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Discussion paper

Chinese worldviews and China’s foreign policy

International relations International trade China

China’s growing assertiveness, particularly in the South China Sea, has resulted in greater scrutiny of Chinese intentions and led to a more intense debate about how the United States and its allies should respond. For some, the motives for China’s international behaviour are simply those of any emerging — or in China’s case, re-emerging — power. However, to gain a more nuanced understanding of what is motivating Chinese behaviour it is necessary to examine the narratives that underpin Chinese worldviews and China’s foreign policy behaviour.

Four key narratives are used by Chinese leaders and elites to justify Chinese foreign policy actions and interpret the world: the century of humiliation; the view of cultural characteristics as being inherent and unchanging; the idea of history as destiny; and notions of filial piety and familial obligation as they apply both inside China and to China’s neighbours. While these narratives are not the only things that shape Chinese foreign policy, when considered with other factors influencing China’s actions in the world, they provide a more nuanced guide to China’s aims and ambitions. This knowledge can also help shape more effective responses to China, both in the short and long term.

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