In This Article China's Foreign Policy

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • History of Foreign Policy in the People’s Republic of China
  • Theories of Chinese Foreign Policy
  • Foreign and Security Policymaking
  • The People’s Liberation Army and Foreign Policy
  • The Domestic–Foreign Policy Nexus
  • The New Diplomacy
  • China’s Soft Power
  • US-China Relations
  • Relations with Other Major Powers
  • China and Global Governance

International Relations China's Foreign Policy
Zhiqun Zhu
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0025


Since the late 20th century, China has been transforming itself from an isolated and backward agrarian society into a modern economic superpower with global interests and responsibilities. To adjust to changing international and domestic conditions, Chinese foreign policy has become more active, pragmatic, and flexible. With the continued growth of its economy, China is expected to widen and deepen its global search for energy and other resources and to expand its political clout. China is vigorously projecting soft power and presenting a peaceful image abroad by promoting cultural, educational, sports, tourism, and other exchanges at the societal level. There is good reason to believe that China’s reemergence to great-power status will continue to be peaceful, as it serves China’s fundamental interests. However, China will be a half-baked “responsible stakeholder” in the 21st century world if it does not help tackle international problems, such as climate change, and “difficult countries,” such as Sudan, Zimbabwe, Syria, and North Korea. Relations with these countries, together with Beijing’s policies toward Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang, will be a litmus test of China’s new role in the early 21st century. China remains a vulnerable nation surrounded by powerful rivals and potential foes. Understanding China’s foreign policy means fully appreciating these geostrategic challenges, which persist even as the country gains increasing influence around the world. Although its foreign policy has become more sophisticated, China is still learning to be a peaceful, responsible, and respectable great power in the ever-changing world. Indeed, there is much to learn. In addition to traditional diplomatic challenges, China also needs to give more attention to the danger of nontraditional security threats, such as infectious diseases, economic crises, terrorism, drug trafficking, cyber hacking, piracy, transnational crime, and environmental degradation. China will need to cooperate further with other countries and international institutions to deal with these challenges in its foreign relations.

General Overviews

This article first provides an overview and history of China’s foreign relations; it then addresses a few important aspects of the foreign policy of the People’s Republic of China (PRC): foreign policy theories, foreign and security policymaking, the role of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), domestic–foreign policy nexus, soft power, new diplomacy, US-China relations, relations with other major powers, China and Africa, China in other developing areas, and China’s role in global governance. China follows an independent foreign policy and does not form political or military alliances with other countries. To understand China’s foreign policy in the early 21st century, one has to know of the so-called century of humiliation in Chinese history—the roughly one-hundred-year period, from 1839 to 1949, during which China was humiliated by and suffered from Western and Japanese domination. The century of humiliation has a profound impact on China’s foreign relations. The PRC still considers itself a country whose historical greatness was eclipsed by Western and Japanese imperialist aggressions. The Chinese public is constantly reminded that only the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was able to “save China” and end the century of humiliation. Knowing this history helps one understand why the Chinese are obsessed with issues of sovereignty, national unification, and territorial integrity in its foreign relations. As China becomes more powerful, nationalism will continue to grow when foreign countries, especially those former invaders and colonizers, are perceived to be encroaching on China’s sovereignty, such as supporting independence for Taiwan or Tibet. No matter how its foreign policies may change, China considers such “core interests” to be inviolable. To have a general understanding of Chinese foreign policy, one needs to study its objectives, guiding principles, and strategies. The following books offer excellent overviews of Chinese foreign policy—its changes and continuities since 1949 as well as more recent issues and challenges. Lanteigne 2013 serves as a great introductory text on Chinese foreign policy. Rozman 2012 and Kornberg and Faust 2005 focus on the various actors and issues. Sutter 2012 and Wang 2012 highlight international and domestic constraints, whereas Hao, et al. 2009 and Johnston and Ross 2006 underline new challenges and directions in Chinese foreign relations. Zhongguo Waijiao (China’s Foreign Affairs) has presented the official Chinese version of major issues in China’s foreign affairs every year since 1987. The website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China (zhonghua renmin gongheguo waijiaobu wangzhan “ziliao” lan) is a rich source of useful information on the PRC’s foreign relations and foreign policy.

  • Hao, Yufan, C. X. George Wei, and Lowell Dittmer, eds. Challenges to Chinese Foreign Policy: Diplomacy, Globalization, and the Next World Power. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2009.

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    The contributors ask a few important questions: Will China go against the existing international norms, rules, and institutions? Or, is China a status quo power? The contributors argue that the challenges in Chinese foreign policy remain daunting and that some of them come from within. Interesting perspectives of Chinese scholars.

  • Johnston, Alastair Iain, and Robert S. Ross. New Directions in the Study of China’s Foreign Policy. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006.

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    Several generations of China specialists present readers with research on both new and traditional topics. The authors draw on a wide range of materials to explore traditional issues, such as China’s use of force since 1959, and new issues, such as China’s response to globalization and the role of domestic opinion in its foreign policy.

  • Kornberg, Judith F., and John R. Faust. China in World Politics: Policies, Processes, Prospects. 2d ed. Boulder, CO: Rienner, 2005.

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    Introducing students to the history of China’s foreign policy, the authors outline the political, security, economic, and social issues the country faces in the early 21st century. Each chapter familiarizes the reader with the Chinese framework for analyzing the issues in question.

  • Lanteigne, Marc. Chinese Foreign Policy: An Introduction. 2d ed. New York: Routledge, 2013.

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    Explains how China’s foreign policy is being reconstructed and who (and what) makes policy in the early 21st century. Examines the patterns of engagement with various domestic and international factors. An in-depth look at the key issues, problems, and trends of China’s modern global relations.

  • Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China (zhonghua renmin gongheguo waijiaobu wangzhan “ziliao” lan 中华人民共和国外交部 网站“资料”栏).

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    Contains rich information on the PRC’s foreign relations, including key speeches by Chinese leaders, a list of statements and communiqués, a list of treaties, diplomatic history, a list of China’s diplomatic allies, and a directory of foreign diplomats in China.

  • Rozman, Gilbert, ed. China’s Foreign Policy: Who Makes It, and How Is It Made? Seoul, Korea: Asan Institute for Policy Studies, 2012.

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    A collection of essays written by some of the leading China scholars. Topics include China’s leadership, think tanks, national identity, and financial factors in Chinese foreign policymaking as well as China’s foreign policy toward the Korean peninsula. The chapters present contrasting perspectives on the theme of coordination and coherence in foreign policymaking.

  • Sutter, Robert G. Chinese Foreign Relations. 3d ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2012.

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    A nuanced analysis showing that despite its growing power, Beijing is hampered by both domestic and international constraints. China’s leaders exert more influence in world affairs but remain far from dominant. Facing numerous contradictions and trade-offs, they move cautiously as they deal with a complex global environment.

  • Wang, Zheng. Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012.

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    Concentrates on history education in late-20th- and early-21st-century China and illuminates the thinking of the young Chinese patriots. Tracks the CCP’s use of history education to glorify the party, reestablish its legitimacy, consolidate national identity, and justify one-party rule in the post-Tiananmen era.

  • Zhongguo Waijiao (China’s Foreign Affairs 中国外交). Beijing: World Affairs, 1987–.

    E-mail Citation »

    A comprehensive and authoritative account of major issues in Chinese foreign relations in the previous year, compiled by the Policy Planning division of the PRC’s Foreign Ministry.

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