The Political Report rarely presages dramatic breaks in the country’s foreign relations. It can, however, help clarify signals and noise from past foreign policy behavior by giving clues about which underlying trends in Chinese foreign policy matter most and will endure into the future.
Compared to the previous Political Report his predecessor, Hu Jintao, delivered in 2012, Xi’s speech offered a subtle but significant shift, particularly in these three areas:
1. China’s great power plans for “National Rejuvenation”
Chinese leaders have long bemoaned their country’s “Century of Humiliation,” which spans from China’s 1839 defeat in the Opium Wars to the birth of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Xi promised to achieve the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” and restore China to its rightful great power status by 2049 — the centennial of the PRC’s founding.
Xi’s Political Report included the phrase “great rejuvenation” 27 times — compared with just seven mentions in Hu’s 2012 speech. Xi also used more specific language, offering a multistage plan to achieve rejuvenation across three time periods: 2020, 2035 and 2050. For example, within the military realm, he proposed that China’s army would complete mechanization by 2020, modernization by 2035 and would evolve into “a world-class army by 2050.”
Xi’s rhetoric implies that China will not maintain the low global profile that its last great leader, Deng Xiaoping, had urged. Indeed, Xi’s speech announced China’s renewed focus on “global combat capabilities” and declared a new “era that will see China move closer to the center of the world” stage.
Accordingly, Xi’s speech was marked by triumphalism and a focus on China as a “strong country” or “great power.” These phrases appeared 30 times in Xi’s speech, far more frequently than in Hu’s speech (roughly 20).
China’s renewed confidence flows partly from its perception of American power. Chinese writers focus inordinately on “multipolarity” — a phrase that generally refers to a world of multiple great powers, but for Chinese writers is a euphemism for U.S. decline. Although Hu’s report saw multipolarity “deepening,” Xi’s report more optimistically announced that it was “rapidly accelerating,” an assessment likely to encourage China to confidently pursue its interests.
2. China’s emergence as a global governance leader
In recent years, Beijing has demonstrated growing interest in global governance — the use of global institutions to solve transnational problems. This interest has bumped up in the wake of the election of Donald Trump, as reflected in Xi’s Davos address this year, when he criticized protectionism.
Xi’s Political Report suggests global governance will be a Chinese priority at the highest levels of central power. He vowed that China would “always be a defender of international order,” that it “supports the multilateral trading system,” and that it will “promote economic globalization” — language that was unnecessary in Hu’s speech.
Climate change is clearly an emerging policy priority. While Hu had suggested in 2012 that China would “actively respond” to climate change, Xi boldly declared that China was in the “driving seat” for efforts to combat the effects of climate change.
Behind China’s turn to global governance lies emerging concern over America’s turn away from it, which Xi noted has produced “instability and uncertainty.” U.S. threats to undermine the WTO and withdraw from the Paris climate accord have thrown the global order into “a period of big developments, big changes, and big challenges.”
In an implicit swipe at Washington, Xi used strong language, declaring that “no country can respond to the challenges of mankind alone” and that “no country can return to a self-enclosed island.”
Breaking from past policy, Xi argued that China’s system “offers a new option for other countries and nations who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence.” Xi’s language suggests China might actively promote its political model worldwide, which would be an intriguing (though still unlikely) development.
3. Continued regional assertiveness
In language far stronger than Hu’s, Xi boldly declared that China “is resolved to never give up its own legitimate rights and interests” and would never “swallow the bitter fruit of damage to its own interests.”
Xi dutifully included the usual bromides promising that China would never pursue expansionism or hegemony. Even so, his speech will likely rattle neighboring countries whose interests sometimes clash with Beijing’s.
For example, Xi doubled down on China’s provocative behavior in the South China Sea. Echoing the party propaganda that preceded the conference, Xi counted “South China Sea reef and island construction” among his top accomplishments and boasted of his “successful prosecution of maritime rights.” In contrast, Hu’s speech did not explicitly mention the South China Sea.
Xi’s signature foreign initiative is the “Belt and Road” program that unites Eurasia through Chinese infrastructure projects and land/sea trade routes. He listed the program among his achievements and committed to promoting its expansion. Interestingly, China’s Shanghai Cooperation Organization was mentioned in Hu’s report, but not in Xi’s, perhaps downgraded after India’s admittance.
Much of Xi’s Political Report talked about familiar goals and priorities. The departures from Hu’s report, coupled with the elevation of Xi as China’s unquestioned policymaker for the foreseeable future, suggests we may see a China more focused on great power status, more active in global governance, more triumphant about its political model and more assertive throughout Asia.
Editor’s note: An earlier version had a copyediting error for the dates of the Century of Humiliation.
Rush Doshi is a PhD candidate at Harvard University and a pre-doctoral fellow at George Washington University’s Institute for Security and Conflict Studies.