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How Should China’s Diplomatic Policy Respond to Changes in the International Environment?

[Editor’s Note: China Review Magazine, the monthly publication of China Review News, a Hong Kong-based, pro-China political commentary, published an article by Guo Zhenyuan, the magazine’s academic consultant, a researcher at the China Institute of International Studies. Guo stated that, as the new world order is taking shape, emerging countries are commanding more power. Because of China’s growing power, though other countries including the U.S. take certain hostile actions against China, they still want to share in China’s economic growth. Thus, China’s diplomatic policies should be shaped on the basis of a full utilization of its economic and national power. The following are excerpts from the article.] [1]

In 2011, the international situation and the international environment related to China both underwent the most intensive and the most important changes since the beginning of the 21st Century. The changes have gained universal attention and started widespread discussions. Only after correctly comprehending these new changes can we handle China’s diplomatic work well.

Intensive and Important Changes in the International Situation

In 2011, a series of significant international incidents took place. The shake-up of the Arab world started at the beginning of 2011 and still continues.

In 2011, the Western countries faced ever worsening economic and social predicaments. The E.U., the U.S., and Japan were still trapped in their economic troubles. As a consequence, they have experienced severe social unrest.

In 2011, the emerging countries further enhanced their national powers and significantly expanded their international statuses and roles. They became the major driving force for the world economic recovery. Their discourse power in such important economic organizations as the IMF and the World Bank have been further strengthened.

However, what should most attract people’s attention is that all these incidents occurred in 2011. Such a concentration of major world events only happened once before, in 1989. History has shown that the events of 1989 were a prelude to the 1991 collapse of a world dominated by two super powers. The major events of 2011 will not start a new round of world power restructuring, but they will advance the completion of the change in the current world structure.

Actually, a new world structure didn’t come into being as soon as the “two world super powers” structure collapsed at the end of 1991. Continued debate over whether the world is in a “unipower” pattern or a “one super (power along) with multiple strong (powers)” pattern shows that the new structure has not been formed or is still in the process of forming. 2011 is probably a significant year in the process of forming the new world order. The major economic incidents that occurred in 2011 were indicative of an acceleration in the formation of a (new) balance of economic power among major countries and country groups, which will be the necessary foundation of a multi-polar world structure.

The major events in 2011 inevitably caused ripples worldwide. Chaos in the Arab world not only forced big political and social changes in the Arab countries, but will also greatly impact the stability of the Middle Eastern region and its status in the world’s political, security, and economic arenas. The serious economic and social difficulties of the Western developed countries and the rise of the emerging countries’ international status and role will not only push these countries to make major reforms in their economies, societies, and politics, but will also accelerate the equalization of worldwide economic power and further advance the multi-polarization process. These major events and their huge impact served to enhance the trend toward a multi-polar world structure and economic globalization, as well as the trend toward global peace, development, and cooperation. Therefore, changes in the world situation in 2011 will continue to be, or will be even more beneficial to China’s sustainable and rapid development.

The New Manifestation of Both Favorable and Unfavorable Factors in China’s International Environment

In the 2011 international environment, there were factors that were both favorable and unfavorable to China. In particular, there were more adverse occurrences, which caused widespread concerns, or even doubts, about China. Concerns are inevitable, but doubts are baseless.

The changes in China’s international status and influence in 2011 were a major part of the change in China’s international environment. At the end of 2010, China’s GDP surpassed Japan’s and was ranked number two in the world. Although the international community recognized this inevitable change, it still caused shockwaves when it happened. It can be said that what stunned the world was not simply China’s GDP but, rather, its being the major driver of the world’s economic development. Even though China’s per capita GDP ranked 105th in the world, the international community focused only on the fact that China’s GDP ranked number two in the world. Because of this, in 2011, China stood at the center of the international stage. This was the most important and profound change to China’s international environment. It changed China comprehensively and significantly, in both favorable and unfavorable ways. On the plus side, China’s international status and influence were further enhanced. For example, China’s international discourse power increased, while more and more countries wanted to cooperate with China and rely on China. On the negative side, the worries and restrictions that some countries imposed on China increased. For example, theories such as the “China threat theory” and “China’s responsibility theorty” surfaced in the international community, disputes and friction between China and some countries increased, and some countries’ fear of and vigilance against China grew.

The Sino-U.S. relationship is always an important issue in China’s international environment. The significant change in the Sino-U.S. relationship was an important factor leading to the significant changes in China’s international environment. In 2011, the favorable change was that the U.S. relied more on China’s support. Therefore, the U.S. focused more on China and Sino-U.S. relations, which meant that the U.S. more actively sought China’s financial support, hoped to develop more comprehensive and efficient economic cooperation with China, and sought China’s support on such important issues as preventing nuclear proliferation. The main unfavorable changes were that the U.S. strengthened its containment of China by adopting strategies focused on “returning to the Asia-Pacific region.” It actively developed the U.S.-led Asia-Pacific economic and security cooperation mechanism, i.e., the TPP; it established or strengthened cooperation with Asia-Pacific countries including not only its traditional allies, such as Japan, Australia, and the Philippines, but also countries that previously had tense relations with the U.S., such as Vietnam and Myanmar; and it significantly adjusted its military deployment in the Asia-Pacific region and developed the “Air-Sea battle” military strategy. The changes in Sino-U.S. relations were both favorable and unfavorable to China. Although the unfavorable changes were even more significant, they did not and could not lead to a full-scale deterioration in Sino-U.S. relations.

The surrounding environment is always an important component of China’s international environment. It usually directly results in a change in China’s international environment. Since the 1990s, and especially after entering the 21st century, China’s surrounding environment was always significantly favorable to China. However, in 2011, some unfavorable situations appeared, prompting attention and concern. The main issues were that: 1) neighboring countries, including Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines, argued with and were repeatedly in conflict with China about the ownership of sea waters and islands; 2) some neighboring countries, such as Japan, the Philippines, and Australia, strengthened their military alliances with the U.S., while India, and Vietnam strengthened their bilateral cooperation with the U.S. These were the most significant changes in the past 20 years, and they naturally caused people to pay attention and have some concern. Due to other situations, China’s neighboring environment basically remained favorable to China overall, mainly because, in 2011, 1) the bilateral and multilateral cooperation between China, Russia, and other Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) countries became stronger; 2) the strategic cooperative partnership between China and ASEAN consolidated and deepened; and 3) the bilateral relations between China and India and Japan also improved. Therefore, no tremendous changes unfavorable to China took place. The occurrence of unfavorable incidents didn’t lead to China having major adverse relations. In 2011, China’s surrounding environment remained beneficial to China overall.

In fact, while the increase in China’s power, international status, and influence, which was symbolized by China’s world number two GDP figure, caused a change in Sino-U.S. relations and in China’s surrounding environment, it also determined the nature of change at a deeper level. Due to the rapid rise of China’s economic power, China has become very attractive to many others countries and each one is seeking China’s support. Their desire to gain China’s support obviously surpasses their worries and fears of China. Therefore, some countries have adopted obvious, two-faced tactics when dealing with China. Even as they strengthened their precautions against China due to worry and fear, they still maintained and developed their cooperation with China to gain its support. Furthermore, whether it was the U.S. or other neighboring countries, their desire to get China’s support and to maintain and develop cooperation with China remained the main theme of their relations with China. In 2011, the circumstances of China’s overall international environment were still obviously favorable to China.

China’s Fruitful and Successful Diplomacy

The main reasons that China’s diplomatic work effectively resolved the new conflicts and made new contributions to the new environment in 2011 were the comprehensive, calm recognition of China’s external environment and its changes, as well as a good use of China’s sustainable, rapidly increasing power. In the long run, these two points will also be the main support for China’s diplomatic work to maintain and extend China’s strategic opportunity for development.

As mentioned previously, the new changes in the international situation have not caused a new world order to appear, but rather have only served to strengthen the trends toward multipolarization and economic globalization that began in the late 80s and early 90s of the last century, as well as the trends toward peace, development, and cooperation. Therefore, China not only doesn’t have to revise its peaceful development path, but also should further strengthen and perfect its path. In 2011, both Sino-U.S. relations and China’s neighboring environment experienced both favorable and unfavorable changes. The key task is how to assess the impact of these changes. First, the development of two-faced tactics was the other countries’ reaction to China’s rapid development. Therefore, at least for the foreseeable future, none of those changes will have a significant strategic meaning. Although the U.S. regards China as a “challenger,” it actually doesn’t think China is its strategic rival. Second, the two-faced behavior of the U.S. and other countries whose conflicts with China are increasing is becoming more and more pronounced when they deal with China. This indicates that China’s sustainable, rapid development has made China more attractive to them. Their desire to seek support from China has actually overcome their worries and fears of China. So their disputes and conflicts with China can be controlled. Third, the U.S and those countries whose disputes and conflicts with China have increased all have their own interests and difficulties. It is difficult for them to escalate and expand their disputes and conflicts with China by themselves. Nor would it be easy for them to create a truly effective mechanism to deal with China collectively.

In general, although there were some significant new unfavorable changes in China’s international environment in 2011, those changes did not, and could not, lead to major changes in the favorable international environment necessary for China’s strategic opportunity.

Making good use of China’s continued and rapid increase in economic power is a big issue for China’s diplomatic work in the 21st century, especially after the international financial crisis. China’s diplomatic work in 2011 basically demonstrated its effective leveraging of China’s power.

First, China must face the fact that its GDP ranked number two in the world and its per capita GDP ranked after one hundred in the world. It should fully recognize that, in the upcoming relatively long period, economic development will always be China’s first strategic objective. To develop the economy and maintain a favorable international environment will also be an unwavering basic objective for China’s diplomatic work.

Second, given the external environment’s favorable and unfavorable changes, China should fully use its increasing national power to expand the positive impacts and reduce the negative ones. Also, it should not respond impatiently or impetuously to the changes, especially the unfavorable changes, since the changes might occur due to an increase in national power. China should unswervingly adhere to the strategic principle (first propounded by Deng Xiaoping) to “watch the world with a calm mind, confidently deal with the difficulties, stand firmly, keep a low profile, and do something.” It should resolutely not attract the world’s conflicts toward China and not become the focus of the world’s conflicts.

Third, China should more actively and vigorously participate in global and regional international affairs. It should play a more important role in international affairs at all levels, but only take on obligations that it can handle.

Fourth, China should persist in conducting consultation on the basis of equality and the use of peaceful means to deal with international disputes, friction, and conflicts. Obviously, making good use of China’s power is an inevitable choice to maintain and extend China’s strategic opportunities for development, even as its still insufficient power continues to rapidly increase. Adhering to a path of peaceful development is the correct choice in the face of significant external changes in the environment.

[1] China Review Magazine, “As the International Environment Is Changing, How Should China’s Diplomacy Change?” January 24, 2012.