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Foreign Policy

Where Should Chinese Diplomacy Focus?

Jun 24, 2020
  • Xiao Bin

    Deputy Secretary-general, Center for Shanghai Cooperation Organization Studies, Chinese Association of Social Sciences

The ups and downs in relations between China and the United States have drawn much attention from the international community. To rein in his rival, U.S. President Donald Trump and his administration have introduced a series of policies and actions against China.

Perhaps it has not considered the fact that China has been deeply integrated into the international economic system and enjoys growing influence on the global economy in the over the 40 years since the establishment of diplomatic ties with the U.S.

Given the path chosen by China, the Trump administration believes the Chinese development model is not in America’s national interest and that it challenges the U.S.-dominated global liberal order. It has therefore chosen a tough China policy, leading to a dramatic downturn in relations and a severely compressed living space for its rival.

The living space of any state is always the result of both its history and current reality. In the international system of self-help, each major country has its own living space of imagination and reality, and that space can be divided into the core, the center and the periphery, with declining importance. The surrounding areas naturally form the core living space.

When I use the term “living space,” it is not about a state seeking geographical expansion for survival, as some scholars have suggested. Rather, it is about the unity of security and sustainable development that a state achieves within a given geographical space.

Despite some geographical advantages, China’s living space is under great pressure in current international relations. In its “Strategic Approach to China” released in May 2020, the White House identified Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia and South Asia as key regions and has applied different strategies to each.

In Northeast Asia, the Trump administration attempts to divide China and Russia and to isolate China while strengthening defense cooperation with Japan and South Korea. In South East Asia, it is trying to restore U.S. influence.

In South Asia, it is betting on relations with India as a way to contain China. Even in Russia-dominated Central Asia, the U.S. has launched a policy offensive. To strengthen ties with Central Asian countries, the U.S. administration has unveiled a new strategy for that region.

Strategic competition between China and the U.S. has gradually spread to areas surrounding China, and it is difficult to reverse the trend through skillful diplomacy. Driven by the White House, American military aircraft and warships have frequently traversed waters around China and even conducted live-fire exercises. In response to the crisis situation in the region, China has chosen to make every effort to strengthen military training and enhance war preparedness in firm protection of its sovereignty, security and development interests.

Divergent policy positions have undoubtedly raised the possibility of a regional conflict between the two countries. To manage and control potential conflict escalation, China and the U.S. will have to try to resolve their problems through diplomatic good offices.

It is reported that senior Chinese official Yang Jiechi, a member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, met with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Hawaii. However, given existing public opinion, as well as the legislative and administrative environments, such diplomatic exchanges can hardly serve as a brake for the declining relationship, which will confront greater internal challenges in both countries.

Undoubtedly, stabilizing the regional order must be China’s top priority. It needs to focus its diplomacy at the regional level — especially to stabilize the order within its core living space.

Regional polarity — meaning the regional power structure that is affected by the strengths of regional countries and functions only within the relevant region — exhibits different features in different places. For example, Central Asia is dominated by Russia with the presence of both China and the U.S.; Southeast Asia is dominated by the U.S., with the presence of Japan, ASEAN and China; and Northeast Asia is dominated by the U.S. with the presence of China, Russia, Japan and South Korea. In this connection, regional polarity must be taken into account when the diplomatic center of gravity is shifted to the relevant regions. On top of the these conditions, China needs to do the following to stabilize the regional order: 

• Increase information transparency.

Among the many causes of regional conflict, illusions of easy victory and cheap wars are common. Without adequate sources of information, the Trump administration has often overestimated China’s strategic intentions while underestimating its nationalist sentiments.

In terms of information transparency, China should vigorously promote information management reform and innovation. A more relaxed public opinion environment should be cultivated within the premises of law so that information exchanges with the U.S. and the rest of the world will feature mixed perspectives of both the government and the people, thus reducing both the possibility and potential intensity of regional conflicts. 

• Follow a balanced approach for both the greater good and self-interest.

This idea has been hailed as a thought innovation in Chinese diplomacy. In specific diplomatic practices, however, the stress has often been put on the “greater good” rather than “self-interest,” with ideological considerations overwhelming national interests, landing our own country in awkward situations. Therefore, China should follow a more balanced approach. It should always put national interests first in international cooperation and expand its living space through cooperation. 

• Consolidate the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) region to balance pressures in other regions.

Given the strategic competition with the U.S., the strategic significance of the SCO region has increased. Under the Belt and Road Initiative, connectivity of land, air, sea and digital is gradually taking shape on the Eurasian continent, with the SCO region as an important forerunner and a bridge between China and Europe.

According to the Chinese Ministry of Commerce, trade with Europe totaled $744.9 billion in 2019, including $705.1 billion with EU members. Trade with 12 former Soviet republics was $175.7 billion.

The SCO, also through its security cooperation, underpins development and stability in western China. However, as the international situation changes, China needs to push the SCO for necessary reforms to meet new needs. In particular, the capacity of the SCO secretariat to conduct independent deliberations should be enhanced so that the organization will be enabled to play a greater role in multilateral relations. 

American cognitive dissonance with regard to China is difficult to change, and China must be sober-minded and realistic. Moreover, given the huge sunk cost in the Trump administration’s China policy, it will be hard for the U.S. government to reverse its course. Therefore, China needs to stabilize the regional order in preparation for major crises.

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