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International Herald Leader: China’s Foreign Diplomacy Should Reflect Its World Number Two Status

[Editor’s Note: The International Herald Leader published an interview with Yan Xuetong, Dean of the Institute of Contemporary International Relations, Tsinghua University, and one of China’s leading scholars on international relations. In a March interview with the International Herald Leader, Yan made the statement that “the Sino-U.S. relationship is more one of enemies than of friends.”

In this interview, Yan argued that China’s foreign policy should reflect its status as the “number two power in the world.” He outlined three principles to guide China’s foreign policy: 1. Change the focus from economic development to rejuvenating the nation; 2. Change from maintaining a low profile to being a responsible great power; 3. Strategically improve China’s international reputation instead of focusing on a peaceful environment for economic development.] [1]

Competition Is the Main Theme of the Sino-U.S. Relationship

After more than six months (since I stated that “the Sino-U.S. relationship is more one of enemies than friends”), the unstable Sino-U.S. relationship has corroborated my observation that they are “more enemies than friends.”

In the secondary political arena, which is economics and culture, China and the U.S. have many common or complementary interests. In the primary political arena, which is politics and security, however, the two have many conflicts. Because of opposing interests in these areas, it is hard for them to develop cooperative strategies. Competition will be the main theme.

China and the U.S. have always been confrontational. This relationship started at the end of the Cold War and will continue indefinitely. The “G2” competition between the USSR and the U.S. during the Cold War was about military struggle. The “G2” competition between China and the U.S. is economic. The Sino-U.S. competition manifests as “cooperative,” but it is a passive cooperation.

China’s Foreign Policy Does Not Reflect Its International Status

A recent change in the environment surrounding China is that many of China’s neighbors have asked the U.S. to intervene in Asia and have wanted the U.S. to lead Asia to counter China’s rise.

China’s foreign policy with regard to these countries didn’t change, but their “feelings” about China changed, and China’s strength has changed. In the past, China’s neighbors felt comfortable with China’s “smiling” foreign policy, because China was not that strong. But now China is strong. Continuing the same “smiling” policies will make them question (China’s intention). Before China became the leader in East Asia, its neighbors felt it was natural to compete with China, but now they view competition from China as a threat. Unfortunately, China hasn’t appropriately adjusted its foreign policy.

The challenge for China’s foreign diplomacy is that its former foreign policy does not reflect its current international status. China has become the number two country in the world, but its foreign policy is not in line with this new development.

Three Adjustments to China’s Foreign Policy

The adjustments to China’s foreign policy should come about in response to its number two status in the world; its policies should be consistent with its status.

I think China’s foreign policy should be adjusted along three principles:

First, China’s foreign diplomacy should shift its focus from economic development to achieving national rejuvenation. National rejuvenation is our government’s long-term political goal. Now the conditions in the world have changed to favor the acceleration of our national rejuvenation. Therefore, it is legitimate to establish national rejuvenation as our central mission.

Second, China should take charge as a great, responsible power instead of maintaining a low profile. The Chinese government has already stated that it wants to be a responsible great power. Being a responsible great power does not mean just increasing its responsibilities but also its power. Deng Xiaoping’s “keeping a low profile” policy in the early 1990s was right for China at that time, given the international environment and China’s former status, but now, China’s international status has undergone a fundamental change. Continuing low profile-type policies will bring more harm than benefit to China. The difficulties in our foreign diplomacy in 2010 have proven this point.

Third, China’s foreign policy should focus on strategically improving China’s international reputation instead of seeking to create a peaceful environment for economic development. As number two in the world, “international strategic reputation” (the power to have other countries listen to China) is more important to China than its overseas economic interests. Increasing China’s international strategic reputation should be based on two pillars: punishing those outside activities that harm our national interests and rewarding those that benefit our national interests. Neither of these two policies can exist without the other.

To reduce the motivation for China’s neighboring countries to invite the U.S. to counter China, China should provide protection to its neighbors. Without sufficient military power, China can’t protect the other Asian countries. Therefore, China must speed up its military development. Before China’s defense capability reaches such a level, China should emphasize preventive security cooperation with its neighbors. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization has demonstrated how to develop from passive cooperation to active cooperation with its neighbors.

[1] International Herald Leader, December 6, 2010