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Foreign Policy

Challenges in China’s Peripheral Diplomacy

Jun 24, 2021
  • Chen Jimin

    Guest Researcher, Center for Peace and Development Studies, China Association for International Friendly Contact

For any country in the world, relations with neighboring countries hold particular significance. This is particularly the case with China. Good, stable relations with its neighbors are an important foundation as it seeks to maintain a favorable regional and international environment supporting its rise from regional player to global actor. It is also required in building a new type of international relations and a community with a shared future for mankind.

Unlike other major global players, China finds itself facing the most complex geopolitical environment. First, it shares land borders with 14 countries and maritime boundaries with six. Many of these nations are major players in regional or international affairs. Some of them have nuclear weapons. These neighbors are at different stages of economic development, and vary in their political systems and level of social stability. Some neighboring countries have historical tensions with China, most of which involve core interests such as sovereignty and security. 

Second, China faces a complex strategic environment on its periphery. As the world’s center of gravity continues to shift to the East, Asia — and especially the Asia-Pacific region — has emerged as a main battleground for great-power competition, as evidenced by the Indo-Pacific strategies implemented by the United States and some European countries.

Third, countries inside and outside the region maintain close ties at the policy level to balance China’s power. For example, certain regional organizations and countries, including Japan, India and some ASEAN members, have launched their own Indo-Pacific visions echoing the strategy of Washington. Tensions arise frequently in numerous regional hot spots related to China, such as the South China Sea, and these rapidly become internationalized, which puts greater strategic pressure on China.

Fortunately, these issues have not led to large-scale or long-term conflicts or confrontations, and China’s overall relations with its neighbors are amiable and stable. In this sense, China’s neighborhood diplomacy has been effective and productive. However, there are also great challenges in these relations, and a major one is the deficit of political trust and lack of security mechanisms. Some neighboring countries still have suspicions and misgivings about China.

“Many medium and small countries in Asia are also concerned. They are uneasy that China may want to resume the imperial status it had in earlier centuries, and they have misgivings about being treated as vassal states having to send tribute to China as they used to do in past centuries,” said Lew Kuan Yew, the founding father of Singapore.

Ideology is also at work. ASEAN was originally built to resist the penetration of communism. But a more significant contributing factor is geostrategy. The scale, pace and impact of China’s rise has been beyond imagination for its neighbors. Since the world is in a period of anarchy, these countries see themselves as the ultimate defender of their own security, and their vigilance and suspicion arise from their instinct for security. Given the lack of political trust and security mechanisms, they understandably partner with foreign actors to hedge against China on the security front. 

In this context, Asian countries maintain close economic ties with China, but they also have close interactions with foreign actors, such as the United States. These countries also band together by building, for example, the ASEAN community, a regional organization based on three pillars —the ASEAN Political-Security Community (APSC), the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) and the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC). But balanced diplomacy is their optimal policy choice, because they are most reluctant to choose between Beijing and Washington. China’s advocacy of partnership over alliance meets the needs of its neighbors and therefore contributes to the security landscape of the region.

In light of the significance of China’s relations with neighbors and the complex realties of the region, it is important for China to maintain the continuity, consistency and advancement of peripheral diplomacy. It needs to deepen relations with its neighbors under the principle of family, sincerity, mutual benefit and inclusiveness, stay true to the policy of building friendships and partnerships with neighboring countries and together build a community with a shared future with them. To this end, it needs to:

A) demonstrate the friendly nature of its diplomacy by staying committed politically to the principle of mutual respect and equality;

B) demonstrate the inclusive nature of its diplomacy by responding to major security concerns of its neighbors in a spirit of empathy;

C) demonstrate the open nature of its diplomacy by taking a right approach to justice and interests and expanding win-win economic and trade cooperation;

D) demonstrate the peaceful nature of its diplomacy by enhancing regional security cooperation and easing its neighbors’ security anxieties. Regional security cooperation could start with nontraditional security issues, while at the same time enhancing multilateral and bilateral management of security risks. Then they could build security mechanisms and architectures that respond to local needs;

E) demonstrate the influence of its diplomacy by encouraging companies, think tanks, cultural organizations and other social actors to enhance public diplomacy, people-to-people contact and cultural exchanges.

Notably, Asian countries must take the United States into consideration when working on relations with their neighbors.

“The United States lies in the West Hemisphere and is not our neighboring country, but it is a crucial factor that affects our peripheral security,” President Jiang Zemin said in August 2001.

This logic also applies to China’s neighboring states. But when it comes to Washington’s role in the region, the countries involved should not overestimate Washington’s role nor see it as the only provider and defender of regional security. Nor should they overlook or belittle its role.

At the same time, the U.S. and Asian countries should take a comprehensive and rational look at China’s role in regional security and development and avoid political manipulation, extreme prejudice and presumption of guilt. It is critical to have a realistic understanding of Beijing’s and Washington’s roles in maintaining regional peace and development.

Neighborly relations serve the interests of all countries involved and depend on joint efforts. For China, the United States and other countries inside and outside Asia, the greatest common denominator is the need to uphold peace, stability and prosperity in the region. Therefore, efforts taken by all sides must be constructive, inclusive and peaceful, rather than destructive, exclusive and confrontational. For its part, China has the sincerity and the goodwill to contribute to the peace and stability of Asia and hopes that other Asian countries and the United States can also act in good faith to meet each other halfway and together build an open and inclusive Asia that embraces peace, prosperity and win-win cooperation.  

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