As an emerging power that faces competition and even efforts at containment by the existing powers, China has reached a stage where it needs to adopt an innovative diplomatic strategy. To begin with, it should forge partnerships with strategic pivot states – that is, states with which it has stable relations, including political and mutual understanding – which can withstand international pressure to a large extent.
For China, a non-aligned country, a strategic pivot is different from an ally. Strategic pivots don’t need a formal, binding treaty; they only need to agree with each other on major strategies and to be able to manage their conflicts. And since strategic pivots are not exclusive, China could choose one or more strategic pivots in important regions to meet its strategic needs.
In Southeast Asia, Indonesia is best suited to become a strategic pivot. With a population of 250 million, Indonesia is the world’s largest Islamic state.
And as its economy and political landscape gain increasing stability, it will seek to play a bigger role in the global arena, creating a huge space for cooperation with China.
In Northeast Asia, the Republic of Korea is quite suitable as a strategic pivot. As an ally of the United States with considerable capabilities, the ROK is of immense importance to the stability in the Asia Pacific region. Also, the ROK’s relations with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea offer China ample space for strategic balancing. But China should not abandon its decades-long ties with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to enhance its diplomatic influence.
While Pakistan remains a key strategic pivot in South Asia, India could be the other because it needs China’s cooperation for its economic development. Of course, China needs to maintain the right balance between the two.
Stable relations with Russia are still a priority. Since Russia is worried about the development of the new Silk Road Economic Belt, China should clearly explain its importance and benefits to promote better mutual understanding.
When it comes to Europe, China should first consider Germany as a strategic pivot. While the “engine of Europe” is still politically stifled by the United States, Washington’s secret surveillance program exposed by former National Security Agency operative Edward Snowden has created a rift between the two countries. Plus, Germany is paying a heavy price by joining the US-led West to impose sanctions on Russia. Therefore, forging better strategic ties with China would be a win-win choice for Germany. China could also consider France and Italy as strategic pivots, because the United Kingdom has a “special relationship” with the US and still tries to intervene in Hong Kong.
In Latin America, there is Brazil. China and Brazil have no conflict and, more important, Brasilia needs to coordinate with Beijing to play a greater role in global diplomacy.
And South Africa would be the best choice for a strategic pivot in Africa, because it can help China extend its influence across the continent. The added advantage with South Africa and Brazil is that both are BRICS member states.
Although the idea of strategic pivot is still confined to academia, China could adopt it over the longer term. Economic cooperation has often proved effective in achieving breakthroughs in bilateral relations. After World War II, the US used economic cooperation, even assistance, to form a band of allies, from France and (West) Germany to Japan and the ROK, which could be a valuable example for China.
Of course, money alone cannot buy strategic pivots; mutual strategic needs are also necessary. For example, facing Western sanctions, Russia needs China as a strategic pivot. Regional powers like Brazil and India, too, have shared interests with China because of the relative decline in US power and influence. These are opportunities that China could readily use.
A contrary example, however, is presented by some ASEAN member states. Since these states don’t have much strategic needs vis-à-vis China, they tend to side with the US and are supporting its “pivot to Asia” policy. China needs to improve cooperation with such countries in order to stabilize long-term ties with them.
Moreover, China has to focus on a country’s political stability when considering it as a possible strategic pivot. Of course, politically stable countries will make better strategic pivots, but some states can maintain good relations with China despite frequent regime change. For example, Thailand has been facing political instability, but almost every government in power in that country has maintained stable ties with China, making it possible to be a strategic pivot.
Zhou Fangyin is a senior researcher at the National Institute of International Strategy, affiliated to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.