The Toilet Paper

What does China’s foreign policy really look like?

In its foreign policy messages China claims that it all it wants is peaceful cooperation with other nations. Is it speaking the truth?

Someone shine’s a light on China’s flag
Today we’re going to shina light on China’s foreign policy rhetoric

The phrase “Work to build a community with a shared future for mankind” has been the guiding slogan for Chinese foreign policy for several years now.

What does this tell us about China, a country that in the past two decades has grown from a regional power into a global power that competes with the United States and Europe? Will China use its influence to pursue the common good as it has promised? Or will it behave more like other major powers in history, by dominating and controlling weaker states?

This article discusses China’s strategic motives behind its foreign policy message, and how it uses the themes in that message to justify its actions to the relevant target audiences of its message.

Egalitarian hierarchies


China’s foreign policy that it aims to build a community with a shared future didn’t appear out of thin air.

As far back as the Han Dynasty (202 BCE–220 CE), the expansion of the Han (Chinese) people across the territory of what is now China, was accompanied by the promotion of Confucianism as the most advanced ethical system. “Inferior peoples” could be become civilised by learning to accept Chinese values.

In the early years of the People’s Republic (1950s) Beijing’s foreign policy was largely egalitarian, . At the same time, China also clearly promoted some kind of hierarchy, as it regularly portrayed itself as the leader of “real” socialism and rhetorically supported pro-China movements all over the world. Regardless, the principles of equality of mutual cooperation remained core components of China’s foreign policy message, even after the Cold War had ended.

When then-Vice President Xi Jinping proposed in 2012, few nations were surprised; the message was largely the same as before – the only difference is that its message has become more assertive and complex, as now it has to explain China’s policies to a greater number of distinct foreign audiences as well as its own population at home.

As China gained more power while that of the US declined, the idea of a coordinated world order became increasingly more attractive to Beijing: Xi Jinping, who by March 2013 had become president of the People’s Republic, began to argue that “countries should promote a new type of international relations with cooperation and win-win at the core”. It wasn’t until 2017 that he used the phrase “Work together to build a community of shared future for mankind” in its entirety for the first time, during a speech at the United Nations General Assembly.

Layers of meaning


The concept of a community of shared future contains several layers of complex and sometimes contradictory meanings:

  • China’s foreign policy differs drastically from American foreign policy, in the sense that it makes the claim that it won’t unilaterally invade or sanction other countries, nor will it try to act like a world police (or bully).

  • Although China is often accused by the US of seeking to undermine the liberal international order, China sees itself as a defender of an international order; one with the United Nations and other international institutions at its core, equal sovereignty, trade, non-interference in internal affairs of others and extensive international cooperation.

  • The concept of a community of shared future seeks to position China as one among many developing countries, but also as a world leader that exerts influence over other states and the international system – not to serve its own interests by harming others, but to assist other countries in realising their own interests. This community of shared future is thus both egalitarian and hierarchical.

  • To lend credibility to the idea that China will not use its growing power selfishly, Chinese diplomats argue that altruistic use of power is rooted in Chinese culture. It’s all a bit doubtful, especially when one considers that Confucianism is highly hierarchical and traditional strategic culture favoured the use of force to bend rivals to one’s will.

  • Finally, China does not promote its Confucian values for adoption by other countries. Instead, it considers all civilisations, each with its own strengths and shortcomings, as equal in terms of value. This idea that all cultures must be respected was a creation of western liberalism after World War II, and adopted only as a way to defend itself against foreign criticism of its human rights record.

Niche discourses


China's diplomatic rhetoric also includes three niche narratives targeted at special audiences:

  • First, it tries to sell an idea of an ethnic and cultural “Chineseness” that transcends national citizenship to an estimated 60 million ethnic Chinese living outside China. Only together with them can the Chinese Dream come true, or so the narrative goes.

    Engaging the diaspora to support Chinese diplomacy has generated suspicion in other countries, mainly in Southeast Asia, where governments worry about the fifth-column potential of Chinese minorities within their borders. Given that China has treated foreign citizens with Chinese ancestry as if they are still subject to its rule, these worries are probably justified.

  • Socialist themes are downplayed in most of China’s international diplomacy, in order to serve Beijing’s integration into the global arena. China only mentions its commitment to socialism in communications with countries that still identify as Marxist (Cuba, Vietnam, Laos, and North Korea). However, this is mostly just lip service, as it doesn’t actually do much beyond mentioning shared socialist values.

  • China is often criticised for its human rights record, despite its claims that it supports human rights. According to China, it does so in a way that respects cultural differences and state sovereignty – unlike the United States which uses human rights to impose its preferences on others.

Spreading the message


Xi's international message is promoted by domestic media, which show citizens how well the country is doing on the global stage. China also regularly promotes its ideas to other countries.

Reception to China’s message has been largely mixed. On one hand, it finds a welcome among a large number of countries that share China’s interest in constraining the arbitrary international exercise of US power. At the same time, China has few allies with a common ideology or cultural identity. Consequently, cooperation with China is mostly driven by utilitarian calculations. Investments are welcomed by governments that expect to benefit politically from collaborating with China – although rarely without pushback from the general public.

Resistance against China’s message is highest in advanced industrial countries and western democracies where China is seen more and more as a competitor, and as a strategic and political rival.

China’s rhetoric for cooperation is largely seen as a cover, as its actions do not match with its messages: the country appears to be leading low-income countries into a debt trap and setting up military installation throughout the world that allow it to project power. Moreover, China settles territorial disputes not through mutual respect and negotiation, but through force. It does so while rejecting rulings of the Permanent Court of Arbitration, an important part of the international system which China claims to respect and defend.

All in all, what does China’s foreign policy tell us? Only time will tell what China’s ultimate goals are, but at the moment it’s very likely that China will behave just like all the major powers before it: as a bully.


  1. China claims that it strives for a new international order based on win-win cooperation and mutual respect

  2. In practice, its foreign policy rhetoric is largely used to justify its actions, with varying degrees of success

  3. It makes sense to be sceptical of the sincerity of China’s foreign policy message (or that of any other major power)