China’s approach to its neighbors in Xi’s new era

Authors: Sun Liping & Isaac Nunoo*

The rise of China to the rank of the global powers has drawn attention around the world since the beginning of the new century. Then what are the challenges to the rising China and the responsibilities of China which has been so eager to be a great power globally?

True, most of the emerging powers in both the past and the present age hardly admit openly that they seek for regional hegemony, even though they come to be more assertive or even “revisionist” in view of the status quo. China seems to be no exception.

China, already a regional power, has demonstrated much keenness and eagerness in resolving the political, territorial and social rows with the adjacent countries or its neighbors. Yet, Beijing’s commitment has often been interpreted by scholars as a necessity since Beijing is required by great power and hegemonic theories to assert its dominance in its region before moving on to play greater roles in the international arena. It also behooves Beijing to either maintain sanity in its own corridors or have other great powers do so for her. If Beijing fails to ensure sanity and tranquility within the East Asia, its great power’s pursuit shall remain in limbo.

The development of good-neighbor relations has been China’s major strategic tasks since the early 1990s, as the primacy of China’s foreign policy towards its periphery countries was first stressed at the 16th Party Congress in 2002 when the CCP framed a diplomatic strategy ____ emphasizing that “great powers are the priorities, neighbors are paramount and developing countries are the foundation; and multilateralism is an important stage.” This was followed by the previous concept of “good neighborhood, secured neighborhood, and wealthy neighborhood”.

Considering all these, it is therefore not out of order for China’s FM Wang Yi’s visit to Bangladesh and Myanmar this month in an attempt to mediate the Rohingya impasse between the two states. He has also called on the two sides to amicably redress the impasse, noting that the Rohingya issue is a complicated one having historical, ethnic and religious colorations. Wang opined that the issue is a regional one that can best be resolved regionally—and that if the international community has anything to offer then it should think of providing the convenient atmosphere for peaceful consultations between the two states involved as well as assisting to reduce poverty which Beijing sees as the root cause of conflict. Meanwhile, China also shows its opposition to any sorts of interferes with or dictation from external players with no authority of the U.N. It therefore takes the first step to assure the smaller neighboring states, especially the “inside ring” (as described by Yuan Peng, a Chinese scholar in foreign policy), of its willingness to help provide panacea to the teething issues confronting them.

China, as both a great power of East Asia and one of the P-5 of the UN, is determined to ward off external aggressors and keeping neighbors at peace with China. It is not surprising that Beijing opposes the presence of the US THAAD in the Korean peninsula. Beijing has a goal to present a formidable power balance against the influence of the U.S. in especially the South and East Asian regions – what has been termed the ‘U.S.-Asia Pivot’. Suffice to say that any reckless behavior by China’s (small) neighboring countries will have uncomfortable repercussions on its regional and global aspirations and undermine its authority and status. It will also ostensibly empower other ‘big wits’ in the region and might lead to unnecessary tensions. Cracks are already emerging in China’s traditionally strong multilateral relations, particularly over the South China Sea saga. If any of these countries were to align with foreign actors particularly the US, it could culminate in a great-power competition right on China’s corridor. The presence of the THAAD, the pressure on North Korea, Myanmar, the Philippines and Vietnam, by the United States herald a clear signal that Washington is back to the region to balance China’s rise in the South and East Asian regions. Jeffrey Reeves of the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies has cautioned that turning a blind eye to these “signs of weakening relations with these countries may result in future trouble for China”.

China’s own belief in “a peaceful and harmonious world – under one authority” reflects in its relations with these small neighboring countries. In such an atmosphere, peace and tranquility becomes the fulcrum. Perhaps this also resonates with President Xi’s and other Chinese stress on the need for a ‘modern’ Tianxia ___ in the form of a supreme, benevolent arbiter who could bring harmony and serenity to a contentious world or at least Asia. Whichever way one looks at it, two reasons may account here: as a regional and great (/global) power and as a believer of Tianxia, Beijing will always strive to engage its neighbors in the pursuance of economic, social, cultural and political harmony and success within the region. This obviously rejected John Mearsheimer’s offensive realist pessimism that the rise of China will lead to an intense security competition among its neighboring states.

President Xi Jing Ping has reiterated China’s commitment to ensuring a prosperous Asia that is capable of remedying its own woes without the involvement of external actors. This is evidential in his statement, “Asian affairs should be led by Asians ourselves” made at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-building Measures in Asia (CICA) held in Shanghai in May 2014. China’s increasing economic ties with neighboring states have affected regional security and stability to some extent. It has however become important for China to be more concerned about relations with other neighbors like Cambodia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam. It is against this backdrop that Xi Jinping visited Laos and Vietnam recently to strengthen China’s ties with the two neighbor states. Jeffrey Reeves has noted that instability in Beijing’s peripheral states would eventually affect China’s domestic security ____ smaller countries like Cambodia, Myanmar, Mongolia, Laos and Bangladesh are equally crucial to Beijing’s hegemonic influence, great power balance of power as well as its domestic stability. As a regional leader with global voice, a failure in any of these small states may be considered a failure on the part of Beijing. Laos, a socialist state led by communist stalwarts considers China as an inspiration for its cause and both would want to build an indestructible “community of shared future”.

Like Japan, Vietnam has the most interactions with China and yet has standing territorial disputes with Beijing. But interestingly, as observed by Foreign Minister Wang Yi “China’s destiny is linked with those of peripheral countries,” considering the powers of regional integration and the increasing importance of the Asia Pacific region for the global economic growth. Wang Yi disclosed this when he was discussing President Xi Jingping’s visit to Indonesia and Malaysia and attendance at the 21st Informal Meeting of APEC Leaders. By inference, Xi’s visit to Vietnam and Laos in November this year goes beyond normal or ordinary relations between the two countries ___ as communist leaders ruling socialist states, there is the need for strong bong in terms of administration, solidarity, regime survival, internal security and economic development. China sees it as a brotherhood responsibility to ensure the sustainability and growth of the four communist-socialist states (Cuba, North Korea, Laos and Vietnam) it holds ties with presently. It is also important for Beijing’s internal security and political ideology as a collapse of any of these states is likely to be seen as a collapse of the relics of communism and/or socialism. Bejing, therefore, finds it imperative to safeguard and assist them in order to vanguard against any attempt at erasing its long upheld political ideology by either internal or external forces.

In a nutshell, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Laos and Vietnam need China as much as China would want to build up a healthy and reliable relationship with them. Given this, three reasons account for FM Wang’s in Myanmar and Bangladesh; and President Xi’s presence in Laos and Vietnam recently. First, China is aware of the increasing complexity of the security environment of its periphery, with the expansion of foreign military bases, the strengthening of traditional military alliances, as well as deployment of new weapons systems such as ballistic missile defenses ___ affecting balance of power in the region and potentially undermining Beijing’s global and regional assertion. Second, there is also an imminent “color revolution” championed by foreign forces with internal support to revamp the regimes among China’s neighbors, as well as to push for values diplomacy, ostensibly to build “a democratic milieu around China”. Third, prosperous and cooperative neighbors will form the main basis for the preservation of China’s national security, sovereign unity and territorial integrity. It also provides the grounds for China’s defense against enemy intrusions, and offers it a palpable bulwark against other great powers meddling in the region.

All in all, Beijing is even yet to assiduously rope in many of these small countries within the region in its zest for regional solidarity, fortification and global aspirations, going beyond just “good neighborhood foreign policy.”

*Isaac Nunoo, PhD candidate in IR, SIPA, Jilin University