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Foreign Policy

China and its Neighbors in 2013: A Two-Wheel Approach

Jan 21 , 2014

After a year’s efforts, China’s new-generation leaders have basically laid out the overall pattern of the country’s new-era relations with neighboring countries. President Xi Jinping made his first overseas trip as head of state to Russia in March. He visited Central-Asian countries in September, attended the Bali APEC summit and visited Indonesia and Malaysia in October. Premier Li Keqiang visited India and Pakistan in May, attended the East-Asia leaders’ meetings in Brunei, and visited Brunei, Thailand and Vietnam in October.  On October 24 and 25, the CPC Central Committee held a working conference on relations with China’s neighboring countries, putting forward diplomatic strategies for the next five to 10 years. The very first year of the Xi-Li brand of Chinese diplomacy shows their foreign policies feature equal emphasis on two areas – development and security.

Zhai Kun

Development is where China’s advantage lies. The first moves of Xi and Li were a series of new proposals and grand visions for regional economic progress, which are bold and inspiring. Complicated as they appear, they generally fall into two mutually supplementary categories.

The first is the “Silk Road Strategy”. President Xi proposed the concept of a “Silk Road Economic Belt” in Central Asia, and that of the “21st-Century Maritime Silk Road” in Southeast Asia. This illustrates China’s idea of peaceful development in its approach to relations with neighboring countries. In other words, it is a “peripheral economy edition” of the Chinese Dream. On one hand, it connects history with the future. On land, the ancient Silk Road started from China, extending far westward. On the sea, the maritime Silk Road started from South China. On the other hand, it hooks up neighboring countries and territories with China as a crucial middle link. With the size of its economy and growth prospects, China is in a fitting position to link Eurasia and the Asia Pacific.      

The second category covers the promotion of interconnectivity, free trade areas and economic corridors, as well as such proposals as an Asian infrastructure investment bank. Free trade areas mainly include an upgraded version of the China-ASEAN FTA, RCEP, China-DPRK FTA, China-Australia FTA, and the China-Japan-DPRK FTA, focusing on regional mechanisms building. Economic corridors, including the one between Bangladesh- China-India-Myanmar, are aimed at promoting bilateral and sub-regional economic integration. China’s participation in ASEAN interconnectivity construction and its proposal of interconnectivity across the Asia Pacific is targeted at promoting infrastructure in the neighborhood. The goal of creating an Asian infrastructure investment bank is to establish a regional fund-raising platform.

Therefore, the two categories of proposals are not arbitrary. They both have historical and current bases. They represent an upgraded version of the past model of economic collaboration with neighboring countries. If implemented smoothly, they will facilitate common prosperity of the entire community, as well as Asian rejuvenation. The beneficiaries will certainly include developed economies as Japan, United States and the EU. Such moves will initiate a new round of a “going out” craze in China. This time around, more emphasis must be put on the needs of host countries, as well as the interests of multiple stakeholders.

Of course, particular attention must also be paid to the ensuing overseas interests and geo-strategic risks. Economic issues have always been in close association with political, security and strategic concerns. Judging from 2013, China has been more proactive in handling security concerns, which has also displayed two mutually complementary aspects: setting up a framework of strategic stability, and coping with hot-spot issues.

To install the framework of strategic stability, China improved its relations with the DPRK, further upgraded its strategic partnership with Russia, initiated a new type of big-country relationship with United States, stabilized relations with two major neighboring continental powers – India and Russia. China and ASEAN have also been striving to build a community of common destiny and to negotiate a COC on the South China Sea. For their substantial impact on the big picture of peripheral security and stability, such negotiations deserve particular attention.

While the Sino-Russian relationship is “the most important”, it is even more important that Sino-US relations have the biggest influence on China’s neighbors. The meeting of Chinese and American leaders in June inaugurated a new-type of big-country relationship featuring “no confrontation, no conflicts”. Such a relationship is conducive to creating and upgrading benign interactions among China, United States, and China’s neighboring countries. Many have fixated on the competitive aspect of the Sino-US relationship regarding Obama’s absence from the Bali APEC. But the truly pitiful aspect of his absence was that China, United States and China’s neighbors missed an opportunity for discussing benign interactions.

Proceeding from such a macro framework of strategic stability, we will have a better idea of the escalation of the Sino-Japanese confrontation, the deterioration of security conditions on the Korean peninsula, and the unfolding territorial disputes on the South China Sea. In spite of the apparent lack of sophistication and coordination, China is increasingly confident and decisive in handling security concerns. In the long term, China’s approach to its relations with neighboring countries may incorporate the combination of “peaceful development and bottom-line thinking”, a “framework of strategic stability and hot-spot crisis management and control”, and of “prestige-building and rule-making as well as common security”. 

The Xi-Li diplomacy worked well in 2013. A successful 2014 will rely more on the coordination of its twin engines.

Zhai Kun is Director of Institute of World Politics at China Institute of Contemporary International Relations.

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