In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section China’s Foreign Policy

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • History of Foreign Policy of 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: 03 December 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • 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 continued economic growth China is expected to widen and deepen its global search for energy and other resources and to expand its investment, market, and political clout. China is vigorously projecting soft power and presenting a peaceful image abroad by promoting cultural, educational, sports, tourism, and other exchanges. It has also become more active in global governance. In addition to its roles in existing international institutions, China has played a leadership role in establishing and expanding the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), setting up the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the BRICS Development Bank. It has also proposed the “Belt and Road Initiative” to enhance connectivity and cooperation in global development. There is good reason to believe that China’s reemergence to great-power status will 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 global challenges such as climate change and North Korea. China remains a vulnerable nation surrounded by powerful rivals and potential foes. Understanding China’s foreign policy means fully appreciating these geostrategic conditions. Although its foreign policy has become more sophisticated, China is still learning to become 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 nontraditional security threats such as infectious diseases, economic crises, terrorism, cyber hacking, piracy, transnational crimes, natural disasters, and environmental degradation. China will need to boost cooperation with other countries and international institutions to deal with these challenges.

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 needs to know of the so-called century of humiliation in Chinese history—roughly 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 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. 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 2015 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 challenges and directions in Chinese foreign relations. Cheng 2016 offers an overall framework of Chinese foreign policy before examining important bilateral ties and significant challenges, while Qu and Zhong 2018 chronicles China’s diplomatic strategies since the 1980s to cope with complicated and changing international situations. 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.

  • Cheng, Joseph Yu-shek. China’s Foreign Policy: Challenges and Prospects. Singapore: World Scientific Publishing, 2016.

    DOI: 10.1142/9756

    Cheng examines the Chinese foreign policy framework and traces its evolution since the post-Mao era. The volume also looks at China’s relations with other major powers and its management of various challenges.

  • 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.

    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.

    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: Lynne Rienner, 2005.

    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. 3d ed. New York: Routledge, 2015.

    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).

    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.

  • Qu, Xing, and Zhong Longbiao. Contemporary China’s Diplomacy. New York: Taylor & Francis, 2018.

    Written by two of the best Chinese scholars on international relations and foreign policy, this book gives a comprehensive and systematic introduction to the development of China’s diplomatic strategies since the 1980s.

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

    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.

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

    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.

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

    A study of history education in China in the late 20th and early 21st centuries and how it affects China’s worldview and foreign policy.

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

    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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