Foreign policy decisions are driven by a number of motivating factors, both domestic and external. For policymakers in the People’s Republic of China, however, domestic concerns have primacy when developing foreign policy. In order to stave off popular dissent about the Communist Party’s monopolization of political power, Chinese leaders realize they must continue to produce positive economic results. This is reflected in China’s foreign policy through its attempts to build deeper economic relationships and maintain a stable, cooperative international environment. They also use China’s rise to hegemony as a narrative to galvanize popular support. Additionally, China’s foreign policy principles of non-interference and respect for others’ territorial integrity are motivated by its desire to have other countries ignore or at least tolerate its own human rights abuses and territorial occupations.
For many in China, it doesn’t matter that their country is a single-party socialist state with limited levels of political participation and discourse. What matters is that they continue seeing economic growth which brings tangible benefit to their daily lives. China’s rapid and unparalleled economic growth has brought enormous improvements in its citizens standards of living. Indeed, the Communist Party has managed to propel millions of its citizens out of poverty and into the middle class. Popular support is now built around the government’s ability to produce results. China’s leadership recognizes this, and likely understands the ramifications of economic stagnation. Its citizens apathy towards their political marginalization is a result of economic prosperity, but should that prosperity end, it is likely that the apathy will as well. In order to stave off calls for political reform and popular dissent, Chinese policymakers turn to whatever option is available to keep China’s economy growing.
With this in mind, China’s foreign policy has been focused on developing deeper economic and bilateral relations with other countries and ensuring the international environment remains stable and conducive to further Chinese growth. Though China has become increasingly assertive and occasionally aggressive in its foreign policy maneuverings, it still shies away from conflicts or confrontations which might destabilize its economic relationships. It’s “non-judgement” policy is not just a manifestation of its rhetorical principles of “peaceful coexistence,” it is an economic calculation. For the Chinese, it matters not whether a country is a dictatorship or a democracy, so long as that country is willing to trade and help further develop China’s economy.
Chinese policymakers also recognize that the days of using anti-imperialist rhetoric or a cult of personality to mobilize the masses and galvanize support for the regime are ending. Instead, they have increasingly looked towards China’s rise to a position of hegemony and dominance as a tool to win popular support. As it begins to play a much more dominant regional and global role, China can finally be seen as emerging out of its era of “national humiliation,” an era which devastated the Chinese psyche. China’s communist leaders legitimize and justify their continued rule by stirring up nationalist sentiments and pointing out that it was they who brought China out of the humiliation. China’s assertive foreign policy and quest for hegemony is thus yet another means to deflect criticism about the nature its regime.
Two parts of China’s principles of “peaceful coexistence” are non-interference in the sovereign affairs of other countries and respect for their territorial integrity. Far from being just rhetorical tools to lessen other countries’ suspicions of China’s rise, these principles are motivated heavily by internal concerns. China has its own record of human rights abuses and violations, and is known to heavy-handedly quash dissent. It also occupies and lays claim to territories with separatist groups and sentiments, such as Tibet and Xinjiang. China has therefore made the foreign policy promise of playing nice and keeping its hands out of other countries’ affairs, but in return expects other countries to do the same towards it. The Chinese regime would be all the more happy, and secure, if its issues in separatist regions and human rights abuses went unnoticed or un-criticized.