With diplomatic 'partnerships', Beijing seeks global ties that can bend
China's preference for 'partnerships' that allow more room for manoeuvring than conventional treaties also has drawbacks
As China extends its reach on the global stage, it has shown a reluctance to formalise alliances with other nations, preferring instead to manage ties through "partnership arrangements" - a diplomatic tool that carries its own strengths and disadvantages, experts say.
These arrangements, which are in place with 54 out of the 172 nations with which China has diplomatic ties, are often vague and confusing to observers.
Unlike alliance and security treaties, they do not clearly spell out the obligations of the nations involved, but do offer some degree of flexibility in how ties can be managed.
"The partnership arrangement is more like a vision that says the nations involved are aiming to become partners," said Jia Qingguo, a professor of international affairs at Peking University.
"But the implementation of such arrangements has become a problem because very often the nations involved have no clear idea of what steps should be taken to improve bilateral ties," Jia said.
The tool has steadily gained prominence since the 1990s, when China began to step up its diplomatic efforts as it grew more economically powerful.
They came under the spotlight early last month when China elevated its ties with Indonesia and Malaysia to a "comprehensive strategic partnership" during visits to the two nations by President Xi Jinping.
The arrangements can be divided into five main types: a co-operative partnership, comprehensive co-operative partnership, strategic partnership, comprehensive strategic partnership and comprehensive strategic co-operative partnership.
Wang Qiaorong, a researcher at the Institute of Contemporary China Studies, said the differences among the terms were not explicitly defined.
The lowest level generally means the two nations involved will strengthen co-operation on bilateral issues, such as trade. For example, Beijing calls its ties with Singapore a "friendly co-operative partnership".
If bilateral ties are upgraded to the strategic level, the two nations will co-ordinate more closely on regional and international affairs, including military ones.
In the recent joint statement issued by China and Indonesia, both nations pledged mutual support to strengthen their positions in multilateral platforms, such as the G20, and leaders of the two nations vowed to maintain regular contact.
A partnership agreement usually indicates a certain level of trust has been achieved.
For example, Japan is not one of China's 54 partners because of territorial disputes over the East China Sea and historical disagreements about the second world war. But the agreement does not guarantee the two sides involved will see eye to eye on all key issues.
"By going into a partnership agreement, both nations are aspiring to become closer, but can still be divided on some major issues," Wang said.
A comprehensive strategic co-operative partnership is generally regarded as the highest level of bilateral relations for China.
But its ties with the United States are a special case. Beijing and Washington vowed to build a "constructive strategic partnership" in 1997.
This was followed in 2011 with a pledge to build a "co-operative partnership based on mutual respect and mutual benefit".
This past June, Xi and US President Barack Obama agreed to elevate ties to the vaguely defined "new model of major nations' relationship".
Jia Xiudong, a senior research fellow at the China Institute of International Studies, said China usually refrained from downgrading its bilateral ties with other countries even if tensions flared up.
Relations between China and the Philippines remain defined as a strategic co-operative partnership - which the two nations agreed upon in 2005 - even though they are locking horns over sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea.
Pang Zhongying, an international relations professor at Renmin University, said many nations involved in partnerships with China were not as close as the agreements implied.
Russia, a comprehensive strategic co-operative partner, often presents a united front with China on a wide range of issues, such as how the international community should handle the Syrian civil war.
But the same situation is not commonly seen with other nations. Other countries' relations with the US often affect how closely they will align themselves with China.
"China hopes to build relations that are close to the level of an alliance by being a partner," Pang said.
"But at the end of the day, it is still not an alliance, and the relationship is not treaty-based."
But Wang said there were merits to partnership arrangements, because the nations involved were not bound by a treaty and were free to act on their own needs.