Chinese President Xi Jinping last November delivered a keynote address to a Central Foreign Affairs Work Conference (CFAWC) of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the first to be held under his stewardship as China’s top leader. Attending the meeting were all six of Xi’s Politburo Standing Committee colleagues, the rest of the full Politburo, China’s leading foreign policy practitioners, and hundreds of other officials from China’s provincial-level administrations, the military, state-owned enterprises, and the state bureaucracy. CFAWC’s are exceedingly rare, and offer a highly authoritative platform for the sitting CCP ruler to sketch the broad outlines of his foreign policy vision. In his speech, Xi laid out a sweeping policy agenda, suggesting that, despite the many domestic challenges he and his colleagues are facing at home, a proactive, balanced, and, where necessary, muscular foreign policy approach is likely to be a hallmark of Xi’s rule.
As a self-proclaimed acolyte of deceased paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, it is somewhat ironic that a major takeaway from Xi’s speech is the notion that its content seems to move China more rapidly away from Deng’s longstanding injunction for the country to maintain a low profile internationally. Xi made several comments in the speech that made this quite clear. He argued, for example, that China’s biggest opportunity lies in the determined leveraging and further development of its strength and influence internationally. He also said that “China should develop a distinctive diplomatic approach befitting its role [as] a major country.” So, in effect, Xi told his audience that China already is a great power, and should start acting like one.
Against this backdrop, the Chinese military’s more active, seemingly better coordinated participation in regional multilateral military exercises can be viewed as a key link in Xi’s overall foreign policy agenda. To be clear, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been expanding its engagement in regional military affairs for some time, and its efforts to enlarge its regional military diplomatic footprint certainly predate Xi’s arrival as China’s top leader. But, while increasing in raw numbers, these initiatives largely were ad hoc in nature and reflected a cautious testing of the waters rather than an integrated and confident approach to military statecraft.
By contrast, since arriving on the scene, Xi has seemed to put far more energy—and been willing to expend the corresponding political capital—than his predecessors into ensuring that China’s military activities abroad are in line and keep pace with its overall foreign economic and diplomatic strategy. The most obvious example of Xi’s imprint on China’s military diplomacy is the steady improvement in ties between the PLA and the United States military since Xi took the helm as China’s commander-in-chief. The warming in U.S.-China defense ties has, in turn, helped facilitate China’s more robust participation in multilateral military exercises by signaling regional players that neither China nor the United States expects them to make a choice between the world’s two most influential powers when it comes to building military cooperation and capacity in East Asia.
There is little doubt that more focused initiative on China’s part coupled with a more welcoming environment for its engagement in multilateral military activity is bearing fruit. In just the last year, the PLA has participated in an expanding range of military fora, and these have included many firsts for the Chinese. The PLA’s inclusion in the U.S.-led Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC) last July, for example, marked its inaugural foray as a non-observer in the world’s largest international maritime exercise. Among other ongoing bilateral and multilateral military exercises in the Asia Pacific, China and Malaysia held their first joint-military exercise in late 2014, and China and ASEAN signed their first humanitarian and disaster relief (HADR) cooperation agreement in that same timeframe. China joined U.S.-Australia military drills for the first time in October 2014, and, most recently, the PLA took part in February’s Cobra Gold maneuvers, the largest multilateral military exercise in the Asia Pacific that began as a bilateral U.S.-Thailand drill in the 1980s.
These trends dovetail neatly with Xi’s emphasis in his CFAWC speech on more focused, and more adept, regional diplomacy. Xi made repeated references in his comments to the need for Beijing to adopt “win-win” strategies in its approach to its neighbors, and he suggested several new elements to be added to the country’s diplomatic toolkit—such as specific references to systematically developing Chinese soft power—to achieve that aim. China’s greater interest in HADR activities clearly aligns with this priority. In fact, if increased involvement in regional disaster relief drills corresponds to increased responsiveness, China’s role in Asia’s next natural disaster will bear little semblance to its response to the horrific 2004 Asian tsunami. Unlike a decade ago when China lacked the capacity to respond effectively and in a timely fashion and was concerned how a substantial PLA deployment—even as part of a rescue mission—would be perceived in the region, China now views HADR as a critical component of its claims to be following a “good neighbor” policy that attests to China’s “peaceful rise.”
Despite China’s growing track record of success in increasing the effectiveness of its military diplomacy, however, its rigid adherence to strict definitions of its territorial sovereignty in its maritime disputes with many of its neighbors risks putting hard constraints on the credibility of its message of “win-win” outcomes for the region as Beijing’s influence and ability to project power continue to rise. China’s initially stingy donation to relief efforts in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan struck in 2013 and its refusal to participate in the Japan-led humanitarian RIMPAC exercise suggest that it still is struggling to resolve the seeming contradictions between its presumably genuine commitment to its peaceful rise and its uncompromising commitment to its sovereignty claims. Unfortunately, Xi’s CFAWC speech provides no clear pathway for addressing this conundrum. Perhaps China’s deepening engagement in regional military maneuvers can play a role in helping square that circle as it becomes more confident in its standing as a welcome player in such efforts to strengthen regional capacity to address future collective security challenges in the Asia Pacific.