Experts Discuss the Future of China’s Foreign Relations at Pardee Center Seminar

On February 11, the Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future hosted a seminar titled “The Future of China’s Foreign Relations.” The seminar featured a panel discussion including Jorge Heine (Research Professor, Pardee School of Global Studies), Min Ye (Associate Professor, Pardee School), Joseph Fewsmith (Professor, Pardee School), and Adil Najam (Dean, Pardee School).

The discussion focused largely on China’s economic expansion, its role in the world, and its relationship with the United States. After an introduction by Dean Najam, Prof. Heine stressed the importance of the United States’ continued competition with China. He noted that China now has a larger GDP (in PPP terms) and more diplomatic posts around the world than the United States, and that its various international initiatives — most notably the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) — aim to provide an infrastructure-building program for the Global South. In response to China’s expanding footprint around the world, he said the U.S. cannot encourage other countries not to engage with China, but rather “the way forward is by competing and coming up with better alternatives than the ones offered by China.”

Prof. Fewsmith described China’s apparent desire for an environment of peace and development in past decades, but that it has recently embraced international tension as its standing on the world stage has become more prominent. He also characterized China as a “fragile superpower” — borrowing the term from a book authored by Susan Shirk — because of its limited “performance legitimacy” and the question of the Communist Party’s continued “right to rule” in the 21st century.

Prof. Ye’s comments focused primarily on the BRI, on which she recently authored a book titled The Belt Road and Beyond: State-Mobilized Globalization in China: 1998–2018 (Cambridge University Press 2020). Prof. Ye recounted her original intent to write the book about the external effects of the BRI, but realized that it is too early to draw any concrete conclusions. Instead, she focused on the domestic politics of China, exploring the internal motivations and strategies behind China’s global economic expansion. “Experts know a lot about China’s external behavior, but know far less about the policymaking dynamics and the divergence between top-down rhetoric and bottom-up implementation,” she said. “In fact, the grand strategies in China follow exactly the same kind of mechanism that domestic major policies have been following.” The book is, in part, a result of Prof. Ye’s work as a Pardee Center Faculty Research Fellow from 2015-2018, where she led a project titled “China’s Silk Road Diplomacy: Studying and Shaping China’s Long-Term Economic Footprints in Asia and Beyond.”

A wide-ranging discussion with the audience followed, exploring China’s relations with India and Taiwan, the impacts of climate change, the role of technology, and more.

Watch the full video of the seminar above.