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HomeGeopolitical CompassEast AsiaStrongman Politics and China’s Foreign Policy Actors: Maritime Assertiveness Under Xi Jinping

Strongman Politics and China’s Foreign Policy Actors: Maritime Assertiveness Under Xi Jinping

Author: Kacie Miura

Affiliation: University of San Diego

Organization/Publisher: International Affairs

Date/Place: November 5, 2023/UK

Word Count: 9690



Keywords: USA, Liberalism Hegemonic Order, Multipolarity, Multiplexity, World Order, Interaction Capacity



With a specific focus on China’s maritime policy under Xi Jinping, this article attempts to highlight how strongman rule shapes the personal career incentives of key bureaucratic actors whose decisions and positions determine the foreign policy of autocratic regimes, particularly personalist ones. In other words, key bureaucratic actors attempt to advance their narrow agenda by going to great lengths to pursue the foreign policy goals of regime heads.

The article grounds the central argument rooted above in a trend identified in foreign policy analysis which suggests that foreign policy actors’ ability to interpret the directives of their leaders allows them to advance their own narrow personal agendas amidst a proliferation of foreign policy actors.

To that end, the article turns its attention to China’s Xi, particularly his maritime policies, where, in light of the article’s argument, the risky, aggressive behavior of China’s foreign policy hawks can go with no reproach, and might even be rewarded as they try to demonstrate their zealous loyalty to Xi’s nationalist policies and rhetoric, which are often vague. 

The article’s three main sections are as follows: The first breaks down how Xi amassed power with a focus on actualizing ideological conformity and cultivating loyalty, while the second section gives some insight into China’s maritime policies and how they shaped under Xi’s rule. Finally, the third section provides a number of case studies that illustrate how China’s maritime actors conduct Chinese foreign policy in the South China Sea, which constitutes a large aspect of the perceptions on China’s broader strategic intentions.

Before Xi, Post-Mao China’s foreign policy centered around meritocracy, pragmatism, and a ‘hide your strength, bide your time’ policy that was linked with Deng Xiaoping, Xi’s predecessor. However, Xi’s rise and consolidation of power was marked with what the article sees as an important ideological shift towards what has been dubbed as ‘wolf warrior diplomacy.’ While Deng’s policies rested on a rhetoric of preserving Chinese integrity, having a fighting spirit, and protecting China’s borders, Xi’s rhetoric was founded on two main pillars: firstly, a greater emphasis on nationalism and nationalist rhetoric; and secondly, a sweeping anti-corruption campaign that was used to ensure strong loyalty to Xi in a centralized, top-down hierarchy.

On the first pillar, the article highlights different nationalism-asserting statements by Xi, such as pushing for maintaining the four consciousness, with political awareness first. Another example is the ‘China Dream’ agenda that reflects an aspiration to revive a great Chinese nation-state. More tellingly, at the 2018 central conference on foreign affairs, Xi emphasized a more assertive foreign policy. Such assertive rhetoric with an emphasis on national rejuvenation, the article argues, creates a more favorable climate for hawkish foreign policy actors: “Under Hu Jintao, hawkish actors were often able to get away with assertive behavior because they operated in a political environment that was comparatively more decentralized and permissive.” In contrast, under Xi, foreign policy actors have reason to believe that not only will assertive actions be tolerated at the highest level, but that they are also likely to be considered politically correct. This rhetoric extends to the maritime sector, the focus of this article. For instance, in 2012, shortly after being named the CPC leader, Xi highlighted the “severe challenges” to China’s interests in the maritime domain, urging his soldiers to develop a fighting spirit. At the 19th national CPC congress in 2017, Xi again reiterated the importance of turning China into a “maritime great power.”

Under the guise of wide-ranging anti-corruption campaigns, meanwhile, Xi aimed to further his power through replacing rivals with trusted allies, as well as sending out warnings against failing to demonstrate loyalty and discipline. In that, Xi revived the policy of self-criticism from the Mao period, while actively warning against the four work styles of bureaucracy, hedonism, formalism, and extravagance. Those stricter policies have had a “chilling effect” on officials on all levels of the party, state, and military. That is to say that China’s foreign policy actors are aware that “the prospects of promotion are shaped by a combination of meritocratic considerations, particularly cadres’ competence in advancing their organization’s missions and objectives, as well as demonstrations of loyalty to the leader and the party.”

This also creates an interesting juxtaposition highlighted by the article. While Xi prioritizes a more assertive and aggressive foreign policy, he has not completely abandoned the need for soft measures that are required to reassure potential rivals. In this climate, people who are charged with promoting cooperation had to behave in a professional and diplomatic manner, rather than an aggressive and assertive way. Those cadres were needed to mitigate the risk of foreign policy actors with more hawkish preferences, who, as stated above, were better positioned to advance their own agenda in Xi’s China. 

The article then extrapolates those two major policies to China’s maritime sector. One aspect was an overhaul of China’s maritime forces, including the establishment of the China Coast Guard (CGG) in 2013 that unified four of the five maritime law enforcement agencies. Other significant changes include shifting the CCG to the People’s Armed Police (PAP), making it a fully militarized body, since the PAP is under the Xi-presided Central Military Commission. Moreover, the CCG was further militarized through a new 2021 law that authorized the agency to take “all necessary means” to defend China’s sovereignty, including firing at foreign vessels. Xi has also aimed to formalize the maritime militias, a group comprising fishermen and civilian personnel that serves as an auxiliary force to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Overall, those changes gave the military more direct control over operations and personnel decisions. The article also outlines some of the decisions made to discharge high-ranking officials in order to consolidate power.

The article suggests that those new policies have pushed key maritime actors into more assertive behavior, or “to jump on the Xi bandwagon” as Susan Shirk puts it. The article reiterates that such behavior is an attempt to conform with Xi’s nationalistic rhetoric, and to avoid any accusations of corruption. To highlight these tendencies, the article goes over three case studies. The first is the 2014 Haiyang Shiyou-981 standoff between China and Vietnam that took place near the disputed Paracel islands. The second case study is China’s broader land reclamation in seven contested features on the Spartly Islands, where the favorable climate was seen as a chance by the maritime actors to enhance both the wartime and peacetime status of those features and the overall reclamation of 3,200 acres of land. Finally are the numerous clashes that occurred between mid-2014 and 2020, numbering over 40 incidents involving foreign vessels in the South China Sea. 

Furthermore, the article highlights that some officials were promoted for their assertive maritime activities, with Wang Zhongcai being a prime example, as he was promoted to the position of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) naval commander of the Eastern Theatre Command. This promotion served as “a reminder to the maritime bureaucracy that assertive actions, even if they go awry, will not necessarily impede one’s career, and may even be rewarded.”

Through those cases, the article tried to show how exhibiting assertive behavior that is consistent with Xi’s nationalistic rhetoric is a useful way for actors to showcase their ‘politically correct’ behavior. In a broader sense, the article cautions against viewing all assertive behavior as based on strategic intentions, and rather argues to take into consideration the factor of the political environment within which foreign policy actors operate, as shown in China’s case. To that end, the article suggests that those findings can be useful in the study of other personalist regimes, which have been demonstrated to be prone to adopting risky behavior. In line with its reasoning, the article suggests that an environment that is favorable to hawkish behavior that appeals to the top leader adds to the adventurism and unpredictability of personalist regimes. 


By: Hamza Ghadban, CIGA Research Intern




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