplomatic value.

Global Governance

As China’s power grows, it has expanded participation in existing institutions while launching new initiatives to shape global governance.113 Chinese analysts see U.S. domination of postwar institutions as now outdated and biased against developing countries.114 China thus seeks more influence in line with its changing status. But it continues adhering to multilateral mechanisms that facilitate its development.115

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Within the United Nations system, China plays an increasingly prominent role. It has boosted personnel contributions to UN peacekeeping, provided more financial resources, and sponsored institutional reforms.116 China’s voting alignment with developing country blocs gives it leverage to mute criticism and rally opposition to Western pressures regarding issues like human rights.117 Chinese officials now head four UN specialized agencies.118 However, China faces criticism that its oversight undervalues core UN principles of human rights, transparency, and accountability.119 For example, China reportedly bullied UN officials to block NGO speakers critical of its Xinjiang policies.120 These incidents spotlight China’s ambivalent posture within established institutions as it seeks greater influence while forestalling dissent.

China has also spearheaded alternative multilateral mechanisms like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), New Development Bank (NDB), and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).121 The AIIB exemplifies this approach – adhering to global standards to attract broad participation while retaining Chinese leadership.122 However, some analysts see such initiatives as advancing a “counter-architecture” to challenge existing institutions.123 US officials accuse China of seeking to subvert norms on lending transparency, anticorruption, and debt sustainability.124 But Chinese views such criticisms as reflective of declining Western tolerance for fairer global governance.125

Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) constitutes China’s most ambitious governance endeavor. The expansive infrastructure and connectivity vision spans two-thirds of the world through an evolving complex of projects, entities and agreements.126 BRI aligns with Xi’s vision of building “a community with a shared future for mankind.”127 Officials frame BRI as an inclusive “big tent” facilitating development for all.128 However, many countries now voice concerns about unsustainable financing, lack of transparency, corruption and geopolitical risks associated with BRI projects.129

China has undertaken reforms to upgrade standards and improve project quality in response.130 But fundamental tensions remain between liberal critiques and China’s insistence on “win-win” cooperation with no political strings attached.131 Western analysts argue BRI’s lack of constraints enables China to wield undue influence.132 Chinese scholars reject this as reflection of outdated “zero-sum” thinking.133 Resolving such divergent perspectives will require sustained dialogues and confidence building. But BRI will likely continue fueling geopolitical competition given its expansive ambitions.

Impact of Xi Jinping’s Leadership

The foreign policy strategy and priorities outlined above have largely reflected consistent principles, interests and institutions despite leadership transitions. However, Xi Jinping’s influential tenure has shifted China towards a more assertive and nationalist strategy befitting its growing power.134 Xi has consolidated control over decision-making to a degree unprecedented since Mao.135 His bold vision of national revival drives policies to strengthen CCP rule and expand China’s global clout.136

Xi has taken a forward-leaning stance on sovereignty disputes like maritime claims in the East and South China Seas.137 He directed massive island building activities, declared an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea, and increased naval patrols around disputed territories.138 Xi also passed domestic laws codifying China’s claims and authorizing force to defend them.139 PLA modernization under Xi focuses on power projection and war-fighting capabilities over traditional land defense.140 These efforts to strengthen China’s military deterrence reflect Xi’s confidence that the balance of power has shifted in China’s favor.141

Abroad, Xi presents major power relations in increasingly competitive zero-sum terms.142 He tells foreign audiences that China will not accept violations of its core interests and urges respect for its growing role in global affairs.143 Xi couples this assertiveness with major investments in soft power projection through media outlets, Confucius Institutes and united front work aimed at overseas Chinese communities.144 The CCP also pressures foreign companies and governments over issues like Taiwan and Hong Kong seen as impinging on its sovereignty.145

Nonetheless, China’s external strategy under Xi remains pragmatic and nuanced overall.146 China continues partnering with the U.S. and others where interests converge on issues like climate change and global health while competing fiercely in other spheres.147 Xi’s centralization of power equips China to signal resolve through calibrated escalation. But it also facilitates course corrections to prevent overreach.148 Xi thus pursues national revival with audacity yet seeks stability to sustain China’s development above all.149 How China balances its growing ambitions with foreign concerns under increasingly authoritarian leadership will critically shape its foreign relations going forward.150


This examination of the key themes and priorities of contemporary Chinese foreign policy reveals certain continuities but also important evolution. Core interests in sovereignty, stability, development and domestic control remain consistent cornerstones guiding strategy. But China’s capabilities, influence and confidence have grown dramatically, facilitating more proactive policies. China’s rapid emergence as a major power has heightened both its ambitions and external perceptions of it as a threat. This makes managing ties with the U.S. and China’s Asian periphery vital yet increasingly fraught. Adroit statecraft is thus essential for Chinese leaders to pursue national revival prudently amidst these shifting dynamics. While China’s power seems destined to keep rising, its future foreign policy course depends profoundly on leadership wisdom in leveraging capabilities and relationships to avoid confrontation.


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SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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