Values in Chinese Foreign Policy

Values in Chinese Foreign Policy

Traditional Chinese culture and values have always played an important role in the construction of Chinese diplomatic strategy as well as in defining basic principles that should guide foreign policy. Traditional Chinese cultural values came from the harmony of thought in ancient China, by Confucianism, Taoism and the Book of Changes., with harmony as the core. Harmony means “things fitting each other in an appropriate and well-balanced way”.[i] It indicates rationality, appropriateness and striking the right note. Rationality suggests doing things following objective laws and rules, and appropriateness means doing things properly and striking the right note.

Chinese tradition cultural values include Benevolence, Righteousness, Etiquette, Wisdom and Faithfulness. The harmony value is embodied by the “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence” proposed by the government of the People’s Republic of China in the 1950s, namely “mutual respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful co-existence”. In half a century, the “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence” have been accepted by most countries of the world and have become important guidelines for international relations.

According to these principles, it would be a violation of “righteousness” if a country wages a war and kills innocent people for its own interests or interferes with the internal affairs of other countries and creates civil strife or separation in foreign countries for its own interests; such actions should be condemned and opposed.

Since the beginning of the 21st century, the Chinese government has proposed a new security concept featuring “mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality and cooperation” and the principle of “cooperation and common interest”.

On October 11, 2005, Former Chinese President Hu Jintao building a world of harmony at the summit meeting for the 60th anniversary of the United Nations. In the 21st century, “peaceful development”, “harmonious world” and “mutual benefit and win-win result” have become China’s foreign strategies.

Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed the “construction of the human destiny community and realization of peace and harmony in the world. The Communist Party of China stressed in the 18th National Congress that China would “continue to hold high the banner of peace, development, cooperation and mutual benefit and strive to uphold world peace and promote common development.” “We will continue to promote friendship and partnership with our neighbours, consolidate friendly relations and deepen mutually beneficial cooperation with them, and ensure that China’s development will bring more benefits to our neighbours”.

The harmony value emphasizes that analyses of issues should be comprehensive and dialectical. When a country is growing stronger, do not be self-righteous, arrogant, and it should not aspire to dominate the world. Chinese leaders, from Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping today, have repeatedly stressed that China will never seek hegemony! This announcement embodied the value of harmony, and the President Xi Jinping proposed “building a community of human destiny” also embodied it.

China has pursued benevolent diplomacy and has wanted to be a peaceful power in the international community since 1979. The Chinese government declared foreign policy toward its neighbouring countries is “good neighbour, safe neighbourhood and rich neighbour.” For relations with neighbouring countries, China proposed the diplomatic policy of “bringing harmony, security and prosperity to neighbours”, which represents the ideas of “amity, sincerity, mutual benefit and inclusiveness” and “benevolence and good-neighbourliness”. The relations between China and ASEAN and Central Asian countries fully reflect these ideas. Since the 21st century, economic and trade relations between China and ASEAN and the SCO structure are getting steadily better.

President Xi Jinping proposed the building of a new type of international relations based on cooperation. China emphasizes that a big and strong country should not bully the small and weak, should not judge other countries using the social system, ideology and values of the big as the correct standard and rule, and should not attack, destroy or eliminate opposing countries. He put forward the Belt and Road Initiative based on the principles of shared and mutual benefit, reciprocity, cooperation and win-win situation.[ii] China put the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and BRICS New Development Bank into operation as soon as possible to contribute to the economic growth and improvement of people’s lives in developing countries.

The value of righteousness implies that it is justified for a country to safeguard its sovereignty, territory and dignity, and for a country suffering foreign invasion, to attack and drive out invaders. In other words, when invaded by a foreign country, a country must defend itself and counter-attack.

Therefore, traditional Chinese cultural values incorporate both moral norms including benevolence, righteousness, etiquette, wisdom and faithfulness and the tactics and wisdom of the Art of War to resist foreign aggression and safeguard the motherland. Therefore, China does not take any initiative to get into trouble, provoke others, interfere with the internal affairs of other countries or contend for hegemony, but stands firmly committed to safeguarding its own sovereignty, territorial land, territorial sea and other core interests.

In recent years, China’s actions in the South China Sea have aimed to defend Chinese islands and territorial waters. China has taken some defensive actions to counter provocation from the United States, Japan, and the Philippines. These actions are defensive, based on principles of self-protection and justice.

In view of the Syrian Crisis, the Chinese government opposed the US and western countries interfering in the internal affairs of, and supporting the anti-government armed forces in, Syria. This demonstrates China’s principles of the big and strong country respecting the small and weak, and opposing interference by the big and strong powers in the internal affairs of other countries.

Etiquette means modest and cautious, courteous, indiscriminately; Obey etiquette, system, law of UN in the international society, respect for other countries, etiquette neighbour in the international relations. China’s ‘global government concept’ is the concept of building business together, building together and sharing. All countries should respect each other, treat people courteously, and work together for common prosperity.

The value/concept of wisdom influences the Chinese diplomacy. Since reform and opening up, China has maintained over three decades of rapid economic development and become increasingly powerful. However, for Sino-US relations, China does not challenge America’s status as the elder brother, but attaches special importance to building a relation of mutual trust, cooperation and common interest with the US. The idea of building a new model of major power relationship expressly proposed by President Xi Jinping demonstrates the wisdom of Chinese traditional culture.

Faithfulness refers to keeping one’s word being honest. China has always repaid its debts on time and is rated “the best borrowing country” by the World Bank.[iii] China has kept the promises at the Climate Conference of UN to ensure a reduction in carbon emissions; vigorously develop new energy, and to implement environment protection projects. China is the country with the largest number of peacekeeping troops among the permanent members of the UN Security Council.

After all, harmony, benevolence, righteousness, etiquette, wisdom, faithfulness advocated by traditional Chinese cultural values are completely different from the law of the jungle, of the strong ruling over the weak. In today’s world, the principles of harmony in diversity, seeking common ground and reserving differences and peaceful co-existence provide new ideas for settling international disputes. The Chinese cultural values of harmony will contribute to world peace!


[i] Modern Chinese Dictionary Revision, (Editing Office, Institute of Linguistics, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Commercial Press, 1996), 510

[ii] “Carry Forward Silk Road Spirit and Write a New Chapter for Cooperation”, Foreign Minister Wang Yi Talks about President Xi Jinping’s Visit to Kazakhstan, and Attendance at 17th Meeting of SCO Council of Heads of State and Opening Ceremony of Astana Expo 2017, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, People’s Republic of China, June 10, 2017, available at http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/zxxx_662805/t1469852.shtml

[iii] Tang Yong, Vice President of World Bank: “China is one of the World Bank’s best clients”, people.com.cn, November 25, 2004, available at http://www.people.com.cn/BIG5/shizheng/1026/3011379.html


Professor Zhang Lihua, Institute of International Studies Tsinghua University, Beijing China

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