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Foreign Policy

China’s Foreign Policy Shift Mirrors New Realities

Jan 20 , 2016
  • Cui Liru

    Former President, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

When it comes to China-US relations, a lot of factors are at play and people always have different views. To fully appreciate such a complicated relationship, we need to understand overall global developments first.

The first development involves changes in the international landscape. As we move into a multipolar world, the US can no longer dominate the world as it did in the post-Cold War era. With the emergence of more big players, the world power is now shared by more, and a state of disorder and imbalance is seen everywhere. The general trend is that there are more players in the world and their relations are more and more complicated. There are both competition and cooperation, with convergence of interests growing and competition becoming more fierce.

Going forward, we will continue to share this global village, so we need to find ways to live together harmoniously. Only big powers are likely to launch big wars; however, this benefits no country. Common sense tells us that wars are usually counterproductive, so the general trend is big powers will not wage wars off-handedly.

What is the dynamic of the China-US relationship? It is of course a relationship between two biggest economies. For 30 to 40 years, this relationship has experienced ups and downs, but the general direction has remained unchanged. Now there are some changes in the bilateral relations. The biggest change and core problem is the increased US concern that China may challenge US dominance in the world. The Soviet Union once challenged US supremacy. And after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the US has been looking for its next major rival. For some time, the US had identified China as a potential rival. The 9/11 terrorist attacks turned its attention to counter-terrorism. This episode was followed by faster development of China, the 2008 financial crisis and the heavy blow it gave the US economy, and the continued strong growth of China. So the biggest change is that China has now emerged as a major strategic competitor for the US.

Once the US found its main strategic competitor, it would focus its energy and resources on it and target it. Unless the US suffers a sudden decline, this trend will not change. This explains the tension between China and the US. China’s economy continues to boom after it took over Japan as the second largest economy in the world, and now its economic aggregate is more than twice as big as that of Japan, and catching up with that of the US. This is an important and disturbing development for the US.

The second development is the US strategic contraction. During the 10 years after the Cold War, the US dominated the world as the sole superpower and it was overstretched. A basic strategy of the Obama administration has been contraction. There is no doubt that it has to avoid the excessive influence of the isolationists at home while pursuing the policy of contraction. Though most people in the US want to see continued US dominance and leadership in the world, excessive expansion has stretched the power of the country too thin and it has to withdraw from the two wars engulfing it and shift the focus to the Asia Pacific.

Meanwhile, the dynamics of China-US relations has undergone dramatic change. Over a long period of time, China had been on the defensive, mainly reacting when incidents occurred. China had concentrated on economic development, caring little about other things. International affairs, whether global ones or those in the Asia Pacific, were generally dominated by the US.

Recently there have been some changes in the world landscape. While the US maintains its dominance or contracts a bit, China has been expanding in the international arena. First, economically, China pursues a “going abroad” policy. The Belt and Road Initiative and the western development policy are both expansive. Of course such expansion bears no resemblance to the Western colonialist or imperialist expansion in the past: What China wants is mutual benefits and win-win results. But an expansive trend is visible.

For instance, a very big change is that China is now the largest trading partner of most of its neighbors. A major strategic measure we are pursuing is bolstering connectivity, i.e. linking China’s development with the growth of the neighboring countries. The Belt and Road Initiative will bring such connectivity to the entire region to the west of China. The Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is another major initiative China has pursued in its neighborhood. Together with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, BRICS cooperation, BRICS new development bank, and CICA, it bears testimony to China’s overall diplomatic expansion spearheaded by its robust economic development.

Transition from defensive and reactive diplomacy to proactive diplomacy is a major change. What China pursues is win-win cooperation, but its new strategic posture is drastically different from that of the past and the US cannot ignore it. The “rebalance toward Asia “strategy was put forward after Obama took office. It is generally viewed as targeted against China, and the US is denounced for containing China. Judging by the evolution of the strategic dynamics, the rebalance is actually a US response to China’s development, rise and expansion. It testifies to the need for readjustment on the part of the US. What is rebalance? It means old balance is broken and the US has to make adjustment to establish new balance. The purpose is to sustain the US leadership role in the Asia Pacific.

Why do we advocate major-country diplomacy now?

Major-country diplomacy mirrors the reality. China is now the second largest economy and a major country in the world. Its diplomacy cannot afford to maintain the inward-looking strategy it used to pursue when it was a weak country. Now China is more and more deeply involved in its neighborhood, the Asia Pacific and world affairs, exerting ever greater influence with its development, and participating in the design and shaping of regional and global orders. The “major-country diplomacy in the new era”, as it is called, actually represents new changes needed to make China’s diplomacy more compatible with its growing international standing.

The fierce contention between China and the US is, one the one hand, due to China’s growing strength. On the other hand, the China-US relationship has long been kidnapped by their economic relations, while their political and security interactions have failed to adjust at the same pace. This has also led to heightened tensions between the two countries.

A few months ago, US scholar David Lampton talked about the “tipping point” in China-US relations, which may refer to the transition between a cooperation-led relationship to a confrontation-led relationship. This tipping point has not come yet, but is approaching. Lampton believes this is a very dangerous situation and his views are typical, reflecting the new developments in China-US relations. Over the years, the China-US relationship has experienced ups and downs, and even major crises, but there have been no serious concerns that may change the direction of the relationship. However, now people begin to worry about such a change.

Many, including more and more Americans, are talking about the Thucydides Trap. There is a growing concern that China and the US will inevitably move toward confrontation.

This is something unseen over the past four decades. And this is why China put forward the vision of building a new model of major-country relations between China and the US, which bears on China’s peaceful development and the future of the bilateral relations. The centerpiece of this vision is non-confrontation. Some define the competition between China and the US as a rising power challenging an established power. Even if this is true, confrontation is not inevitable, because times has changed and so have major-country relations. The historical experience of the Thucydides Trap may be inspirational, but it should by no means dictate the fate of China-US relations.

The American people obviously have some reservations about the concept of the new major-country relations, but they identify themselves with the idea of non-confrontation. Unwilling to relinquish its established interests and leadership status, the US does not respond to — or refuses to accept— the idea of “mutual respect”. Win-win cooperation is a high or ideal objective. There can be partial win-win cooperation between the two countries, while an all-round win-win cooperation seems a bit far-fetched. The overall relations are still dominated by competition. Since the beginning of last year, the bilateral relations have been plagued by tensions. More and more people wonder where the bilateral relationship is headed.

The biggest concern for the US is that China is challenging US leadership and may replace it one day, possibly starting in Asia. It is hard to dispel such concerns. It is precisely because of China’s awareness of such a dangerous change in the direction of China-US relations that China put forward new visions to bring the bilateral relationship back onto the track of positive and constructive development.

During President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to the US, he had a long conversation with President Barack Obama. He expounded on China’s major domestic and foreign policies and strategic objectives, trying to diffuse US suspicion of China’s strategic intentions, which to some extent eased the misgivings of the US side.

President Obama, however, is faced with huge domestic pressure from the conservatives, and needs to show his assertiveness to China. He is often accused of being too weak and impotent when it comes to issues related China, Ukraine, Russia and the Middle East. This provides an important background for the projection of Obama administration’s China policy.

There are two major disputes between China and the US at present. One is the South China Sea issue and the other is cybersecurity. These two issues gravely overshadowed the atmosphere of the bilateral relations before President Xi’s visit to the US – but simultaneously highlighted the necessity of the visit and reflected the maturity of China-US relations.

The focus of US policy toward China is to stabilize bilateral relations. Both sides hoped that President Xi’s state visit would boost the steady development of the bilateral relations, and send a positive signal to the outside world. As we have seen, partial progress has been made on cybersecurity, the issue over which the two sides have the biggest disputes.

Cybersecurity is a new frontier in China-US relations. During President Xi’s visit, the two countries reached a five-point consensus, marking a great breakthrough on the issue. The consensus eased the tensions and demonstrated a change of their understanding of the issue, and is therefore of great significance for the bilateral and multilateral security in cyberspace in the future. To realize non-confrontation, it is crucial to properly handle the issue of cybersecurity and to do this, there needs to be a basic code of conduct that is observed by both sides.

Another flash point is the South China Sea issue. It seems little was achieved on this front during the visit.

In the final analysis, the dispute between the two countries is the conflict between China’s intention to safeguard its sovereignty and maritime interests and the US intention to defend its established interests in the Asia Pacific, which represents the core contention between China and the US in the new era. The multilateral diplomacy of the Obama administration is only a superficial change made by the US. In essence, the US intention to maintain its dominance in the Asia Pacific remains unchanged. That means the South China Sea issue cannot be resolved in a short time, and we need to be prepared for long-term wrestling.

The basic tone set by President Xi’s visit to the US is that the two countries must seek convergence of common interests, strengthen practical cooperation, properly handle disputes and avoid conflict and confrontation. This is conducive to the smooth development of the bilateral relations, which is now in a transitional period. The needs for mutually beneficial cooperation still outweigh disputes, though the tendency toward strategic competition has strengthened and many issues cannot be settled quickly. In this context, it is vital to step up risk control and development of crisis-management mechanisms. This should be the consensus and top priority of the military relations between the two countries.

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