What does China really want?

China's flag.

Content from the Brookings-Tsinghua Public Policy Center is now archived. Since October 1, 2020, Brookings has maintained a limited partnership with Tsinghua University School of Public Policy and Management that is intended to facilitate jointly organized dialogues, meetings, and/or events.

There are countries whose worldview and foreign policy are subject to dramatic swings reflecting the perspective of their changing leaders. Russia under Vladimir Putin is a prime example—he is personally a driving force behind much of his country’s strategy and approach, at home and abroad.

China today is a contrary case. Its foreign policy has undergone significant change in recent years, but the underlying strategy and directions in which it has gone are well grounded in its modern history and evolving national interests, not the whim of an erratic leader.

China’s priorities

To be sure, Xi Jinping is a decisive figure, both bold and innovative. Actions like creation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and island-building in the South China Sea reflect the temperament of a man not afraid to lead, for better or worse. In the light of such steps, observers outside China have wondered whether China is a revisionist power seeking to undermine the global system of norms in its own interest and whether Xi’s boldness will elide into aggressiveness.

Rather than seeing modern China as an example of the great man theory of history, it would be better to look at underlying trends and fundamentals. China’s spectacular economic growth in the last three and a half decades has expanded its capacity and influence. It is not surprising that a country with massive global trade and investment ties, as well as an emerging first-class military facilitated by its economic growth—neither of which existed a generation ago—thinks about its interests differently. A product of the major developments of post-1949 China—Maoism, the Cultural Revolution, exile to the countryside, the reforms of the Deng period, and the subsequent surge in economic strength—Xi embodies these achievements and contradictions, as do his policies.

Its priority remains economic development and domestic stability.

Notwithstanding its rapid rise toward major power status, China has generally not sought to undermine the global system. The country, based on interests and ideology, has long enjoyed a wary relationship with a global system that it did not create—and that ambivalence continues. But China is not behaving in a way designed to undermine the fundamental pillars of the global political, economic, and security system. Its priority remains economic development and domestic stability, neither of which is assured and neither of which would be aided by reckless adventurism abroad. Suggestions that China is seeking to expel the United States from the western Pacific and create an “Asia for Asians” are overblown. Its conduct in its own neighborhood, however, especially in maritime areas, has stoked understandable anxiety that it is not a status quo power in Asia.