China is changing the ways it deals with the world. This could be both good news and bad. At one level this is happening because of an accumulation of events that have taken place over the last five years. At another, it arises from decisions being consciously taken by the Chinese leadership.
The events of the last five years are well known. They include greater Chinese assertiveness in the East China Sea and South China Sea, and a changed pattern of incursions on the Sino-Indian border, as well as the response to this in the form of the American “pivot” to Asia to reassure its allies like Japan and the Philippines.
At a speech to a CEO’s Forum during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in November, China President Xi Jinping pointed to the ways in which China is seeking to align the interests of its neighbours with its rise and thereby convince them that it is not threatening. Pic/Getty Images
This has fed into the Chinese thought processes manifested in meetings of the party brass and plenums. At the “Central Conference on Work Relating to Foreign Affairs”, a major event held in Beijing on November 28-29, President Xi Jinping called on his colleagues to create a “more enabling environment” for China’s development. What was unique about the conference was the presence of the entire line-up of the top Chinese leadership the Politburo Standing Committee, the other members of the politburo, the military brass from the Central Military Commission downward, ministers, and high officials.
Xi’s remarks were nuanced and appear designed to distance China from its brash and assertive posture which has generated considerable unease in the regions neighbouring China. At the same time, what Xi is also doing is inaugurating a new stage in China’s foreign policy, one characterised by greater activism, but at the same time not appearing as threatening.
If you deconstruct the Xinhua description of the meeting’s outcome, you come to the conclusion that what the Chinese leadership is seeking is new ways of pursuing its national interests. Till now, despite its impressive capabilities, it is still a relatively passive power as is evident from the Chinese absence in dealing with any of the serious global crises like Ukraine, Syria or Afghanistan.
Now, China wants to use its enormous economic muscle to buy friends and win influence. To that end, it has unveiled a massive investment plan aimed at helping friends, side-stepping enemies and advancing the integration of the Asian economy. One part of this relates to dealings with Russia and developing energy linkages with it. Another aspect is the land Silk Route moving out to Central Asia and from their south to Pakistan and Gulf. The third is the Maritime Silk Route seeking to build on China’s already important economic relationship with South-east Asia. And finally, something which is still a gleam in their eye the Bangladesh, India, China, Myanmar (BICM) corridor. You can avoid the Chinese embrace at the risk of being bypassed by the new networks that the Chinese are shaping.
At a speech to a CEO’s Forum on the sidelines of the APEC meeting in November, Xi pointed to the ways in which the world would gain from China’s rise. He said China’s outbound investment would be around $1.25 trillion over the next ten years; it would import $10 trillion worth of goods over the next five years, 500 million Chinese tourists would go abroad and the government would put up $40 billion for the Silk Road initiative. China is seeking is to align the interests of its neighbours with its rise and thereby convince them that it is not threatening.
The Chinese understanding of its new foreign policy requires it to maintain an even keel in its relations with the world’s greatest power the United States of America. In 2013, at Sunnylands, Xi had sought to pin down the US on a “New Type of Great Power Relations”. But the Americans did not bite, because even though it spoke of avoiding confrontation, it also demanded that the Americans respect what China called its “core interests” and which certainly included its maritime claims.
China has been particularly concerned about the role of the US in backing Japan and the South-east Asian countries. As part of this, it has undertaken some dangerous confrontations with US naval vessels and aircraft. However, at the sidelines of the APEC summit in November, China and the US agreed to regulate this process through two agreements: One which provides a mechanism for notifying the two countries of each other’s activities, including military exercises. The second sets rules of behaviour in cases of encounters in the sea and air. At the same the Xi-Abe meeting has served to defuse the growing tensions with Japan.
Even so, in his speech at the 28-29th November Work Conference, Xi made it clear that “The growing trend toward a multi-polar world will not change.” In other words, China’s relative power would grow and that of the US would decline. In the ultimate analysis, “Today’s world is changing... the international system and international order are going through deep adjustment…” and “international forces are in profound shift in favor of peace and development (read China)”.
The Chinese shift poses new and different kind of challenges to India. Even while we are working feverishly to ensure the defence of our Himalyan border militarily, the Chinese are throwing an economic challenge, as manifested by its growing ties with Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Maldives and Nepal.
The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi