China Defense and Foreign Policy

Foreign policy and defense

China is a nation in Eastern Asia. Its capital city Beijing. Having been low for over two decades as it built up its economic and military strength, China has seriously taken the step into the world arena as a leading player. Foreign policy has become more active and contentious and the country has strengthened its presence both regionally and globally. The reversal is portrayed by the Chinese leadership as part of realizing the dream of China’s national rebirth.

china military spending and defense budget

When Xi Jinping began his second term in power in 2017–2018, the new, changed foreign policy was presented. Now it was no longer the former leader Deng Xiaoping’s slogan to “hide their abilities and bide their time” and to “not try to take the lead” that applied but instead Xi’s guidelines that China should actively defend its interests and try to influence internationally with its approach. The goal was to make China even stronger, which would also happen by continuing the ongoing upgrading and modernization of the armed forces (see below) and by developing new partnerships and alliances. At the same time, it was considered important for China to act as a responsible superpower.

According to, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) plays an important role in achieving the new goals. The giant investment on new “silk roads” is about connecting Chinese infrastructure and facilitating trade and transport between Asia, Europe and Africa. BRI consists of a land-based part that was launched in 2013 and partly by investments in extensive shipping routes, ports and other offshore infrastructure. The Silk Road Initiative is intended to generate thousands of billions of SEK in investment around the world. China has gladly presented it as a development project to help the outside world and developing countries increase their prosperity and build important infrastructure. However, it is mainly financed through Chinese loans to participating countries.

Increased rivalry with other major powers

China’s ongoing global expansion has been met by suspicions from the EU, US, Japan and India. Not least is it worrying that the Chinese leadership has said it wants to influence and change the global regime that rules the world and wants to emphasize its economic and political system as an alternative to liberal democracy in the Western world.

At the same time, it has also been seen from many parts of the world that China has taken a more active role internationally and, not least, participated more in UN contexts and been willing to take on greater responsibility in peacekeeping operations.

Despite the new focus, many foreign policy priorities remain, not least the emphasis on China’s territorial claims on Taiwan and island groups in the South and East China Seas (see below); these are still identified as “core interests”.

Relations with Russia

When the People’s Republic was born in 1949, the United States supported the rival Chinese regime in Taiwan and sought to isolate the new communist state on the mainland. China instead allied with the Soviet Union and became dependent on Soviet military and economic aid. But the ideological divide between Moscow and Beijing grew, and China accused the Russians of pursuing world domination. Short but bloody battles were fought in 1969 at the Amur (Heilongjiang) border.

A groundbreaking Beijing visit by President Richard Nixon in 1972 initiated a US-China approach. In 1979, the relationship was completely normalized since the US agreed to break with Taiwan. During the 1980s, China sought to have friendly ties to both the United States and the Soviet Union, but it was not until Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s China visit in 1989 that Chinese-Soviet relations were fully re-established. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, China recognized the independence of the former Soviet republics. Several old Russian-Chinese disputes over the 430-mile-long border in the east ended in the 1990s and in 2008, the countries could also file a dispute over two islands.

Relations with Russia are important to China today, not least because of the import of Russian oil and natural gas. When the West imposed sanctions on Russia following its conquest of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014, Moscow intensified its cooperation with Beijing, not least when it came to trade. Under a 2014 agreement, China will buy large quantities of Russian gas over a 30-year period. Since then, China and Russia have also increased their coordination on security issues and their military cooperation through joint exercises and arms purchases.

The other Central Asian neighboring countries are also important from an energy point of view for China, which also cooperates with them and Russia within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, where India and Pakistan have also been involved since 2017. In the framework of this regional cooperation, China and Russia have conducted joint military exercises.

Relations with the United States

The great economic exchange between the US and China has made the countries increasingly politically dependent on each other. Relations improved in the 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s, interrupting two political crises: NATO’s bombing of China’s embassy in Belgrade in 1999 during the Defense Alliance’s air war against Yugoslavia, and an incident in 2001 when a US signal plan was forced to land on Hainan Island after colliding in international airspace with a Chinese fighter plane. China’s support in the US global fight against terrorism and its initially active role as mediator in negotiations with North Korea on its nuclear weapons program helped to strengthen US-Chinese relations. At the same time, relations were complicated by many issues. For the US, it was China’s human rights violations, Foreign Trade).

During the global financial crisis of 2008, the weaknesses of the US economy became evident at the same time as China emerged as stronger than ever through its holdings of US securities for hundreds of billions of dollars and its gigantic foreign exchange reserves. After Xi Jinping’s accession as new Chinese president in 2013, relations became more strained. Beijing rejected US plans to increase its involvement in East Asia, which was seen as a way to prevent China from regaining its rightful superpower role in the region. The US, for its part, criticized China’s actions in the South and East China Seas (see below). The fact that China’s military was identified as being involved in cyberattacks and espionage against US companies and newspapers did not facilitate contacts between the countries.

Since Donald Trump’s inclusion as US President in 2017, tensions have gradually increased between countries. The US national security strategy from the same year marks a clear shift in the view of China, which is presented as a direct threat to US security and welfare. At the end of the 2010s, a trade war broke out between the two giants (see Foreign Trade). But it is not only China’s economic progress that is worrying the United States, but also the Chinese development of the high-tech industry: several Chinese companies today are world leaders in artificial intelligence and telecommunications, among others. In the late 2010s, the United States did everything it could to prevent Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei from building new mobile networks, 5G, in various countries and stopping its equipment from being used by US companies. Huawei has been behind the 5G rollout in a large number of countries, not least among those participating in the Silk Road Initiative. Washington has warned that the company could be used by Beijing for spying, which Huawei firmly denies, and the United States has pushed for US partner countries, not least in Europe, to stop the company.

The fact that the US continues to join behind Taiwan has contributed to the sometimes frosty relations (see below). China’s actions in relation to North Korea have also been a cause of US irritation. China has been criticized by the US for not doing enough to pressure North Korea to suspend its nuclear weapons program. North Korea has been a close ally of China since the end of the Cold War. Beijing has supported UN sanctions against North Korea, but Chinese leaders have not wanted to resort to overly harsh methods to avoid the collapse of the Pyongyang regime. Not least, in China, there is a strong concern about a refugee storm into the country across the common border. But the Chinese leadership is also worried about a scenario where a future reunited Korea, like South Korea today, is allied with the United States (see North Korea:Foreign Policy and Defense and South Korea respectively: Foreign Policy and Defense).

Taiwan issue

The Taiwan issue is central to China-US relations as well as to Chinese contacts with the rest of the world. China’s leaders have wanted to use the model that applied to Hong Kong’s incorporation into China, “one country, two systems” (see Hong Kong), also with regard to Taiwan. The Chinese leadership formally considers its counterpart in Taiwan as an illegal outbreak regime and seems reluctant to allow the island to be incorporated into China again. China has been a member of the UN with a permanent seat on the Security Council since the World Organization was founded in 1945. However, the country was long represented by the Taiwan regime. It was not until 1971 that the People’s Republic of China could take office in the UN at Taiwan’s expense.

In 1996, Chinese military maneuvers outside Taiwan were close to triggering an international crisis. Tensions increased again in 2004 after Taiwan’s president proposed a referendum on a new constitution. The following year, the National People’s Congress passed a law that allowed the use of military force “if Taiwan were to proclaim its independence”. Since Taiwan received a Beijing-friendly regime in 2008, contacts improved significantly. An agreement on fixed air services between China and Taiwan was reached in the same year and in 2010, the parties concluded a trade facilitation agreement. In 2014, the first official talks were held at the government level between China and Taiwan since 1949. The meeting agreed to establish a fixed direct channel for communication between the governments.

After the change of power in Taiwan 2016, the climate between China and Taiwan became icy cold. Beijing highlighted its dissatisfaction with the new Taiwanese leadership, which has clearly taken a stand for Taiwan’s independent position under President Tsai Ing-wen, by suspending official contacts with Taipei from the summer of 2016, while also beginning to counter Taiwan’s participation in international organizations and conferences. A successful diplomatic war, often with the help of economic lure, was also launched to persuade the few countries that had official relations with Taiwan to break with Taipei and instead cultivate relations with Beijing (see also Taiwan: Foreign Policy and Defense). At the beginning of 2018, President Xi Jinping reiterated that Beijing does not exclude the military force of Taiwan from uniting Taiwan with the People’s Republic. After the re-election of Tsai ing-wen as Taiwan’s president in January 2020, most of it indicated that relations would continue to be tense.

The US has long protected Taiwan from attempts at military takeovers from the mainland. US arms sales to Taiwan have caused tensions between China and the US. At the same time, the United States has made it clear that it does not support Taiwanese independence aspirations and opposes attempts to change the current security balance.

Southeast Asian neighbors

Contacts with the countries of the South East Asian cooperation organization Asean have improved since China began cooperation with the organization in the 1990s and from 2010, China and Asean have a common free trade area.

But there is concern among Southeast Asian neighbors that China will use its economic and military superiority to assert its right to disputed marine areas, islands and reefs in the oil and gas-rich South China Sea. The sea is also an important source of fish and it is also of great importance for international trade and shipping, as a significant proportion of world trade is transported by cargo vessels via these waters. During the 2010s, tensions in the sea area increased. China and Vietnam dispute the right to the Paracel Islands (which China conquered from Vietnam in 1974) and patrol boats and fishing vessels from both countries have been involved in various skirmishes. Chinese oil drilling off the archipelago during the 2010s has led to seafront confrontations,

The confrontations around the Spratly archipelago, which China claims to conflict with, among others, Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia, increased from the end of the 1990s and during the beginning of the 2010s as China increased activity in the area and the tone. In 2007, the Chinese military lowered a Vietnamese fishing boat that China considered to be in Chinese territorial waters near the archipelago. 2012 saw a confrontation between Philippine and Chinese military boats since Chinese fishermen were spotted at the Scarborough reef. China has also since 2013 collected sand from the seabed placed on the reefs in the archipelago to reinforce and expand them. Towards the end of the 2010s, it was discovered that China had built robot defenses, runways and military radar and communications facilities on some of the reefs in the Paracel and Sprat Islands.

China’s actions have partly resulted in the counterparties increasingly seeking support from the US. On the American side, there has been sharp criticism of Beijing’s militarization of the disputed areas. The United States has allowed US military ships to pass through the South China Sea in special operations to safeguard “freedom of navigation,” as a way to keep the sea open for international shipping.

The fact that China refused to deal with the border disputes through international dispute resolution and demanded that it all be resolved bilaterally has worsened the situation. The Philippines took the matter to the UN Permanent Arbitration Tribunal in The Hague in 2013, which 2016 stated that the Chinese claims “have no legal basis”. However, China announced that it did not accept the decision. Just a year after the verdict, the new President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, agreed to discuss the issue bilaterally. Cooperation began in a number of areas and the Philippines was promised large loans by China. Towards the end of the 2010s, the conflict with Vietnam had also somewhat mitigated.

The Asian countries have for several years discussed introducing a so-called code of conduct in the South China Sea. By the end of the 2010s, it looked like a breakthrough had been reached in the negotiations and Beijing declared in 2019 ready to participate in the drafting of the code, which should not only contain guidelines for conduct but also for conflict management.

Relations with India and Japan

Competition between China and India has increased in recent years as countries grow in economic and military strength while increasing their influence in the region. In 2003, India and China succeeded in solving parts of the border conflict that has been going on since 1962, when India lost a brief border war. China has formally filed claims against the Indian state of Sikkim. The countries have extensive trade exchanges and have carried out joint military exercises, although some border issues are still unresolved. In 2013, India and China signed an agreement on border defense cooperation with the aim of avoiding confrontations in the disputed joint border regions in the Himalayas. In 2017, the border conflict flared up between the two countries again as India accused China of building roads in disputed territory. Since then, several meetings have been held between India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping, which has eased tensions. However, relations are disturbed by China’s cooperation with India’s arch-enemy Pakistan, including through the Silk Road Initiative, while a battle for influence in the Indian Ocean is underway. Beijing is also eagerly watching India allow Tibetan exile government and religious leader Dalai Lama to operate in the country.

Japan is one of China’s largest trading partners, but historical scars from the war in the 1930s and 1940s are difficult to heal. Popular protests against Japan have flared up at regular intervals, for example in 2005 when a newly published Japanese textbook was considered to neglect Japanese violations during the war years. Also, Japanese politicians’ visit to the Yasukunite Temple in Tokyo, which honors Japanese soldiers who died in World War II, has contributed to frosty relations between the countries during the early 2000s.

Japan and China have an unsolved conflict over the Diaoyu archipelago (Senkaku in Japanese). The eight uninhabited islands are controlled by Japan, but China and Taiwan also claim them. The sea border between Japan and China is also disputed. In 2010, diplomatic relations were temporarily suspended between the countries after a dispute arose after a Chinese fishing boat collided with two Japanese military vessels near the disputed islands. The conflict was renewed in 2012 after the Japanese government decided to buy some of the disputed islands by a private owner. In 2013, China introduced a Special Flight Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea, including the disputed archipelago, where aircraft were required to report their presence. Japan filed an official protest while South Korea and the United States criticized the zone. Tensions around the archipelago have continued as Beijing allows Chinese vessels to pass in the waters near the archipelago. At the same time, there was a thaw in relations between China and Japan towards the end of the 2010s and in October 2018, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe came to Beijing for the first bilateral summit in seven years.

Arms exports and defense

During the late 2010s, China has invested more defense resources than any other country in the world, close to the United States. Over the decade, the defense budget has increased by about 10 percent each year. The goal is for the country to be counted as a world-class military force in 2049, when the republic celebrates its centenary.

The military defense force, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), is an important force in China. The importance of retaining control of the armed forces has been highlighted by Xi Jinping, who has secured both the party and its own leadership over the PLA, including through reorganizations. The highest state defense body is the Central Military Commission. The Communist Party also has a military commission. Xi Jinping is chairman of both. In 2013, a national security commission, also under the leadership of Xi Jinping, was also appointed to develop security strategies for both internal and external security.

During the first decades of the People’s Republic, the military was an outspoken mass army whose sheer size, close to five million men, would deter attackers. Since then, the army has more than halved in a process where China’s defense is made more flexible, high-tech and mobile. A special rocket force has been formed as well as a space and cyber unit that is also responsible for electronic warfare. While the emphasis has been on the army, the fleet and the air force have been expanded. The fleet today has a large number of military vessels and submarines.

China detonated its first nuclear bomb in 1964 and a hydrogen bomb three years later. Today, the country is considered to have hundreds of nuclear weapons that can reach large parts of Asia, most of them land-based but also a number that can be fired from submarines. After a test explosion in 1996, China launched a voluntary stop for its nuclear weapons tests.

In 2010, China conducted a test of a missile defense system, demonstrating how far it has advanced in advanced weapons technology. This also includes the development of missile-powered submarines, warships, various unmanned robotic aircraft, so-called drones, and combat aircraft. Test flights in 2011 with a new fighter aircraft, the J20, the acquisition of a former Soviet aircraft carrier that was refurbished, as well as the development of a domestic aircraft carrier, were further signs of China’s growing military strength. The military is also said to invest in cyber warfare and cyber espionage.

During the 2000s, relations with many developing countries were guided by China’s growing energy and raw material needs. Chinese investment in and trade with African and Latin American countries has increased, as have China’s arms exports to these states.

China began participating in peacekeeping UN operations in the early 1990s. In the early 2000s, the country increased its participation in various UN operations, mainly involving non-military personnel. Towards the end of the 2010s, China was also increasingly contributing with the military to more UN operations.

In 2017, the military established its first military base outside China in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa. The intention was to facilitate Chinese troops to participate in operations against pirates off the Somali coast and in the Gulf of Aden.

Since 1989, the EU has been carrying an arms embargo on China since the shooting of Tiananmen Square in 1989. The United States also has a ban on arms sales to the country.

READING TIP – read more about China in UI’s web magazine Foreign magazine :
China wants to join and exploit the Arctic’s opportunities (2017-12-04)
Xi Jinping’s China wants to take the main stage in the world (2017-11-07)

DEVELOPING about China is also in World Politics Day Issues China’s New Silk Road – Century Project (No. 10 2018) About our sources


Army: 975 000 Man (2017)

The air Force: 395 000 men (2017)

The fleet: 240 000 men (2017)

Military expenditure’s share of GDP: 1.9 percent (2017)

Military spending’s share of the state budget: 6.1 percent (2017)