This paper analyses changes in China’s relations with socialist countries. It uses Chinese academic publications to add an inside‐out perspective to the interpretation of Chinese foreign policy and outlines key socio‐cognitive determinants of China’s foreign behaviour. The paper starts with an overview of role theory, integrating Chinese scholars’ writings on images of ego and alter to identify the main patterns and frames of China’s selfproclaimed national role(s). It argues that China’s actor identity comprises various, partly contradictory role conceptions. National roles derived from China’s internal structures and its historical past lead to continuity in Chinese foreign policy, while the ‘new’ roles resultant from China’s rise to global powerhood require it to adapt its foreign policy principles. The paper then examines four bilateral relationships – between China and Cuba, North Korea, the Soviet Union/Russia, and Vietnam – and discusses their development over time in light of China’s reformulation of its ‘socialist’ role conception.