Upward Momentum: China's regional diplomacy maintains a positive trend in 2018

Beijing Review | 作者: Shi Yongming | 时间: 2018-12-18 | 责编: Wang Jiapei
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China borders multiple neighbors; thus, managing relations with these states has always been a main focus of Chinese diplomacy.

After the Cold War, China's neighborhood diplomacy had three major themes: maintaining amicable relations with neighboring countries, pushing forward regional cooperation and coping with challenges posed by the U.S. alliance system against China. These three objectives are of course interrelated. In this framework, bilateral interaction was the foundation, while regional cooperation played a leading role.

China's diplomatic environment in its northern and western regions enjoyed overall stability, with challenges mostly coming from the southern and eastern areas. In the northern and western zones, China maintained a stable strategic partnership with Russia and developed sound relationships with Central Asian countries. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, established at the turn of the century, also progressed steadily.

However, China met increasing challenges from the United States in the southern and eastern areas due to strained bilateral relations caused by U.S. attempts to contain China to ensure its own hegemony in the Asian-Pacific region. Nevertheless, China's relations with countries in these areas still overcame difficulties and developed steadily. This was evident throughout 2018 in China's neighborhood diplomacy.

U.S. challenges

Sino-U.S. relations have always been a very important factor affecting China's relations with neighboring countries. After the Cold War, the United States tried to directly influence China's national trajectory through the strategy of "engagement plus containment." It also attempted to indirectly impact China through neighboring countries and regional organizations.

Thus, Washington has consistently used the tactic of trying to exploit existing regional problems to alienate China from its neighbors. Up to the Barack Obama administration, this tactic was used to force the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to take sides between China and the United States, and to openly state that China could not participate in the formulation of regional trade rules, trying to exclude China from regional trade by reshaping the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP).

Although U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the TPP after he came into office, he went even further than Obama in trying to contain China's rapid development. Compared to Obama, who induced other countries to reject China with the promise of rewards, Trump has taken a strong approach trying to suppress China while forcing other countries to surrender profits to the United States. It was precisely this trade bullying that led to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Economic Leaders' Meeting this year failing to issue a joint declaration for the first time in its history.

As an organization promoted by the United States after the Cold War, APEC's objective is to promote the development of regional free trade. But today, the United States opposes APEC anti-trade protectionism proposals as it engages in this practice. During the meeting, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, on the one hand, made absurd accusations against China, and on the other hand, claimed that the United States is seeking an open Indo-Pacific region, but that trade problems must be resolved through bilateral negotiations. Clearly, the United States enjoys an absolute advantage in any bilateral negotiations, which means that by laying aside the APEC platform and directly negotiating with countries one by one, it will gain the most benefits and facilitate the implementation of Trump's "America First" policy. The strong attempt at the suppression of China will not only achieve the goal of cracking down on China, but will also help maximize U.S. power during bilateral negotiations. However, this is just wishful thinking on the part of the United States because even though it may sound good, it will be hard to realize. Most countries have been trying to gain more benefits from the Sino-U.S. competition while avoiding taking sides.

Moreover, although U.S. trade protectionism had a negative impact on economic cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region, cooperation among East Asian countries still maintains a strong momentum. In May, the seventh China-Japan-ROK Leaders' Meeting was held in Tokyo after it had been put on hold for two and a half years due to political factors. The leaders of the three countries reached a series of consensuses on further deepening cooperation, working together to promote regional and global peace, as well as enhancing world development and prosperity. The convening of the meeting and its results were a strong push back against U.S. trade bullying.

Regional hotspots

Throughout 2018, the situation of the Korean Peninsula and the South China Sea, which have long troubled China's security environment, showed positive change.

The United States has been trying to provoke Southeast Asian countries into confronting China on the South China Sea issue. Some countries were induced and hoped to use the power of the United States to make illicit gains. But soon they realized that such an approach not only makes them pawns of the United States in its efforts to contain China, but also worsens their own security environment. Therefore, it has become a consensus for relevant countries in the region to solve maritime disputes through dialogue and cooperation.

In May 2017, China and the ASEAN countries approved the framework of the South China Sea Code of Conduct (COC). In August, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi proposed a roadmap for COC negotiations while attending the China-ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Manila, which arrived at a single draft COC negotiating text. This signified that the South China Sea issue will enter a track of effective management. This progress further highlighted the irrationality of the United States to create tensions in the South China Sea using military power.

Advances in the South China Sea issue were also closely related to the improvement of Sino-Philippine relations. During the Obama administration, the United States incited the Philippines to submit its disputes with China to so-called international arbitration, which not only led to unprecedented tensions between China and the Philippines, but also put the South China Sea issue in a dangerous dilemma.

After taking office, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte chose to resolve the South China Sea issue with China through dialogue and consultation, which China has long called for. The new approach has not only greatly improved bilateral relations, but also pushed the South China Sea issue on a track of settlement through negotiations. In order to further promote bilateral relations and enhance stability and prosperity in East Asia, Chinese President Xi Jinping recently visited the Philippines. Xi and Duterte decided to establish a comprehensive strategic cooperative relationship on the basis of mutual respect and benefit, sincerity, equality and win-win cooperation. The improvement of bilateral ties will have a profound impact not only on the future development of their relations, but also on regional stability and prosperity.

In 2018, the situation on the Korean Peninsula was greatly eased due to the meetings between leaders of the Republic of Korea and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the United States and the DPRK. The nuclear issue on the peninsula is also beginning to return to a track of dialogue and resolution.

Although it seems as though China was not directly involved in the development of the situation, it actually played a critical and indispensable role, which was evidenced by three meetings between Chinese and DPRK top leaders in less than 100 days in the first half of the year.

Meanwhile, Sino-Japanese and Sino-Indian ties both improved greatly in 2018. Sino-Japanese relations experienced a major shift as Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visited Japan in May, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe paid an official visit to China in October, the first by a Japanese head of government in seven years. Bilateral relations started to change from confrontational strategic competition to coordination, followed by a new momentum surfacing in economic cooperation.

Sino-Indian ties also entered a track of healthy development in 2018. Bilateral ties are critical to China's neighboring security and the future world structure. Thus, pitting India against China was the core of the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy, as demonstrated when the United States supported India by increasing weapons sales during the Donglang standoff in 2017. However, since China handled the border incident properly, India gained a new understanding of Sino-Indian relations. After the two countries' leaders met in Wuhan, central China's Hubei Province, in May, Sino-Indian ties have been improving steadily, with the ninth defense and security dialogue recently taking place between the militaries of the two countries.




The author is a senior researcher on world studies at China Institute of International Studies, and an op-ed contributor to Beijing Review.


Source: Beijing Review, December 17, 2018.