The Game Changer

Coping With China's Foreign Policy Revolution

After decades of following Deng Xiaoping's dictum "Hide brightness, cherish obscurity," China's leaders have realized that maintaining economic growth and political stability on the home front will come not from keeping their heads low but rather from actively managing events outside China's borders. As a result, Beijing has launched a "go out" strategy designed to remake global norms and institutions. China is transforming the world as it transforms itself. Never mind notions of a responsible stakeholder; China has become a revolutionary power.

China's leaders have spent most of the country's recent history proclaiming a lack of interest in shaping global affairs. Their rhetoric has been distinctly supportive of the status quo: China helping the world by helping itself; China's peaceful rise; and China's win-win policy are but a few examples. Beijing has been a reluctant host for the six-party talks on North Korea, it has tried to avoid negotiations over Iran's potential as a nuclear power, and it has generally not concerned itself with others' military and political conflicts. China's impact on the rest of the world has, in many respects, been unintentional -- the result of revolutions within the country. As the Chinese people have changed how they live and how they manage their economy, they have had a profound impact on the rest of the world. China's position as the world's largest contributor to global climate change is not by design; it is the result of extraordinary economic growth and 1.3 billion people relying on fossil fuels for their energy needs.

Yet all this is about to change. China's leaders once tried to insulate themselves from greater engagement with the outside world; they now realize that fulfilling their domestic needs demands a more activist global strategy. Rhetorically promoting a "peaceful international environment" in which to grow their economy while free-riding on the tough diplomatic work of others is no longer enough. Ensuring their supply lines for natural resources requires not only a well-organized trade and development agenda but also an expansive military strategy. The Chinese no longer want to be passive recipients of information from the outside world; they want to shape that information for consumption at home and abroad. And as their economic might expands, they want not only to assume a greater stake in international organizations but also to remake the rules of the game.

Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to two free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to ForeignAffairs.com
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis