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Chinese Scholar Proposes a New East Asia Strategy: Be Powerful but Humble

[Editor’s Note: Government think tanks have recently had extensive debates about the direction of China’s foreign policy. The main focus is whether to continue the “low profile” strategy that Deng Xiaoping instituted in 1989 or switch to an aggressive approach to demonstrate China’s growing power. This article and the one following reflect these opposing views. Nanfang Daily online published an article by Wang Yizhou, a Beijing University professor, proposing a powerful but humble approach. In the following article, published in the International Herald Leader, the title expresses the author’s view: "China’s Foreign Diplomacy Should Reflect Its ‘World Number Two’ Status."

Wang Yizhou argued that “China still has a long way to go before becoming a truly developed country.” “For its foreign diplomacy and strategy, soothing relations with its neighbors and deepening regional cooperation is critical in order for China to maintain a good environment for development and to step into its role as a world power.”] [1]

China’s Headaches

Frankly speaking, our nation cannot boast of many diplomatic successes this year. Except for Pakistan’s loyal friendship and strengthened ties with North Korea, whose leadership is going through a transition, problems exist almost everywhere, including the Korean Peninsula, Japan, India, Vietnam, Southeast Asia, Burma, and the Mekong River Basin Group.

What concerns the Chinese people and its top leaders the most, of course, is the U.S.’s high-profile “returning to Asia” strategy and activities. The large number of joint military exercises that the U.S. has conducted with Japan, South Korea, and even ASEAN countries clearly targeted China, although to a certain extent they were also to deter North Korea. Many Chinese felt that the country had all of sudden fallen into hostile surroundings.

Reason for Change #1: U.S. Preventive Strategy

To me, the reasons for this change were quite complex, but there were two fundamental reasons: the U.S.’s strategy adjustment and China’s growth.

After ten years of painful results, U.S. decision makers and think tanks have come to several realizations. First, (the U.S.) should eliminate the direct threat of extremists on its citizens and its national security, especially international terrorism originating in the Middle East and the spread of weapons of mass destruction. Second, from a mid to long term perspective, (the U.S.) should prevent challenges from “another USSR.” China is more and more likely to be the challenger. The U.S. made full use of certain Asian countries’ security concerns and sovereignty disputes to provide them with support so that it could create a setting to prevent China’s rise. Creating “turmoil” around China was a benefit to U.S. military presence, its economic interests, and its leadership in the area.

From a calm, comprehensive evaluation, (we see that) the U.S.’s actions will bring many troubles and even dangers to China, but it does not mean that the U.S. has given up multi-dimensional cooperation with China and switched to a full-scale deterrence policy. Nor does it mean that the U.S. has shifted its global strategic focus from the Greater Middle East to East Asia. Nor is it true that troubled Uncle Sam, whose power is only diminishing, can dictate to the world as it previously did.

Reason for Change #2: China’s “Growing Pains”

The rapid rise of a group of non-Western countries, with China as their representative, has created a profound impact on the traditional structures regulating global and regional security, energy resources, economics and trade, political dynamics, and communication.

For example, as a result of China’s emphasis on ocean interests and its increased ability to defend its ocean resources (China’s naval expansion from its offshore ocean interests to international waters and its new fishery administration ships’ declarations of water sovereignty), China has moved in the direction of resetting international relations and rules for the oceans in East Asia. Considering the historical disputes between China and its nearly ten neighboring countries on islands, the continental shelf, bays, and the offshore economic zones, China’s growing power and increasingly strong voice will surely worry its smaller neighbors and elicit defensive actions.

One of my criticisms (of China’s foreign diplomacy) is that the improvement of China’s soft power has lagged way behind the expansion of its hard power. China’s lack of diplomatic propaganda and the U.S. involvement have contributed to the undesired turmoil and to China’s “security plight.”

Overall security in East Asia and military competition not only have not improved as China’s development has continued, but many countries have also adopted strategies to counter China. There were many reasons on China’s side: the Foreign Ministry’s foreign diplomacy goal of “peaceful development and mutual benefit” was hard to interpret and implement when it came to sovereignty disputes; some people switched from the previous good neighbor and friendly approach to wanting to “break the U.S. blockade;” and the media and the public were more keen on China’s next “show of power” after China’s success at the Beijing Olympics, the Shanghai World Expo, and the military parade for the 60th Anniversary.

When they compare China to the U.S., which is trapped in two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and is dealing with severe social and economic problems, many Chinese are overly optimistic about China’s economic growth in the current global crisis. They even feel that China can overtake the U.S. and would dare to have a head-to-head fight with the U.S. I recognize that arrogance is developing in China. In this circumstance, it is not surprising to see many neighbors avoid or even defend themselves against China.

New East Asia Strategy: Innovative Regionalism

(China) should not be misled by the smoke the U.S. creates or think that the U.S. has surrounded and restricted it. Nor should its gestures indicate that it wants a head-to-head fight with the U.S. to the very end. China still has a long way to go before becoming a truly developed country.

The recent big debate on China’s strategies on international relations and foreign diplomacy—including whether China is still a developing country, whether China should continue Deng Xiaoping’s “keeping a low profile” foreign policy, whether China and the U.S. are still strategic partners, whether China should continue the “good-neighbor and friendly” policy at the regional level, and whether China should continue the “peaceful development and mutual benefit” strategy at the global level—not only has theoretical importance, but also practical significance. As China continues to grow, maintaining a prudent and open mindset to the outside world and a spirit of reform toward internal affairs can prevent China from the tragedy of the USSR (which was once seemingly strong but suddenly collapsed).

For its foreign diplomacy and strategy, soothing relationships with its neighbors and deepening regional cooperation is critical in order for China to maintain a good environment for development and to step into its role as a world power.

At the current time, what we need is not rivalry or dispute, but goodwill and offers of public products and services. As China’s navy expands its reach, military propaganda should inform the rest of the world that the presence of the Chinese navy will be helpful to jointly combat crimes at sea and to keep water channels open.

China’s fishery administration ships not only should not retreat when pressured by other countries but should also actively rescue and help fishermen of other nationalities, being a “guard of safety” in public waters.

Even regarding sovereignty disputes, we should try to avoid aggravating the situation. We need to be careful and be prepared to prevent a crisis from getting out of control.

From this angle, “keeping a low profile and maintaining diplomatic activeness” means that, on the one hand, China does not seek hegemony or to create problems for other countries. On the other hand, China, with the expansion of its own interests and the increase in its international status, actively develops the regional security structure and economic rules and creatively participates in the alleviation and settlement of disputes,

I believe that, when our neighboring countries see a powerful but humble China, they will be more willing to get closer to China and ignore the attempts to alienate them from China. When facing difficult issues, they will come to China rather than a distant super power. After all, China’s rapidly developing economy has let them taste the result of establishing a close relationship with us. What is missing is just China’s appeal to its neighbors in the areas of politics and security.

[1] Nanfang Daily, December 24, 2010