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China's Two-Track Foreign Policy - From Ambiguous to Clear-Cut Positions

Asie.Visions 58, décembre 2012


This analysis examines the current ambiguities, priorities and approaches of Chinese foreign policy from a practitioner’s perspective, taking into account experiences of Beijing-based diplomats (interviews conducted in 2011 and 2012), in addition to recent Chinese foreign policy positions and official communications.
It leads to the following conclusions:

- The Chinese position on many foreign policy issues (climate change, nuclear proliferation, etc.) is hard to identify, even by practitioners in regular contact with Chinese diplomacy.

- If ambiguity remains, it is not only because of strategic opacity; on a majority of issues, China has not clearly decided on a position.

- Depending on the issue at stake, China adopts different foreign policy approaches. Two main approaches can be identified: when “core interests” are involved, China has a clear position and may adopt a more proactive foreign policy if needed. For other interests, the Chinese position is often undecided, and remains flexible depending on situational changes. In these cases, China adopts a passive foreign policy approach.

- Rhythm and relationship to time also differs according to this divide: China’s diplomacy tends to be much more anticipative and its decision-making process faster and more streamlined when dealing with “core interests” than with other interests.

- Lately, China’s definition of “core interests” is enlarging (inclusion of South China sea, of economic interests in general terms, etc.). This certainly reflects a reorientation of China’s foreign policy, but not a turning point.

- China’s foreign policy is likely to remain based on these two different approaches in the short and medium run, for several reasons: it is in China’s interest; domestic and international pressures for a more proactive strategy are limited; current foreign policy institutional mechanisms as well as the absence of clear-cut ideological foundations prevent the emergence of a more consistent strategy and; above all, the central government’s top priority remains domestic stability.

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