Why China is becoming a friendlier neighbour in Asia
Deng Yuwen says Beijing sees the importance of cultivating good relations on its periphery, and is growing into its role as a global power on the rise. Warmer relations with a host of countries, including India, Japan and North Korea, are proof of it
Observers will note that China has been taking a different approach in its peripheral diplomacy this year, and the previously hostile relationships with some of its neighbours have become much friendlier.
Late last month, President Xi Jinping held an informal summit in Wuhan with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. On May 9, Premier Li Keqiang made his first visit to Japan, the first such visit in eight years by a Chinese premier, and reached agreement with Japanese leader Shinzo Abe on a number of cooperation deals. Sino-Japanese ties are getting back on track fast.
China’s relations with North Korea are also returning to normal, as seen by Kim Jong-un’s two recent visits to China in less than two months and now frequent high-level exchanges between the two countries. This is a far cry from a few years ago.
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In fact, even before the 19th Communist Party congress last October, there were signs of a softer Chinese approach. Relations with South Korea have become warmer since July, and ties with Singapore – strained in recent years by the 2016 international tribunal ruling on South China Sea disputes and the impounding of Singapore’s armoured military vehicles in Hong Kong, en route from Taiwan – also rebounded soon after the party congress.
China’s ties with Myanmar have similarly improved, and its relations with the Philippines, which had deteriorated over territorial disputes in the South China Sea, became much friendlier after Rodrigo Duterte took power.
While all of this is happening, however, Sino-US ties have steadily deteriorated.
Some commentators believe Beijing’s friendlier attitude towards its neighbours is all part of its plan to counter US power. This is only partly correct. While Beijing’s vexing relations with the US must have put some pressure on it to ensure its relations with others are less fraught, I think the more important reason for China’s new-found friendliness is its wish to create more favourable conditions for its development in the coming years.
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The Communist Party has set several milestone targets for China’s modernisation: to become a top-ranked innovative nation by 2035, and a modern socialist power by 2050. Its more immediate goal is to build a moderately prosperous society by 2020, in time to mark the 100th anniversary of the party’s founding. To achieve these goals, China needs a stable and peaceful international environment.
This is why friendly relations with its periphery are vital. As the world’s second-largest economy, China has close economic and trade links with its neighbours, many of whom will also take part in its ambitious development plan, the “Belt and Road Initiative”. Moreover, Asia, particularly East Asia and Southeast Asia, is the world’s most dynamic economic zone, and the key driver of global growth. Any outbreak of hostilities would foil China’s development plans.
In this context, although China considers the Sino-US relationship to be highly important, its relations with its periphery are also regarded as a priority.
Unfortunately, when measured against Beijing’s own aim of cultivating friendly, harmonious and mutually beneficial relations with its neighbours, its diplomacy in the five years since the 18th party congress in 2012 missed the mark by a long way. In that time, conflicts big and small erupted in major relationships.
There were many reasons for the discord, and China was not solely to blame. But, to many people, it was China’s arrogance and high-handedness in dealing with others, especially during a disagreement, that was the fundamental problem.
If this was an isolated view, we could attribute it to perceiver’s bias. But if it is a widely shared view, then China must rethink its own attitude and tactics, and question whether they were appropriate.
China has given the world the impression of a brash upstart because, unsure of how to act in its new-found status as a global power on the rise, Beijing has continued to rely on old thinking and old approaches in its foreign relations.
As the 19th party congress makes clear, the key task for Chinese people today is to “grow stronger”, different from the exhortation in Mao Zedong’s time to “stand up”, and the goal in Deng Xiaoping’s time to “get rich”. Diplomatically, this means a shift away from the time-honoured practice for China to “hide its strength and bide its time”.
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People may well equate national strength with power that grows out of a gun barrel, but such thinking has no place in a country’s diplomacy. Unfortunately, some of it has seeped into the thinking of the foreign policy establishment, as when foreign ministry spokespeople promise “a fight to the finish” as a way to reflect China’s determination to stand its ground. This only gives the impression that China is unreasonable and inflexible.
In this era of national rejuvenation, it takes skill to convey China’s will and determination diplomatically.
Outdated ideas about a “strong China” have influenced Chinese diplomacy over the past five years, at a time when the country is embroiled in various disputes over sovereignty and other issues. The result has been a series of quarrels with its neighbours, including the Philippines, Japan, India, the two Koreas and Singapore.
Of course, as a nation on the rise, China should expect its neighbours to be wary. But the fact its relations with others had deteriorated to such a level, all at the same time, was a sign that Beijing needed to reflect on what went wrong.
Outlining its approach to foreign policy at the 19th party congress, China said it was committed to building a global community of common destiny and pledged to follow the path of peaceful development. It promised dialogue over confrontation, and promised to contribute to global development and defend the international order.
These statements suggest a much less aggressive foreign policy approach, which has been borne out by China’s actions in recent months.
Deng Yuwen is a researcher at the Charhar Institute think tank. This article is translated from Chinese