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Foreign Policy

How to be a Good Neighbor? The US isn’t a Great Example

Jul 05, 2018
  • Jiang Shixue

    Professor and Director, Center for Latin American Studies, Shanghai University


In human history, relationship between a big country and its neighbors is always an important issue for both sides. There are numerous cases of peaceful coexistence, long-lasting hostility, or short-term military confrontation.

In the past several decades, China’s power and influence has risen. As a result, its relationship with its neighbors has attracted more interest.

Some people suggest that China can learn from the United States in dealing with its neighbors.

On the surface, this suggestion is logical as both China and the U.S. are powerful and they both have neighbors. In reality, however, it is not a good suggestion.

First, the U.S. has only two neighbors, whilst China shares borders with fourteen countries. Some of them, like Russia and India, are large; others are relatively small. And, they are different from each other in terms of development levels, religious beliefs, cultural traditions, and resources.

Needless to say, the more neighbors you have, the more complicated the issue in question would be.

Moreover, the U.S. and Canada have many things in common. They have a common history, and political and economic systems, similar living standards, no border disputes, and similar positions on almost all international issues. These kinds of characteristics make it easy for the US to maintain good relations with Canada.

But the U.S.-Canada ties are not always harmonious. Trade conflict is growing between the U.S. and Canada. On June 29, 2018, Canada hit back at the US with tariffs on metals, bourbon, and orange juice.

Second, it is fair to say that Mexico is a “distant neighbor” for the U.S. Ask any Mexican about the history of U.S.-Mexico relations and he or she will tell you how the US treated its southern neighbor. During 1846-1848, for instance, there was a war between a politically divided and militarily unprepared Mexico and a rising U.S., whose expansionist-minded president James K. Polk believed that his country had a “manifest destiny” to spread across the continent to the Pacific Ocean. When the war ended, Mexico lost about one-third of its territory, including nearly all of present-day California, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico.

No wonder Porfirio Díaz (15 September 1830 – 2 July 1915), who served as President of Mexico for many years, once said: “Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the U.S.”

It is interesting to note that, in the 1990s, the wording of President Porfirio Diaz’s famous saying was totally changed by some Russians who were jealous of Mexico’s relations with the U.S.

In the process of economic transition after the Soviet Union disintegrated, i.e., replacing the command economy with a free market, Russia faced a severe economic crisis, but could not get enough economic assistance from the West. As a result, many Russians started to envy Mexico, saying: “Lucky Mexico, though it’s so far from God, it’s so close to the US.”

It seems that the Russians were correct to say so. On January 1, 1994, for instance, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into force. It made it easier for Mexico to access the huge U.S. market. In December of the same year, soon after Mexico sank into the infamous Peso crisis, a financial meltdown whose contagion was so severe that economists called it the first financial crisis in the age of globalization, the US came to the rescue immediately with $50 billion. It was widely believed that without this generous bail-out the Mexican economy would not have gotten out of the woods so quickly.

But now, NAFTA is being re-negotiated among the three members. No one knows whether, when, and how the bargaining will be concluded. A high wall on the U.S.-Mexico border is under construction. Mexico is asked to pay the cost of building the “Berlin Wall on the Americas”. The so-called undocumented Mexican migrants in the U.S. are being deported back home. According to the BBC, children thought to be aged between four and 10, and recently separated from their undocumented immigrant parents, can be heard crying as an agent jokes, “We have an orchestra here.”

Having said this, it must be acknowledged that, apart from hard power, the U.S. also applies soft power to improve its relations with the neighbors. The media, people-to-people exchanges, and exports of cultural products have played an important role in this regard. China can do the same to make itself understood by its neighbors. China’s soft power is not strong enough now, but it is rising.

In order to improve its relations with neighboring countries, China has been implementing the principle of amity, sincerity, mutual benefit, and inclusiveness. This principle was adopted at an important meeting in October 2013 on China’s diplomacy with its neighbors. This meeting was organized by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. It indicated that dealing with neighbors was now on top of the foreign policy agenda.

Countries cannot choose their neighbors. It is said that a senior government official from Vietnam once said, “So far from Heaven, so close to China.” He did not use the word “poor” or “lucky” for Vietnam and other neighboring countries of China. But, from what China has done for its neighbors, they are lucky to be so close. China’s development offers good opportunities for them. The Belt-Road initiative is a notable example.

One of the main purposes of designing the Belt-Road initiative is to promote ties between China and its neighbors. Running through Central Asia and South East Asia, this initiative is expected to promote economic cooperation through policy coordination, infrastructure connection, trade facilitation, financial flows, and cultural exchanges.

China’s land border stretches 22,000 kilometers, and is shared with fourteen countries. Through peaceful means, China has resolved border disputes with twelve of them.

China does not use non-peaceful means to resolve border disputes with its neighbors. As a peace-loving nation, China has never occupied an inch of foreign land. At numerous occasions, China has expressed its willingness and determination to reach a win-win outcome through dialogue.

Bilateral relations between a major power and its neighbors are a two-way street. Big countries should not bully small ones, neither should small countries bully big ones. Quite a few examples show that China was not treated well by its small neighbors in the past, such as the fact that the then Philippine President Benigno Aquino, supported by the US and Japan, filed for arbitration against China in 2013 despite the agreement his country had reached with China on solving their dispute over the South China Sea.

While meeting with the United States Secretary of Defense James Mattis at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on June 27, 2018, Xi Jinping said that China’s attitude on safeguarding national sovereignty and territory integrity is firm and clear. “China will not tolerate losing even an inch of homeland that is inherited from ancestors, nor will it claim any land of other nations,” Xi Jinping told Mattis.

In conclusion, China cannot take the U.S. as a model in dealing with its neighboring countries. China has its own principle built upon amity, sincerity, mutual benefit, and inclusiveness.


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