Understanding China’s Approach to Foreign Policy

Book Review by Rasheed Griffith

For centuries China’s approach to foreign relations was grounded in the concept of 天下 (Tiānxià: “everything under the heavens”). Simply put, this concept took for granted that the Chinese civilization was the centre of the mortal world (hence the name for China in Chinese is 中国 (Zhōngguó: “the Central Kingdom/State”) and the Emperor had authority over everything under the heavens. China — or at least the political entity we now call China — did not have any urge or reason to go out to evangelize to (or colonize) other states. Instead it was expected that other state leaders would visit China to pay tribute to the Emperor; gaining the privilege of accessing Chinese markets. Although a lot has changed since the founding of the People’s Republic of China (解放后 — Jiěfàng hòu: “after liberation,” a phrase used to mark the period since the founding of the PRC) many deep aspects of Chinese political culture remain. If, as Niall Ferguson insists, history is to states as personality is to people, then we must understand the historical contexts of states in order to understand how policy is formed within. The two books I chose to highlight below take history seriously. I have not attempted to summarize the books but instead to highlight some interesting learnings from them and motivate their rigor. 

Haunted By Chaos: China’s Grand Strategy from Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping by Sulmaan Wasif Khan


 Geography is the starting point of Political Economy. This is especially pertinent in analysing China’s strategic interests. Having a land border with 14 unique nations, China has more neighbors than any other country. Unlike the USA with a docile neighbor to the North; an unthreatening neighbor to the South; and, in the words of Stephen Kotkin “fish to the East and West,” China has faced numerous chaotic periods as a result of its unfavorable contours. In Haunted By Chaos Khan meticulously — but never sluggishly — analyses the context to which the modern Chinese leaders formed their views of the world grounded in an understanding of the inherent insecurity of China’s geography and its historically persistent instability.

It is hard to talk about China rigorously because the place-we-call-China is a relatively new country. Mao understood that the “4000 year old Great China is a form not a reality”. In the 1920s, when Mao had his political awakening, believing in a Great China was practically unreasonable. Many of us in the West are ignorant to the turbulent times that birthed the Communist Party of China. Most of us have never heard of the warlord period of the early 20th century when China was run concurrently by separate internal powers. There was no single ‘China’ but rather a set of ‘smaller Chinas’.

Mao himself had his own small state within China. Khan shows that it is from this turbulence that the Party forms its view of state control under Mao. Indeed, China has a long history of breaking into pieces. Kaiser Kuo reminds us that the “warlord period takes its place along with other eras of division: The Spring and Autumn (771 to ~550 BC), the Warring States (403 to 221 BC), the collapse of the Han and the Three Kingdoms (c. 180 to 260 AD), the long Era of Division that lasted from the Three Kingdoms to the reunification of China under Sui in the late 6th century; and the Five Dynasties and 10 Kingdoms period between Tang and Song (907 to 960 AD)”. For anyone familiar with 三国演义 (‘The Romance of the Three Kingdoms’), one of the classical texts of Chinese literature, there is a famous line: “The Empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been.” Mao, and all leaders since, understood that China was a brittle entity. In their view it is the Communist Party of China’s job is to make sure China does not break.

Khan explains that the grand strategy thinking from Mao to Deng to Zemin to Jintao-Jiabao to Xi is more continuous than often portrayed, not a perfect continuity but akin to variations on the same geostrategic theme. One of the key continuities is that of the nature of modernization. Mao understood that to prevent a foreign power from conquering your territory you must have the economic ability to design robust national security measures of offensive deterrence. Mao was not only worried about invading forces from Western powers (as had occurred during the 百年国耻 “Century of Humiliation”). He was also concerned about Moscow’s possible deployment of the Brezhnev Doctrine on China. Accordingly, Mao’s Great Leap Forward was foremost a national security plan. But we know how that ended.

After Mao’s death and the ensuing power struggle Deng Xiaoping became the Paramount leader of the CPC (but never the Chairman or President). Deng also saw that modernization was foremost a geopolitical process. Deng insisted that the thrust of Mao’s thought was accurate but the Party needed to “seek truth from facts.” The facts were that market liberalization, and not collectivisation, was the route to economic growth. Although commonly attributed solely to Deng’s leadership, the “reform and opening up” period of China was ongoing from the tail end of Mao’s rule. Deng’s key contribution was his geopolitical repositioning of China towards the West.

As the title indicates, Khan’s analysis goes up to Xi Jinping. Chairman Xi Jinping’s father, Xi Zhongxun, was a former Politburo member serving alongside Mao; he was a former Vice-Premier of China under Zhou Enlai; and, a former member of the Red Army who survived the Long March. But even though Xi Zhongxun held such eminent positions he was purged from the Party in 1962 and relegated (along with his son) to an exceedingly rural area of China. Xi Zhongxun was eventually rehabilitated after the Cultural Revolution and went on to guide many of the liberalization reforms under Deng. 

In recent years Chairman Xi has been able to largely centralize power under his command. This is a somewhat reversal of the developments during the Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao-Wen Jiabao periods. It could be the case that Xi believes if central power becomes too distributed then that could cause instability because several people in the Party would want to assert dominance leading to power struggles that end badly. Khan argues that Xi is haunted by the experience of internal political turmoil in the wake of the Cultural Revolution. 

Another continuity that is often overlooked is that it was Jiang Zemin who ushered in a new adherence to the sublime object of ideology to unite China after the ordeal of 1989. Xi has continued and advanced this by adding the Thought of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era into the charter of the CPC. 

There is lots more that can be said on the themes of this deeply engaging book. Haunted by Chaos is necessary reading for any serious China watcher.

On China by Henry Kissinger


Chess is won when one side decisively dominantes the other. Victory is explicit. Weiqi (popularly referred to in the West by its Japanese name Go) — an even more ancient game with which all Chinese are familiar — is won by strategic encirclement of the opponent. Victory is not evident from a quick gander at the board. It is a protracted game of incremental advantages. Kissinger sets the stage for his analysis of the contrasting view of the American and Chinese visions of foreign policy by setting up this analogy. America plays geopolitics as Chess; China plays geopolitics as Weiqi. It is an enlightening analogy. 


A Weiqi board

We take the world dominance of the US economy for granted. But, as Kissinger reminds us, for 18 of the last 20 centuries, it was China which held the title of the world’s largest economy. In the tinderbox of geopolitical discourse these days there are furious debates about the “goals” of China’s recent foreign policies. Is China’s goal just 富强 (Fùqiáng: ‘prosperity and strength’) or something more? Although it is seldom acknowledged, China has already taken back the top spot (in terms of the real economy China is already around 1.6 times the size of the US). And never before in history has any government controlled as extensive economic resources as the current Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC), via the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission, the single largest economic entity in the world. Taking China’s history into consideration, Kissinger argues that the accurate intuition should be that China’s foreign policy is not based on domination, but on restoration, in the sense of a teleological order. Chairman Xi, in his 2017 report to the 19th National Congress, reflects this thinking: “Comrades, today, we are closer, more confident, and more capable than ever before of making the goal of national rejuvenation a reality”.

Published in 2011, On China has quickly become a default manual providing insights on how China conceptualizes its place in the world order and the implication of this for Sino-American great power politics. 

There are few intellectuals alive and writing in English that have had the depth of engagement with the China question as Henry Kissinger. During the height of the Cold War, as the National Security Advisor to President Nixon, Kissinger led a secret James Bond style diplomatic mission to China to work closely with Premier Zhou Enlai (whom Kissinger frequently describes as the most brilliant statesman he has ever encountered) to discuss the rapprochement of China and the US. This led to the meeting of President Nixon and Chairman Mao that resulted in the now famous Shanghai Communiqué of 1972; marking the birth of current Sino-American relations. 

On China is a must-read for anyone interested in the future of Sino-American foreign relations.

Prior to his current role as Head of Operations at a Data Science startup based in Toronto, Rasheed Griffith was a business strategy and compliance consultant at a boutique New York law firm primarily focused on FinTech startups based in Greater China. He has lived and worked in Southeast Asia, managing the compliance team at a FinTech  firm. Rasheed has a deep interest in the Geoeconomics of Sino-American relations and its impact on small very open economies.