The Dragon Roars Back
Transformational Leaders and Dynamics of Chinese Foreign Policy
Suisheng Zhao



Dynamics of Chinese Foreign Policy: Leaders Matter

AN EMPIRE STRETCHING BACK TWO MILLENNIA and symbolized as the dragon from the haven, Imperial China began a steady decline and plunged into wars and revolutions after it was defeated by foreign imperialist powers in the nineteenth century. Now the dragon is roaring back toward the center of the world stage to regain the glory it once enjoyed when the Chinese empire incorporated vast areas into its territories. In 1902, British economist John A. Hobson mapped futures for the twentieth century depending on whether China was broken up, subordinated to a foreign power, or asserted itself as a nation-state. Hobson’s insights did not catch much attention throughout the twentieth century, when China suffered through foreign invasions and internal upheavals. But his observation has confronted the world of the twenty-first century.1

In modern world history, no other rising power has ever experienced China’s turbulent history in relations with its neighbors and Western powers, achieved its current scale and central role as the biggest trading nation and hub of global supply chains, and been led by a political leader with Xi Jinping’s power and sense of mission to restore China to what he believes is its natural position as a world power. When China was weak, it subordinated to others. Now China is strong, and it wants others to subordinate to China, at least on the issues involving what it regards as core national interests, including its sovereignty claims over Taiwan and territories in the East and South China Seas. The ascendance of China has, therefore, not only alarmed policy-makers in many countries but also prompted scholars to understand how China has reemerged to global power and what forces have shaped its international behavior in the past, now, and possible the future.

Understanding Chinese Foreign Policy Dynamics

Structural realism is used most often to correlate China’s relative power and its international behavior. Realist scholars have long warned that as China’s relative power expands, its ambition expands. A more powerful China inevitably becomes an anti–status quo power in order to redefine its national interests more expansively. A rising China, like any other rising power, has sought to maximize its share of power; become assertive in its territorial disputes with neighbors; and intensify the rivalry with the immovable United States for regional and global dominance. The rise of China, therefore, has upset the balance of power and sparked power realignments. The power transition theory adds that, in a Sino-US power showdown, the distinct absence of cultural and ideological affinity between the two countries could make the conflict violent.2

The linear logic is convenient to help understand China’s assertive behavior in the recent decade but cannot adequately explain the dramatic foreign policy turns and shifts since the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The PRC was a revolutionary state led by Mao Zedong when China’s relative power was seriously constrained. As table I-1 shows, it took six military operations during the period, including the wars with the United States in Korea and Vietnam, clash with the Soviet Union along the Chinese border, and the war with India. Beijing also competed with the Soviet Union for leadership of world revolutionary movements and supported Maoist revolutionary insurgencies around the world. Deng Xiaoping shifted Chinese foreign policy to emphasize reconciliation and cooperation, although China’s relative power was not fundamentally changed. He only engaged one military conflict against Vietnam. Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao continued Deng’s moderate policy and promised peaceful development after China was recognized as a rising power. China was involved in three external operations under their watch. Xi Jinping has hardened the rhetoric and taken a tough foreign policy posture, but China has been involved only in one external conflict, with India in 2020.

Table I-1 PRC Involvement in External Operations

Assigning a determinative role to structural forces in the international system,3 structural realism ignores the complex process through which China’s foreign-policy-makers understand international affairs, identify policy objectives, and make policy decisions. While Chinese leaders must weigh China’s relative strength and vulnerability, the change in Chinese power cannot have a direct influence on foreign policy until it is acted upon by Chinese leaders through their ideational lens, decision-making process, and perceptions about the desirability and undesirability of international norms and rules that have guided interactions among states.

The regime-type theory is also used often to attribute China’s international behavior to its authoritarian system. This theory argues that authoritarian regimes act more aggressively than democracies because they are based on domination and coercion, and there are fewer constraints on what leaders can do. Because they are in a permanent state of aggression against their people and a constant crisis of regime legitimacy, they are more likely to turn to foreign operations to distract public attention. Leadership change does not matter because foreign policy outcomes stem from the rigid structure of the regime. Only regime change can bring a fundamental change.4 The regime-type theory is helpful to understand the arbitrary nature of foreign-policy-making in China but cannot explain why Chinese foreign policy moderated immensely after Mao’s death while the authoritarian regime remained.

Other theories have been used, although less often, to understand the dynamics of Chinese foreign policy. Institutionalism tries to find the influences of bureaucratic politics, such as the rise of military interests, on Chinese foreign policy. In the attempt to open the black box of domestic politics, institutionalism has a hard time empirically proving the significant influence, if any, of bureaucratic interests on China’s international behavior. Constructivism analyzes how Chinese strategic culture, values, and other norms have helped shape the cognitive environment in which leaders make foreign policy, either aggressively or peacefully. But Chinese foreign policy has experienced many turns while the cognitive environment has not changed as much.5

Foreign policy change is a multilevel and complex process. But an empirical investigation of the Chinese foreign policy dynamic and the multilevel driving forces that themselves have undergone profound change since the founding of the PRC has been mysteriously lacking. The few works on interaction between internal and external forces have focused on specific policy decisions or relations with certain countries. Most Chinese foreign policy works have narrowly focused on China’s bilateral relationships; involvements in certain geographical regions and multilateral institutions; Chinese diplomacy and foreign-policy-making on certain issue areas or during certain periods; and handling of specific challenges ranging from territorial disputes to energy security, economic policy, and other functional aspects of China’s international quests.6

This book contributes to the literature by conceptualizing and documenting the critical turns, twists, and course shifts of PRC foreign policy shaped by dynamic internal and external forces. Synthetizing and reexamining existing literature and making use of available primary sources—particularly those in Chinese, such as personal memoirs, government documents, and other publications, verified by field research and personal interviews—this book weaves together complex events, processes, and players and provides a historically in-depth, conceptually comprehensive, and up-to-date analysis of foreign policy dynamics in the PRC.

A Leadership-Centered Framework

Painting a transitional picture, this book develops a leadership-centered framework that integrates multilevel variables to explain the PRC’s international behavior. It argues that while leaders matter in all political systems, they matter more in totalitarian and authoritarian systems that allow for the propensity of leaders’ ambitions. Political leaders in democracies are constrained by electoral cycles, term limits, and public opinions, but leaders in the PRC’s one-party system operate relatively unchecked by bureaucracy, opposition forces, and public opinions.7 The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), as a Leninist party, emphasizes discipline, hierarchy, and the norm of democratic centralism. Although the stage of Chinese foreign policy has become increasingly crowded over the years, one fundamental aspect that remained constant is the concentration of foreign policy power in the hands of the leaders at the apex of the party-state. They possess an almost untrammeled monopoly of power with the ultimate decision-making authority on national security and strategic policies.

The emerging literature on leadership in foreign-policy-making has focused on leaders’ cognitive attributes such as personality, bounded rationality, leadership style, and perception and image of the outside world to reveal the incongruities between perceived and real operational environments.8 The cognition process is important for understanding specific decisions but not adequate to understand foreign policy transformation.9 Going beyond the effect of personal traits and cognition on specific decisions, this book examines how transformational leaders have not only operated within but also reshaped the large political and institutional environment to define priorities and put policy into practice.

The PRC has been led by five generations of leaders: Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao, and Xi Jinping, according to the current official count. This count leaves out Hua Guofeng, Hu Yaobang, and Zhao Ziyang, who all held top party-state positions and attempted to change policy direction but failed because they lost power in the jungle of CCP politics. The five leaders who survived have not exercised the same amount of personal power and official authority or made the same level of influence. Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and Xi Jinping are transformational leaders; each held—or in the case of Xi, currently holds—lifetime tenure in power and set a unique course of foreign policy. Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao were transactional leaders and stayed on a course set by Deng Xiaoping.

Mao Zedong led revolutionary diplomacy to break through the isolation, containment, and encirclement of the hostile imperialist powers from 1949 to 1978. Deng Xiaoping formulated developmental diplomacy to create a favorable international environment to jump-start economic growth from 1978 to 2012. Xi Jinping has reoriented Chinese foreign policy since 2012 to return China to the position of global centrality. One Chinese scholar characterized Xi’s reorientation as “the change from ordinary state diplomacy to big-power diplomacy, from weak-posture diplomacy to strong-posture diplomacy, and from a passive diplomacy to a proactive diplomacy.”10 Amending the PRC constitution in 2018 to abolish the term limit on his presidency for a lifetime tenure in office, Xi Jinping will chart the course of Chinese foreign policy for a long period. These transformational leaders have played a key role to bring about the changes in Chinese foreign policy priorities, defensive or offensive posture, the pattern of engagement with the rest of the world, alignment with the major powers, and relations with its neighbors. In the Chinese official parlance, Mao led China standing up (站起来); Deng made China rich (富起来), and Xi will make China strong (强起来).

The literature of leadership has featured transformational leaders as providing new visions and appealing to followers’ higher ideals and moral values. In contrast, transactional leaders focus on policy implementation and rely on the “hard power” resources of carrots and sticks and motivate their followers by the “exchange” of interest.11 The transformational leaders in the PRC must have new visions and have appealed to higher ideals to inspire followers, but they have relied more on the hard power of arbitrary authorities to ensure compliance. More importantly, they have combined personal power (charisma) and office authority to make their visions prevail. Additionally, they have effectively made political use of ideational forces, tailored bureaucratic institutions, exploited international power distribution, and responded strategically to international norms and rules to become game changers.


1. John A. Hobson, Imperialism (London: Allen and Unwin, 1948); Adam Tooze, “Why there is no solution to our age of crisis without China,” New Statesman, July 21, 2021, places/2021/07/why-there-no-solution-our-age-crisis-without-china.

2. John Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: Norton, 2001); Graham Allison, Destined for War: Can American and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap? (Boston: Houghton Muffin Harcourt, 2017); Andrew Nathan and Andrew Scobell, China’s Search for Security (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012); Øystein Tunsjø, The Return of Bipolarity in World Politics: China, the United States, and Geostructural Realism (New York City: Columbia University Press, 2018); Thomas J. Christensen, The China Challenge: Shaping the Choices of a Rising Power (New York: W.W. Norton, 2016); Kori Schake, “How International Hegemony Changes Hands,” Cato Unbound, March 5, 2018, kori-schake/how-international-hegemony-changes-hands; John Mearsheimer, “The Inevitable Rivalry: America, China, and the Tragedy of Great-Power Politics,” Foreign Affairs, November/December 2021, articles/china/2021-10-19/inevitable-rivalry-cold-war.

3. Robert Jervis, for example, categorically argues that leaders don’t matter. Although Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barrack Obama had different outlooks on the world, their foreign policies demonstrated clear continuities due to common structural incentives. Baohui Zhang argues that President Obama shifted the United States’ China policy from a defensive toward an offensive realist posture. The Trump and Biden administrations continued the approach because of the same realist logic to preserve the US position amid profound power shifts. Robert Jervis, “Do Leaders Matter and How Would We Know?,” Security Studies 22, no. 2 (2013): 153–79; Baohui Zhang, “From Defensive toward Offensive Realism: Strategic Competition and Continuities in the United States’ China Policy,” Journal of Contemporary China 31, no. 137 (2022).

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7. David Chambaugh, China’s Leaders: From Mao to Now (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2021), 1.

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9. Weixing Hu, “Xi Jinping’s ‘Major Country Diplomacy’: The Role of Leadership in Foreign Policy Transformation,” Journal of Contemporary China 28, no. 115 (2019).

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11. Joseph Nye Jr., Presidential Leadership and the Creation of the American Era (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013); James MacGregor Burns, Leadership (New York: Harper & Row, 1978).