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Foreign Policy

What Should China Do in a Period of Frequent Frictions?

Jun 27 , 2013
  • Zhang Tuosheng

    Director of China Foundation for International Strategic Studies, Senior Adviser at Pangoal Institution

In recent years, China has run into more security challenges and increasing international pressure, thus entering a period of frequent frictions with the outside world. This is a necessary stage for a rising big country.

At present and for quite some time to come, whether China can handle well the intensifying frictions, stick to the path of peaceful rise and truly realize peaceful development with mutual benefit and win-win will present a historic challenge and must be clearly answered with deeds rather than words.

What measures can China take in this new situation? The most important are the following three.

First, China must stick to, rather than wavering from, the series of effective foreign policies adopted since reform and opening-up; mainly the foreign policy of peace initiated by Deng Xiaoping, with necessary adaptations in light of changing circumstances.

The 2011 white paper titled “China’s Peaceful Development,” formulated on the basis of this principle, was a solemn declaration of the Chinese government to its people and the world community. According to the white paper, China believes that the world is now “a community of common destiny in which the members are closely interconnected,” that “no one would emerge victorious in an all-out conflict between big powers,” that foreign relations should be developed from the “new perspectives from the angle of the community of common destiny” and by “sharing weal and woe and pursuing mutually beneficial cooperation,” and that “China’s overall goal of pursuing peaceful development is to promote development and harmony domestically and pursue cooperation and peace internationally.” These new ideas and concepts are of particular significance and must be put into practice.

In the white paper, China formally defined its core interests, an act of great significance to safeguarding and development national interests. Such a definition has however caused different understandings and discussions. There are people both at home and abroad giving generalized interpretations. Some even simply regarded it as “drawing a red line,” which, if crossed, would trigger use of force. Such an interpretation is obviously one-sided and harmful. Core interests are those critical interests that bear on overall national survival and development and must thus be firmly defended. As to the scope of core interests, it is better to be narrow rather than broad. To safeguard core interests, comprehensive means should be used and military reactions may only be the last option. In order to better safeguard national interests, it is necessary for China to define and declare its core interests more accurately.

Second, China must make efforts to explore and build up a new type of big-power relationship, properly handle territorial disputes and those over maritime rights and interests, and actively engage in security cooperation in non-traditional fields and of global public domains (the outer space, the cyber space and maritime lanes of transportation), as the three breakthrough points in dealing with multiple challenges. The three are closely linked to each other; none could be settled in isolation. The three also have substantial influence and will produce huge positive spillovers if well handled.

The development of China is now in a critical stage. Strong measures must be taken to break the historical cycles of “rising power for sure causing conflicts.” Among the sets of big-power relationships, the one with the US is the most important. The priority target should be to create a relationship of sound competition which the two countries focus on cooperation and coordination and effectively manage and control differences. The current imperative is to resolve the Sino-Japanese crisis over Diaoyu Islands and stabilize and improve relations between China and Japan. In the process, safeguarding sovereignty must be closely linked to maintaining overall situation in both countries and regional stability. Integrating relations with Japan into the overall effort to create a new type of big-power relationship will add strategic insights to Chinese policy towards Japan.

Territorial disputes and disputes over maritime rights and interests are relevant not only to big-power relations but also to relations with surrounding and developing countries. Proper settlement of disputes at an early date will help remove one major source of the China threat fallacy. In this connection, as opposed to anti-aggression or struggles against Taiwanese, Tibetan and Xinjiang secessionist forces, resolution of these disputes must follow the basic principles of dispute resolution through peaceful dialogue, not firing the first shot and shelving disputes and engaging in common development. In the past decades, China has already settled the majority of land border disputes through peaceful negotiation, mutual understanding and mutual accommodation. We must be firm in our belief that in the new historical conditions with further growth of political and economic relations with relevant disputants as well as regional multilateral cooperation these basic principles will in the end guide China to proper solutions to maritime disputes with its neighbors.

Third, in face of increasing challenges, China must build up its crisis management mechanism. Since the end of the Cold War, China has not engaged in any external military conflict or war, but has experienced security crises again and again, with huge impact both at home and internationally.

Looking into the future, China will remain a country with territorial disputes and disputes over maritime rights and interests with multiple countries, a country confronted with the threat of secessionist forces, a country whose rise has wariness of neighbors and Western powers such as the US and Japan, and a country that is increasingly involved in international crisis management and undertakes greater international responsibilities. Whether the leadership has a keen sense and strong capability of crisis management bears on the overall situation and the future and on whether the peaceful development path will be successful or not. In this new situation, China must strengthen its ability to prevent, prepare for, manage and control crises. Crisis management mechanisms (including it own, bilateral and multilateral mechanisms) must be further strengthened and basic principles and policies of crisis management must further developed and improved so that crisis management will become an important tool to safeguard national interests and effectively prevent military conflicts or war, such guaranteeing the peaceful rise of China.

Zhang Tuosheng is Director of Research and Senior Fellow at the China Foundation for International Strategic Studies.

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