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March 30, 2021

Beijing’s Foreign Policy Priorities

China seeks to cement a multi-polar world order in which no other state can “interfere” with what it sees as “internal affairs.” Such a world would be incompatible with the EU’s values and political identity.

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Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang arrive for the closing session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China March 10, 2021.
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All foreign policies begin at home, but China’s is especially grounded in domestic priorities, chief amongst which is the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Beijing’s definition of “core interests” is flexible, but it essentially covers anything the CCP considers an existential threat, including the issue of Xinjiang and allegations of human rights abuses there. 

When this domestic priority meets the outside world, the first threat it encounters is a liberal democratic international order led by the United States. Before the dust from the Cold War had settled, Chinese strategists knew that a subordinate position within a unipolar, US-led world would not a be a viable long-term option for the People’s Republic of China. The NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, the US invasion of Iraq, and color revolutions of the 2000s successively reinforced Beijing’s perception of a predatory US hegemony.

Building a strong military, achieving technological supremacy , and strategic independence, creating new markets and value chains through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)—these goals are about stability and prosperity at home. But bound up in this guiding mission is the need to obtain the capacity to act beyond the horizon of US “interference.”

Challenging US Hegemony

The ability to act as a great power within its own neighborhood is the first step in challenging US hegemony, with Southeast Asia topping the list of Beijing’s geographical priorities. More important than any military strategy in the Asia-Pacific region is the goal of increasing the cost for Southeast Asian countries to balance against China by deepening economic interdependence.

Before it was applied globally, Xi Jinping’s “community of common destiny” first described relations with Southeast Asia. While the continental, Westward facing “New Silk Road” has captured the global imagination, Chinese investments under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Southeast Asia have been greater and have had far more impact. 

Despite hostile behavior over maritime boundary disputes in the region, Beijing also recognizes the need for genuinely “win-win” interactions with Southeast Asian neighbors. China’s signature to the ASEAN-centered Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) demonstrates Beijing’s ability to entertain a more cooperative path toward regional integration. 

“The Rising Rest” and Russia

An overlooked priority for Beijing in its struggle against US supremacy is to deepen the coalition of developing countries that look to China for leadership. China’s recent white paper on international development cooperation reads as the crowning statement of Beijing’s ambition to lead the “rising rest” in opposition to the West, principally through the still ambiguous BRI. As China experiments with strategic independence from the US, these countries, what was called the “third world” during the cold war, will become even more important to Beijing.

China’s unofficial alliance with Russia is another priority. Boris Yeltsin and Jiang Zemin lay the foundation of the 21st century Sino-Russian relationship in 1997 with the “Joint Declaration on a Multipolar World.” Over two decades later, Moscow and Beijing are fighting the same common cause against US unipolarity, albeit more vocally, with a call to end US dollar and tech supremacy.

Beijing’s Understanding of Europe 

Somewhere on Beijing’s list of priorities—probably not as high up as officials in Brussels would hope—comes Europe. Beijing wants to encourage the EU’s “strategic autonomy,” but does not have much faith in Brussels’ geopolitical ambitions.

Beijing’s hopes for the EU are for it to be a lucrative market and reasonably compliant pole in its envisaged “multipolar” world order. Meaningful transatlantic cooperation on containing China’s rise is the situation Beijing seeks to avoid.

From this perspective—with Europe a swing state in US-China competition—Beijing’s harsh rhetoric and unprecedented recent counter-sanctions against European researchers look like a strategic blunder. 

But Chinese sanctions against the US and its allies are intended to send a clear message that Beijing has also articulated in plain English: “The era of interfering in China’s internal affairs is… gone forever.” To the glee of Chinese netizens, China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, struck a similar tone at the Anchorage talks in March, launching a 17 minute diatribe against the US after his counterparts mentioned Xinjiang.

The “decline of the West, rise of the rest” narrative has taken root throughout much of the world, but it is accepted as a historical fact in Beijing. COVID-19 responses and what Xi Jinping describes as the “clear contrast” between “Western chaos” and “Chinese order” have cemented the perception that China’s time has come. Officials may not believe that victory is inevitable, but they have become beholden to domestic expectations and to fulfilling their own prophecy.

Beijing’s response is also predicated on an assumption of European weakness. The EU is an important trade partner, a lucrative market, but in Beijing’s calculus it is a geopolitical dwarf, a twilight entity that does not function as a unified foreign policy actor.

A Warning Shot

Left deliberately abstract, the recent Chinese sanctions were a scattergun warning shot to US allies that “core interests” are off the table. Beijing wants a “multipolar” world in which the US and lesser actors do not—cannot—interfere with what are seen as China’s internal affairs. 

Washington considers this vision an existential threat and Biden has vowed to keep China down. Beijing knows that Biden’s coalition building approach is the West’s best bet at containing China and it is looking to increase the cost of opposition for US allies. Despite the current outpouring of support for sanctioned Europeans, Beijing knows that corporate interests in Europe respond well to loud scary noises and it is counting on a tradition of incoherent European foreign policy.

Brussels should recognize that the world Beijing wishes to create is one in which disapproval of heinous human rights abuses in another country is a violation of—rather than adherence to—international norms. This is incompatible with the EU’s values and current political identity.

In an ideal world, Europeans would come together to leverage Europe’s significant strengths. They’d empower High Representative Josep Borrell to act on good ideas about Europe’s potential and forge an Indo-Pacific strategy that actually matters.

With luck, Beijing’s hostility will provide the impetus needed to create a coherent EU foreign policy, but the Europeans should also be clear-eyed about their weaknesses. Strategic autonomy should be the goal, but for now there is no choice but to work closely with allies that subscribe to the same values.

Jacob Mardell is an analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS), which was sanctioned by the Chinese Foreign Ministry in March. Having previously traveled along the "New Silk Road," he presently focuses on China’s regional policy in Asia as well as its global infrastructure foreign policy.

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