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Foreign Policy

Chinese Diplomacy Seems Poised for a Period of Strategic Difficulties

Jan 12 , 2017
  • Zheng Yu

    Professor, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

Dividing Chinese diplomacy since the 1980s into stages, 1982-2000 may be defined as a stage of strategic adjustment, and 2001-2016 one of strategic opportunities. Beginning in 2017, Chinese diplomacy may enter a period of strategic difficulties.

In line with the strategy of reform and opening up the Communist Party of China adopted in December 1978, the 12th CPC National Congress in September 1982 formally inaugurated a stage of strategic adjustment for Chinese diplomacy through three strategic transformations: From promoting world revolution to economy-focused opening up to the outside world, from alignment to non-alignment, and from ideological to non-ideological. During the stage of adjustment, China fundamentally eased tensions with the outside world - including ending military confrontation with the Soviet Union, re-orienting relations with the United States from jointly confronting the Soviet Union toward focusing on economic and technological cooperation, and normalizing relations with neighboring countries. This not only provided a secure and stable environment for China’s reforms at home, but also guaranteed initial external markets and investment support for the fundamental transformation in macro national strategy that concentrated on economic progress, and accumulated the initial material basis for China’s peaceful rise.

The stage of strategic opportunities starting from 2001 was supported by the following factors. First, the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 not only put to an end the trend of deterioration of China-US ties caused by the mid-air collision of Chinese and American military planes five month earlier. Based on the immediate and long-term needs of the war on terror, as well as worsening US-Russia ties as a result of the NATO’s continuous eastward expansion, US support for the “Orange revolution” in Ukraine, as well as the anti-missile project in East Europe, the George W. Bush administration continuously promoted and expanded cooperation with China in various fields, and evidently suppressed Taiwan’s bid for independence.

Second, China formally joined the WTO in December 2001. By 2015, total volume of Chinese export and import rose from $0.51 trillion in 2001 to $3.96 trillion. China became the world’s second-largest economy during the period.

Third, starting from 2010, the eastward shift of US strategic focus has for the first time identified China as a main rival in international competition, with expansion in military deployment and formulation of the TPP as two wings of the strategy. Yet the post-2008 economic stagnation restrained implementation of the pivot to the Asia-Pacific. On one hand, the Democratic Party, with Barack Obama representing those committed to globalization and establishmentalism, enhanced cooperation with China in the G20; on the other hand, regular strategic and economic dialogue with China not only achieved a series of practical outcomes, but effectively eased tensions between the two sides. Therefore, implementation of the eastward shift did not really terminate Chinese diplomacy’s stage of strategic opportunities.
Beginning in 2017, Chinese diplomacy may enter a stage of strategic difficulties.

First, the Trump administration may exert unprecedented strategic pressures on China against the background of continuous implementation of the pivot to the Asia-Pacific. Trump’s pre-inauguration words and deeds, as well as the appointments he has made, indicate his administration will strengthen pressures on China at least in the following three aspects: 1. Sabotage the “one China” principle, the cornerstone of China-US relations and bilateral cooperation in various fields, via developing military relations and official exchanges with Taiwan, and create troubles for China in security and diplomacy, thus depleting China’s diplomatic resources and distract its strategic concentration in the strategic gaming against China. 2. Enhance trade protectionism with various tariff and non-tariff barricades for China in economic and trade ties, and identify China as a foreign exchange manipulator to damage bilateral financial cooperation. 3. Seek to ease US-Russia ties, at least to freeze the extent of US-Russia contradictions, so as to concentrate national resources to contain China’s development.

Second, the Trump administration will be more inclined to adopt a unilateralist, isolationist approach to fighting global terror and on anti-proliferation issues, proceeding from US homeland security. It may be less willing to assume international responsibilities in order to conserve financial resources, conspicuously reducing the necessity of US-China cooperation in the field of non-traditional security. That would weaken the resilience necessary for recovery when their relations sour.

Third, China’s previous export-driven economic development strategy is unsustainable, because on one hand, economic difficulties are a global phenomenon, and demand is weak; on the other hand, there are the effects of the so-called “middle-income trap”. This will inevitably, simultaneously worsen China’s economic competition with both developed and developing nations, leading to more economic frictions.

Fourth, further efforts in resolving territorial integrity and national reunification will escalate diplomatic conflicts with neighboring countries and other stakeholders. Chinese diplomacy will face unprecedentedly complicated conditions, and relevant countries may adopt more hostile policies against China.

Finally, if the “belt and road” initiative, as an important component of the country’s global economic strategy, continues to stay in the current preparatory phase, they will gradually lose appeal to corresponding countries. If they gradually get implemented in other parts of the world, the safety of Chinese overseas investments will present itself as a new challenge, and there will be a conspicuous increase in the need for diplomatic coordination and corresponding difficulties.

All that said, China isn’t necessarily doomed to enter the aforementioned stage of strategic difficulties, because of the following:

First, anti-globalization, protectionist economic policies will not necessarily reset the American economy. The evident drop in Chinese economic growth in the context of global recession shows the US can’t go it alone. Strengthening international economic cooperation, including restoring collaboration with China, may be an inescapable choice for the Trump administration.

Second, although isolationist security policies may guarantee territorial security, they can’t secure American global interests. In this area, US needs international cooperation.

Third, the profound economic interdependence, as demonstrated by the astronomical economic and trade figures, determines that Trump’s punitive economic policies against China will prove a double-edged sword, and he may have to change course later on.

The Republicans’ realist diplomatic philosophy and Trump’s businessman’s pragmatism make it possible for reversals in the next US government’s aggressive China policies, and then Chinese diplomacy will find a stage where difficulties and opportunities co-exist.

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