China's Post-Deng Foreign Relations [Deng Xiaoping]

By Roy, Denny | International Journal, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

China's Post-Deng Foreign Relations [Deng Xiaoping]

Roy, Denny, International Journal

The impact of Deng Xiaoping's leadership on Chinas foreign relations was as great as on its domestic politics. The exit of a ruler of Deng's stature potentially clears the way for the kinds of momentous changes that occurred in Chinese foreign policy after Deng succeeded Mao Zedong to the paramount leadership. But such fundamental change has not occurred in the immediate wake of Deng's death in February 1997. While Jiang Zemin's need to consolidate his position may exacerbate tensions on certain issues between China and some foreign powers, particularly the United States, the long-term trends in Chinas foreign relations are generally unaffected by the leadership transition. Even in maintaining its present course, however, post-Deng China will likely arrive at crossroads which have significant and uncertain consequences for its foreign relations, and indeed for peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region.

It is useful at the outset to identify some of the important elements of Chinas foreign relations that have changed with Deng's passing and equally useful to point up those which have not.

Changes and Continuities

To be sure, Deng's death changes the environment of foreign policy making in the People's Republic of China (PRC). The era of ultra-paramount leaders such as Mao and Deng appears to be over. With Deng's

This article was written when the author was a Research Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University, Canberra. efforts to systematize and decentralize the leadership structure and with the evolution of the Chinese Communist party (CCP) from a revolutionary to a conservative, managerial party, major foreign policy decisions are now the result of consensus-building among several top- ranking officials.

To oversimplify, PRC elites may be divided into two camps: conservatives and moderates. The conservatives favour limited and gradual economic liberalization. They believe reforming the Chinese economy too rapidly and allowing foreign economic interests to penetrate too deeply could cause unacceptable damage to the PRC's sociopolitical system and 'spiritual civilization.' They are also highly sensitive to what may be perceived as infringements upon Chinese 'sovereignty' and do not think such infringements should be overlooked out of fear of offending Chinas foreign trading partners. In contrast, moderate Chinese elites favour relatively swift and broad economic reforms because they believe that only fundamental changes will allow China to bridge the gulf with the developed countries and that the benefits of rapid growth are widespread enough to enable the country to endure some temporary pain and dislocation while laying the groundwork for higher overall living standards for the next generation. Moderates are also more inclined to accept political compromises with powerful countries such as the United States for the sake of harmonious relations and of Chinas economic development. Because Deng was a moderate and a powerful bulwark against a policy driven by hyper-nationalism, his death does not bode well for the important Sino-United States relationship. While Jiang is in many respects a protege of Deng, he does not yet appear to have a political vision or agenda of his own. Instead, he acts rather as a broker among other powerful groups and factions. He may be less committed to Deng's philosophy and less able than Deng to bend the system to his will. Through 1997, however, Deng's moderate agenda was still on track. Jiang and the president of the United States, Bill Clinton, met in Washington on 29 October to patch up their recently strained relations, and the CCP announced further market-oriented economic reforms during the 15th party congress in September.

Although he carries the titles of president of the PRC, chairman of the Central Military Commission, and general secretary of the CCP Central Committee, Jiang does not command the authority of his predecessor. …

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