Stability at home should be the basis of China's diplomacy of peaceful engagement

Hu Shuli says the country's quest for peaceful external relations must begin with a resolve to meet its own development challenges

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 July, 2014, 5:31pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 July, 2014, 1:32am

Chinese diplomacy has had a busy few months, with numerous visits abroad by Chinese leaders and a constant stream of foreign leaders coming to China.

Amid the flurry of activity, two meetings were particularly noteworthy: the sixth US-China strategic and economic dialogue in Beijing last week, and the BRICS leaders' summit in Brazil this week. The former offers a window into China's relationship with the world's sole superpower, while the latter maps out how the major emerging economies, including China, can work together towards mutual development.

These two events capture in a nutshell the risks and opportunities for Chinese foreign policy.

The global financial crisis of 2008 has ushered in changes in China's internal and external environments. While its economy has grown to become the world's second largest, the risks of instability have increased in tandem. At the annual Sino-US dialogue last week, President Xi Jinping took pains to note that China, now more than ever, needed a stable and peaceful external environment. We could not agree more.

Stability is vital for a country undertaking major reforms for future development. If China is to enjoy a stable external environment, it must first foster stability at home. At the same time, it must build sound relationships with the outside world to further the peace it needs to safeguard reform and growth.

In the wake of the financial crisis, a major trend is the ever closer cooperation between the world's biggest emerging economies. Brazil, Russia, India and China held their first summit meeting in June 2009 in Yekaterinburg, Russia, with South Africa joining the grouping in 2010. Since then, a platform for engagement has taken shape, and the grouping is making its presence felt in global finance cooperation.

For one, it is demanding a greater voice and representation for emerging markets in international financial institutions. It is also pushing for a more diversified global currency system.

At last year's summit in Durban, South Africa, the bloc proposed setting up a development bank and a reserve fund - both of which were launched by leaders meeting in Fortaleza, Brazil, this week.

Furthermore, the grouping is collaborating more closely on cybersecurity and the fight against terrorism.

Such efforts reflect emerging economies' frustration towards a global financial order they see as unfair and exclusionary. To some international relations analysts, the BRICS bloc is aiming to upset the global financial order. But instead of seeing it as an attempt to disrupt, it's more accurate to say the bloc seeks an adjustment.

China, especially, has no wish to upset the post-cold-war global order it has benefited so much from. Xi made this clear at last week's Sino-US talks: "Cooperation between China and the US can help both countries and the rest of the world accomplish great things. Confrontation between the US and China would be a disaster for both countries and the rest of the world."

In recent years, there's been heated debate over whether China's foreign policy is diverging from its low-profile approach of old. The focus has been on whether China should, as it becomes more powerful and its rivalries with other countries more intense, take a more aggressive and direct approach in protecting its own interests. This is particularly relevant in its territorial disputes with neighbouring countries in the South and East China seas.

Its actions so far show Beijing has not completely abandoned the low-profile approach. To understand China, we ought to not only see what it has done, but also what it hasn't. Notwithstanding its military strength, China has demonstrated restraint, time and again, in its rows with others. This reflects a longer-term strategic consideration that's commendable.

A country's foreign policy is an extension of its domestic governance. Since the blueprint for comprehensive reforms was unveiled at the Communist Party's third plenum last year, progress in several major areas of change has been halting at best, and some complicated problems remain far from being resolved. With growth slowing and the risks of a financial crash lurking, the country must unite in meeting the challenge of its development. In the end, if it wants stable and peaceful external relations, China must first stabilise its own economy and society.

Above all, China must keep its head about its external challenges. If its interests were threatened, it must be sure a forceful defence is appropriate to the threat. And its bottom line is that it must not again allow external factors to impede its own modernisation.

As things stand, many major economies around the world are still recovering from the financial crisis, and none are in a position or frame of mind for a major confrontation. China has no lack of analysts exaggerating the foreign threat; its policymakers must remain alert.

This article is provided by Caixin Media, and the Chinese version of it was first published in Century Weekly magazine.