China's leaders are pushing a new 'charm offensive' in an effort to strengthen diplomatic ties with their Asian neighbours. However, suspicions persist. Difficulties with Japan and the Philippines and ambiguity over Chinese views of the US role in Asia-Pacific also look set to continue.
Recent Chinese focus on its regional neighbours was highlighted in a high-level working meeting in Beijing on October 24 and 25, chaired by President Xi Jinping and attended by all seven Politburo Standing Committee members and a range of other senior officials. Official reports of the meeting identified Xi's main message to be the importance of China's relations with its 'friends and partners'. In one sense, there is nothing new about this. Chinese diplomacy has emphasized 'good neighbourly relations' for many years.
But both the timing and the tone of Xi's comments, and the profile of the meeting, suggest this is not just a routine bureaucratic exercise. It comes shortly after a series of high-level diplomatic interactions with many of China's neighbours. The most recent was the visit to China by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, which made some progress on dealing with – though not resolving – disputed border areas.
On the sidelines of the G20 summit in St Petersburg in September, President Xi Jinping made a long trip to Central Asia, visiting four of the central Asian 'Stans' and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Bishkek. Chinese reports made much of the elevation of China's bilateral relationships in central Asia to the level of 'strategic partnership', and of Xi Jinping's proposal of a 'silk road economic belt' extending from China through central Asia. China's inland border provinces, such as Xinjiang and Yunnan, have also been encouraged to open up and engage with countries to their west.
In October, both Xi and Premier Li Keqiang travelled to Southeast Asia. Xi attended the APEC summit in Bali, visiting Indonesia and Malaysia, while Li represented the PRC at the East Asian Summit in Brunei and made additional bilateral trips to Thailand and Vietnam. Both leaders sought opportunities for cooperation. They were also proactive in guiding the multilateral agenda – China's wariness of multilateralism has been replaced by differentiated engagement across regional institutions. For example, Xi's proposal for the establishment of a new Asian investment bank for infrastructure development.
Xi's positive approach to APEC is due in part to China taking the APEC chair in 2014. By briefing in advance on the importance of open and transparent regional arrangements (APEC's style), the Chinese government used this to contrast with the US approach to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a planned 'high standard' agreement among twelve Asian-Pacific economies but which currently does not include China.
The TPP is also behind Li's call for the completion by 2015 of negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), an alternative agreement currently being negotiated by ASEAN and six other Asian countries, including China. Speaking at the annual China-ASEAN trade fair Li called for a 'diamond decade' in relations, suggesting a treaty on 'good neighbourliness, friendship and cooperation', expanding trade to one trillion US dollars by 2020, and upgrading the decade-old free trade agreement between China and ASEAN.
The Chinese tone on these visits and at the October meeting in Beijing has been effusive, a difference from the first Politburo meeting on foreign affairs chaired by Xi Jinping in January. Back then there was also an emphasis on cooperation, openness and 'win-win development' in foreign policy. But it came with a warning that China could not 'abandon its proper interests or sacrifice national core interests', a comment which reflected the firmer turn in Chinese foreign policy. This was missing from the public accounts of the latest meeting chaired by Xi.
It would be premature to conclude that there has been a fundamental change in China's regional diplomacy. But it does amount to a new 'charm offensive', coming after several years of difficult relations with maritime neighbours amidst tensions over the disputed islands.
Once bitten, twice shy
Regional responses are not yet apparent, and this charm offensive will face limitations in at least two areas. First, countries in Southeast Asia are suspicious of China's intentions, reinforced by growing economic asymmetry. Secondly, the charm offensive itself does not appear to apply in practice to all of China's neighbours. Notably absent from the recent high-level diplomacy have been Japan and the Philippines, where the maritime disputes are most evident.
It is no coincidence that the two Chinese maritime neighbours with which the US currently has the strongest security relationships are Japan and the Philippines. The role of the US in East Asia remains a key concern in Beijing, and the country's firmer foreign policy stance in 2010 was partly in response to – or perhaps in dialectic relation with – the US 'rebalancing' to the Asia-Pacific.
And yet there are elements of 'charm' in China's recent diplomacy towards the US. Following discussion of a 'new type of major country relationship' between Xi and President Obama in June, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in a speech in Washington DC that the two countries should work together to make East Asia an 'experimental field' in developing this concept. Wang also repeated a line used by his predecessors, saying that China did not want the US to leave East Asia.
A 'charm offensive' represents a natural response to the criticisms of China's regional policy over recent years. But it will need to be substantial and sustained if Beijing is to make significant strides in regaining neighbourly goodwill.
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