China’s push for global importance has many obstacles to overcome

Cary Huang says never before has a Chinese leader been so keen to expand the country’s reach, but despite the state visits and summits, China’s neighbours and trading partners still suspect its motives and intentions

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 November, 2015, 10:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 November, 2015, 10:00am

Has China’s time now come? This question has often been asked in diplomatic circles.

President Xi Jinping (習近平) has given the clearest answer with his recent globetrotting.

Never before have China’s leaders been so keen to reach out to the world beyond their borders. Since he came to office, Xi has been racking up the air miles as he pays an unprecedented number of friendly calls on near neighbours and distant friends. In his 32 months since becoming president, Xi has been to 35 nations, including four visits to Russia and two to the United States. It shows how eager the Chinese leader is to extend the country’s global reach.

READ MORE: On the road again: packed overseas itinerary for globetrotting Chinese President Xi Jinping

In the past few weeks, Xi went to the United States, for a summit with his US counterpart Barack Obama to set the tone for the world’s most important bilateral relationship. Then he flew to London, where he and British Prime Minister David Cameron spoke of “a golden era” in British-Chinese relations. A few days later, he received German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande in Beijing, setting the tone for China-Europe relations moving forward.

Early this month, he switched his attention to China’s neighbours, visiting Vietnam and Singapore. In Singapore, he and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou held the first summit since Mao Zedong (毛澤東) met Chiang Kai-shek in the wartime capital of Chongqing (重慶) in 1945. Ma and Xi’s meeting was intended to tell the world that the Chinese can solve their own problems peacefully.

Xi left Beijing on Saturday for the G20 summit in Turkey, after which he will attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit in the Philippines on Tuesday, before flying to France to address the climate change summit in late November and to South Africa for the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation summit in early December.

READ MORE: In deal-making, handshaking Xi Jinping, China finds a new face of smart diplomacy

Clearly, Xi’s energetic diplomatic outreach has effectively replaced China’s long-standing foreign policy, expressed by late leader Deng Xiaoping’s (鄧小平) maxim “hide your brightness, bide your time”, with a new strategy. Xi’s “great power diplomacy” aims to balance cooperation and competition with the US, while at the same time expanding its cooperation with major US allies and maintaining good relationships with its neighbours.

Xi apparently wants to alter some of the international norms and rules that have defined the political, military and economic environment in the Asia-Pacific region and the world.

Indeed, under his stewardship, China is modernising its military, asserting its territorial claims in the East and South China seas, boosting Chinese overseas investment and increasing China’s participation in global affairs. Xi has also announced an ambitious programme to revive the ancient Silk Road trading route, aiming to expand China’s sphere of influence to the Middle East, Europe and Africa.

One example of China’s success in this regard is the launch of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in June, which received support from 56 other countries, including close US allies Britain, Germany and France, despite the Obama administration’s strong objections to the bank’s lending rules.

In the eyes of most of its neighbours, China’s rise isn’t entirely positive. They are all now watching worryingly over China’s development

But Xi’s foreign policy is characterised by a mix of cooperation and nationalism, which has caused more concern than ease. In the eyes of most of its neighbours, China’s rise isn’t entirely positive. They are all now watching worryingly over China’s development.

For instance, Beijing and Washington remain far apart on major issues, such as regional security. Just a few weeks after their big summit, Washington signalled it does not recognise Beijing’s sovereignty over artificial islands China built in the South China Sea by sailing the warship USS Lassen close to them. From maritime disputes to the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim countries that excludes China, Washington has demonstrated its determination not to allow China to forge new norms and rules on international politics, diplomacy and economics.

China’s seemingly harmonious relations with other major Western nations are also questionable, shown by the EU’s immediate reaction to side with Washington on the South China Sea issue, as Sino-Europe relations are largely driven by commercial interests rather than shared ideology and geopolitical concerns.

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In Asia, most nations, except for a few like Pakistan, are still suspicious of China’s strategic intentions due to concerns over geopolitics or the country’s communist political system. For instance, on the territorial dispute in the South China Sea, most nations welcome US intervention. China’s relations with Japan, the world’s third-largest economy, have been rocky for years.

Despite the end of the cold war, many of today’s conflicts are triggered by opposing political ideologies or geopolitics, not by mere commercial interests and development. China’s problem is its rise did not come with parallel political reform to narrow its gap with a world that increasingly shares such values as freedom, free markets, rule of law and democracy.

China’s rise to become a global superpower will face challenges from several prospects diplomatically. Among them are Obama’s “pivot to Asia”; Japan’s move towards national normalisation; and India’s rise. And then there is China’s own problem with Taiwan, where the pro-independence main opposition Democratic Progressive Party is likely to resume power in January’s presidential elections. This might end eight years of harmonious relations under Kuomintang rule, despite this month’s milestone summit.

As an economic power, China has commercial interests to attract foreign nations. But as the world’s last major communist-ruled nation, China lacks real friends and strategic allies.

Cary Huang is a senior writer at the Post