At the 2019 National People’s Congress (NPC) several directives were issued in the fields of foreign and defence policies of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).The foreign policy outcomes of the NPC are consistent with the two previous processes. In June 2018, the Communist Party of China (CPC) held its Central Conference on Work Relating to Foreign Affairs. In that forum, Xi Jinping reiterated the centrality of the CPC in the foreign policy decision-making. Moreover the 2018 NPC had led to the creation of the Central Committee on Foreign Affairs.
An important baseline for understanding what is new about China’s perception of its security environment can be gleaned from Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s observations that China faces “graver and more complex” risks as well as ‘predictable and unpredictable’ challenges and China must be “prepared to fight tough battles”.
China’s regional security vision continues to be focussed on redrawing the responsibilities and powers in the long run. Yang Jiechi, a member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee recently said, “China supports security dialogue among the Asia-Pacific countries and efforts to explore a regional security vision and architecture that fits the reality of this region.” This is significant in the context of the statement by Premier Li Keqiang at the NPC wherein he appears pessimistic about China’s external environment becoming more constraining rather than open and welcoming which is how China saw it previously. He sees this happening due to “setbacks in economic globalization, challenges to multilateralism, shocks in the international financial market, and especially the China-US economic and trade frictions”.
China plans to spend $177.6 billion on defence which will be 7.5 per cent higher than its previous budget; although this rise is less than 8.1 percent increase during the previous year. China’s defence budget growth has been at less than 10 per cent since 2016 and has hovered around 1.3 per cent of its GDP in this period. However, it is noteworthy that the increase in defence budget continues to be higher than growth rate of the Chinese economy in the past year. A significant amount of funding, possibly outside the defence budget, is likely to be towards welfare and reemployment of the members of the armed forces, who are decommissioned as part of the leaning process.
As far as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is concerned, media reports note that influential members of the NPC had raised objections to the claims in the Government’s work report presented at the NPC. The work report notes “the joint efforts to pursue the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) made significant headway” which is believed to have been overstated, and the shortfalls of the BRI were underplayed in the work report. Premier Li Keqiang report also reiterates that BRI will be promoted jointly as also focus on “strengthen international cooperation on production capacity, and expand third-party market cooperation”. This shows the China’s response to the criticism of BRI being a unilateral project aimed at utilizing excess capability.
Further, this was also the first time that ‘Made in China 2025’ a flagship project of the Chinese leadership, did not find mention in the Work Report. The absence is seen as toning down its significance. The project is seen by many economists as over ambitious and is viewed by outsiders as an initiative to attain technological supremacy in a short span of time.
Likewise, delegates expressed reservation against the overenthusiastic nature of promotion of the Thousand Talents Plan, which is seen by the US as part of the technology theft and tech-espionage policy and thus attracting a serious backlash in form closing of opportunities for research and institutions and personnel.
It is fair to argue that China’s outward looking strategy was designed when it perceived a favourable external environment. This year’s NPC indicates that China outlook of its external environment is changing rapidly. This may push it to recalculate its policies on the BRI as also domestic plans for technological transition to high-tech production. Similarly, it will also impact China’s position on issues of its external interests like trade, energy and outward investments within and outside BRI. It is also remains to be seen how these developments impact on its core interests, especially on the South China Sea where there has been a steady flow of FONOP activities.
Dr. Avinash Godbole is Assistant Professor, Jindal Global University, India.