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Foreign Policy

China’s Neighborhood Diplomacy in 2014

Feb 19 , 2014

The year 2013 was the new Chinese leadership’s first year in conducting neighborhood diplomacy. While producing marked results, the host of new concepts, expressions and initiatives has also made it difficult for the outside world to understand and respond to the “advancing and proactive” diplomacy of China in its neighborhood. Therefore, in conducting relations with neighboring countries in 2014, China should fully tap its home advantage, commit to regional stability and development with a more pragmatic, clear, consistent and rational actions, and steer its interactions with neighbors and the US towards a sound, stable and win-win direction. 

Zhai Kun

Framework for positive interaction between China, its neighbors and the US is a concept created by Chinese policy and academic communities in early 21st century. Since the international financial crisis and with the rise of China, such interactions have become increasingly close and complex. The old balance has already been broken while a new balance is yet to emerge. As a result, conflicts of interests have increased sharply, forcing all parties concerned to readjust their strategies in response to the new situation. At present, the imbalance is manifested in these facts: the rise of China is beneficial to the development of its neighboring countries but has caused their suspicion and concern over security while US suffering from the financial crisis has difficulty to help development of China’s neighbors yet as these countries still depend and have high expectations on the US in the security field. In a word, neighboring countries of China are “dependent on China economically and on the US in security”. 

Such a view has a point and reflects part of the story but not all. Any simplification or extreme application of the statement will only set China and the US in sharper opposition. In a binary opposition structure of a Pacific security system centering on the US and a regional economic cooperation system centering on China, if thus formed, interactions among China, its neighbors and the US can only be malicious and unstable. Actually, these neighboring countries need both China and the US – both economically and in the security field. On the one hand, they rely on the US economically. America’s economic capacity in China’s surrounding areas has not declined. From 1990 to 2010, gross world product almost doubled, so did the US GDP. With economic recovery in the US, these countries will be more dependent on the US in terms of export and investment. On the other hand, they also rely on China in the security field. While seeing traditional security contradictions between China, its neighbors and the US, one should also acknowledge their interdependence in terms of non-traditional security. For example, with increased use of RMB in neighboring countries and with the currency’s internationalization process, it will naturally become a security question. The Chinese market bears on ASEAN’s economic security. Chinese energy security strategy bears on the security of Central Asian countries and the geostrategies of India and Pakistan. The deepening of reform and any readjustment in the Chinese economic strategy is directly linked to “Japan’s national strategic direction” and global strategic readjustment of the US. In this connection, positive interactions among China, its neighbors and the US are needed to safeguard stability of the Asia Pacific and China’s surrounding areas. To achieve this, we need the co-evolution advocated by Henry Kissinger in his On China not only between China and the US but also among China, its neighbors and the US. In this process, the two powers of China and the US should take a leading role. 

To facilitate positive interactions, initial efforts may focus on two aspects. The first is to consolidate the new type of major country relationship between China and the US. The Sunnylands Summit in 2013 launched the process of creating a new type of major country relationship. The 2014 mid-term elections in the US will for sure disturb China-US relations with issues of democracy, human rights, ethnic policies, religion, arms sale to Taiwan and surveillance of China. As both countries are sufficiently experienced in this regard, proper handling of these traditional irritants may well lay down a foundation for the positive interactions between China, its neighbors and the US. Presidents Xi Jinping and Barack Obama should meet at the APEC Summit to be held in China, which will not only benefit the bilateral relationship but also demonstrate to the Asia Pacific the stability of new type of major country relationship between them. 

The other focus of attention should be to strengthen coordination and cooperation between China, its neighbors and the US. There are three priority areas. First, the year 2014 marked the 60th anniversary of the five principles of peaceful coexistence. However, the security environment in China’s surrounding areas has not been stable in recent years. For example, the escalation of the China-Japan dispute, problem on the Korean Peninsula and the South China Sea dispute have fuelled a sense of insecurity of all: China, its neighbors and the US. In such a situation, it is particularly necessary for China, the US and other relevant parties to reach a strategic common understanding on the security and stability of overall regional situation and put in place crisis management mechanisms and a security code of conduct in the Asia Pacific. Second, the US withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan bears on the success of its global strategic readjustment and the Chinese plan to rebuild the Silk Road, therefore requiring multi-party cooperation involving China, Iran, Pakistan, India, Russia, EU, NATO and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. China should make good use of the 4th Foreign Ministers’ Conference of Istanbul Process on Afghanistan it’s going to host in August 2014 to promote positive interactions. Third, China, its neighbors and the US can jointly expand their cooperation at the regional level. TPP and RCEP negotiations will be tough in 2014. And mutual competition is not conducive to regional integration. These countries should seek areas where cooperation is possible. China and the US, in particular, should provide public goods for the region. The joint assistance to Timor Leste launched in 2012 set a very good precedent. China and the US should consider joining hands in disaster relief, projects improving people’s livelihood, education, training and development in pursuit of positive interactions with humanitarian significance. 

Zhai Kun is Director and Researcher of the Institute of World Political Studies at CICIR.

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