Security Studies Program Seminar

Chinese Foreign Policy Debates

  Bonnie S. Glaser, Senior Associate,
Center for Strategic and International Studies

  March 8, 2006



I'm a practitioner, not an academician. I started in the 1980s doing work on U.S.-Soviet-Chinese relations, trying to understand through conversations in one country what their attitudes were toward the other, about the international environment, debates about threats and policies to pursue.

I've sought to understand two things. One is the process of foreign policy decision making in China, which was extremely opaque in the early 1980s, and remains relatively opaque today. I've tried to understand it from both the top down and the bottom up.

The other thing I do is try to understand the thinking that underpins Chinese foreign policy. One can understand potential shifts by looking at these debates. It is difficult to draw lines between individuals, institutions, and policies. But you can see how a consensus forms and become the basis for some future shift in foreign policy.

I've come to discuss 3 topics today, in varying levels of detail: debates on North Korea; debates on Japan; debates on peaceful rise.

Foreign Policy Debates and the Media

Debates on foreign policy issues occur frequently and are increasingly explicit in the media. Foreign policy debates have an increasingly public dimension. This is different from in the early 1980s. Central media remains largely controlled, especially on sensitive issues. Some aspects of a debate or entire debates remain internal. They are difficult to identify. Media may cover differing analyses of an issue, but exclude debate over implications for Chinese interests and policy. This is why it is important to look not only at documents, but also to conduct interviews. Debates may emanate from below—from scholars—or evolve in response to questions posed to research units by leadership. Debates may signal leadership openness to new ideas and leadership differences. Impact of debates on policy varies.

Examples of Debates, Past and Present

Following Gorbachev 1987 speech in Vladivostock, whether changes in Soviet foreign policy were tactical or strategic. There was no line yet in the media so people could say whatever they wanted to—the government had not drawn judgments yet. Most people thought this was just a superficial and tactical change in Soviet foreign policy, yet a minority considered that it signaled a possible strategic shift. Formulation of a consensus is very important before policy shifts in China .

•  Why the USSR collapsed and what lessons China should draw to avoid the same fate—debate in early 1990s.

•  The implications of a “normal” Japan and dangers of re-militarization.

•  Whether US power is on the rise or decline.

•  Is Sino-US conflict inevitable?

•  Whether the world is becoming multipolar and is this beneficial or harmful to China.

•  1999 debate over whether “peace and development” was dominant trend of the era.

•  The main tendency and future course of US relations with allies such as Japan and South Korea.

•  Whether China should seek to counter-balance US power and if so how? Soft balancing?

Important Debate #1: North Korea

North Korea 's intentions:

Is the DPRK using its nuclear weapons programs as a bargaining chip? Are there circumstances under which it would give up nuclear weapons? You can detect in the media and in interviews that there are people in China on both sides of the debate. But the majority believes that if the US were to offer more concrete rewards, DPRK would indeed give up its nuclear weapons.

China 's Role in facilitating resolution of this issue:

Should the issue be resolved bilaterally or multilaterally? China has continued to insist that it is an issue really just between DPRK and US. But there is a minority view that China should do more. Should China be a neutral mediator or a pro-active broker? But this stands in contrast to a long-standing, more conservative view that China should not stick its head out or take the lead. Should Beijing apply pressure on one or both sides? What kind of pressure? Sanctions? Unilaterally? The Chinese raise the issue of de-nuclearization of the peninsula in every conversation with the DPRK and claim that this is a form of pressure. Beijing has also tightened up enforcement of export controls.

Six Party Talks Impasse:

How should the impasse on the North Korean nuclear issue be understood? To what degree should blame be assigned to Pyongyang? To Washington? There is a vocal group that blames the US; The US wants to sustain regional tension so it can maintain its military presence and is really seeking regime change. Deep suspicion of US intentions toward North Korea persists, which means it will be difficult to win support for Bush administration policies.

Economic Reform in North Korea :

Implication of Kim Jong-Il's tour of southern China. Is North Korea serious about carrying out economic reforms? Past reforms carried out to revamp control over food distribution, not to make systemic change. What are the prospects for their success? Does economic reform pose the danger of instability? What could cause economic or political collapse of DPRK? This is a very sensitive debate and is rarely spoken or written about directly. Many Chinese research institutions predicted North Korean collapse in the mid- 1990s, but this has never been made public. They are more confident about North Korea's staying power today.

US Response:

Would the U.S. seek a military resolution to the nuclear crisis? Under what circumstances? This makes Beijing very nervous. How would DPRK react to strike on its nuclear facilities? What would China's obligations be in this situation, given that it has treaties with DPRK?

Nuclear Programs and Capabilities:

How much plutonium does DRPK have? Chinese weapons scientists have become more convinced in the last several years that DPRK has deliverable nuclear weapons. But this has not injected more urgency in the Chinese leadership. The question is still over what the US is going to do. Yet some debates persist among Chinese scientists regarding North Korea 's nuclear programs. Do they have high explosive capabilities? How many weapons, and how many kg of PU per weapon? How advanced is the uranium enrichment program? Assessments of North Korea 's nuclear capabilities begin with overall analysis of North Korea 's technology base. How advanced are North Korean delivery systems, what is the missile accuracy and range? What are the implications of a nuclear DPRK for Chinese national interests? Can China accept North Korea with a nuclear deterrent, but not as a declared nuclear power? With a successfully tested nuclear weapon? With deployed nuclear weapons? Debates over DPRK intentions. What is the likelihood and risk of Japanese and DPRK proliferation? The dangers that such proliferation would pose to Chinese security?


There is clearly a lack of consensus on most key issues regarding DRPK. This may reflect and contribute to the stalemate among decision makers. Debates reflect concern about stability in DPRK and worries about a possible shift to more coercive US policy that could destabilize North Korea.

Debate#2: Japan

The debate over the need for “new thinking” in Chinese policy toward Japan went public in 2002. There had been dissatisfaction with the policy, but the debate had been limited to the elite and was conducted internally. The “new thinking” advocates maintained that China's policy should not over emphasize history, stop focusing on Japanese shrine visits and textbooks. This debate really spilled out into the open. Many questions continue to be debated, but some positions, such as whether China-Japanese summits should be held even though Japan's Prime Minister visits the Yasukuni Shrine are no longer seen in the media. This debate was so widely reported in the media and conducted on the internet that it was probably sanctioned by authorities.

In the spring of 2005, following the anti-Japan protests, the propaganda department imposed greater control on what could be published about Japan. Domestic stability very important in China . No significant policy change took place. There was no consensus in leadership about what Hu Jintao should say to Koizumi about how to improve Sino-Japanese relations. Hu Jintao made a concerted effort to persuade Koizumi in late April 2005 and again in September to not visit the shrine But these were rebuffed. Hu Jintao lost face.

Debate #3: Peaceful Rise of China

This term emerged in late 2002 following a visit by Zheng Bijian (former CCP school VP) to US. He proposed to the Chinese leadership that a study be conducted of how China can peacefully rise, both for domestic and foreign purposes. This phrase was quickly adopted by Chinese leaders. Then in April 2004, the phrase was dropped at the leadership level, but remained part of academic discourse. It is unusual to see a new theory embraced and then so quickly rejected. But Politburo made a firm decision on this.

Criticisms of “Peaceful Rise”:

Some criticisms focused on the word “rise,” which in Chinese connotes something sudden; the term seemed like it would be threatening. But there was also a debate over the term “peaceful.” Belief that this term weakened deterrence of Taiwan independence—and this was a very sensitive moment because very pro-independent president advocating holding a referendum and then was re-elected in Taiwan in March. Others argued that US-China conflict is inevitable, so peaceful rise is impossible. Peace should not be pursued at the cost of rise. Rise should take place regardless.

Others said this discussion was simply premature, because China is not developed enough yet. Also criticized because it was contrary to Deng's expression about “biding one's time and hiding one's capabilities.” Incited nationalism at home.

PLA hated the term “peaceful rise” because they thought it would undermine support for military modernization.

Chinese foreign policy establishment did not like this either—should rely on effective policies, not slogan from some one outside of the foreign policy establishment. Even Jiang Zemin may have opposed it. The debate centered on terminology more than policy. Those who supported rise at any cost lost the debate. They kept the term peaceful and dropped the term rise.


New foreign policy concepts can be injected from outside the formal government bureaucracy. Scholars' views reflected positions voiced internally and may have influenced leadership. The domestic context of foreign policy decision making is more pluralized than in the past.

General conclusions

Foreign policy debates have increasingly public dimension. Think tank experts initiate foreign policy proposals, reflecting and contributing to internal debates. But we aren't sure about their true influence.

Chinese leaders remain highly conservative and risk averse. Demonstrated in all 3 examples.

Affecting change in Chinese foreign policy hampered by need for consensus.


Rapporteur: Caitlin Talmadge

back to Wednesday Seminar Series, Spring 2006