Diplomatic puzzles for China to solve in 2017

By Jeremy Garlick Source:Global Times Published: 2017/1/3 11:28:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

By general consensus, 2016 was an erratic and unpredictable year in international affairs. Unexpectedly, the UK voted to leave the EU and the US elected a celebrity businessman, Donald Trump, as president. There was a tendency in Europe, probably exacerbated by social media, for swings in public opinion toward the political right.

The world is also facing ongoing crises such as the civil war in Syria, resulting in waves of refugees entering Turkey and Greece. In addition, and probably more importantly for the future of global affairs, there is a continuing general wobbliness in the global economy and an urgent need for concrete action on environmental issues.

Thus, China is presented with some potentially thorny diplomatic issues to solve. The foremost among these, of course, is the Trump conundrum: how to react to the incoming US president.

This is not going to be an easy issue to solve, because Trump seems happy to utilize inconsistency and capriciousness as tactical gambits to get what he wants. What he says is not necessarily what he intends to do. This makes it difficult to know how to respond.

The optimum strategy (one which Beijing already appears to have adopted) is that of sending strong signals that China is not going to bend to Trump's will, while taking a wait-and-see position until it becomes clearer what direction the new US administration is actually going to take once it is in office.

It is possible that, as a businessman, Trump is going to be amenable to face-to-face negotiation over economic and political issues, and that Beijing may therefore find him easier to deal with than at present. On the other hand, if he takes a hard line toward China, the going will get tough.

One of the most worrying aspects of Trump's avowed policy objectives is his rejection of the need for action on climate change. However, it seems that the outgoing President Barack Obama has enacted measures which will make it difficult for Trump to pull a reverse, so probably, there will be little impact on global environmental cooperation unless Trump is re-elected to a second term.

In fact, Trump's reluctance to face up to climate change presents an opportunity for China to become the de facto world leader in the area of renewable energy technology and environmental activism. With its vast resources, governmental resolve, and the growing public understanding of the urgent need for improvements, China now has the chance to present itself as a focus point for efforts to counter mankind's devastating impact on the planet.

In trade, Trump is not a fan of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). However, since China was not involved in the TPP, its demise would not cause Beijing any major headaches.

Yet it would leave a void which needs to be filled. Again, this will depend on the willingness of Trump to strike deals. There is an opportunity for a new dawn in US-China trade relations, but also a good chance for major friction.

This is also the case in the South China Sea, where Trump has expressed displeasure at China's activity. Yet the unanticipated decision of President Duterte of the Philippines to do business with China has dramatically eased tensions. The waning of the US influence in the region implies that Beijing mainly needs to stand its ground in order for a kind of stability to emerge.

A key priority for China must be maintaining the steadily warming relations with Russia. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization has proved an effective forum for building trust and confidence between Moscow and Beijing, particularly in the sensitive Central Asian region, critical for the progress of China's One Belt and One Road Initiative. The apparent flirtation between Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President-elect Trump must not be allowed to undermine Sino-Russian ties: Beijing must be alert to US efforts to divide the partners.

Further west, there is the question of how to engage with Europe. In the wake of the UK referendum, the EU is floundering in Brexit negotiations and its direction and unity are increasingly unclear. For the time being, the EU is a ship without a rudder, a union in name only. China would be wise to continue its policies of bilateral deals with individual countries, as well as attempting to build on the steady progress made so far in improving relations with Central and Eastern European countries via the 16+1 forum.

Finally, with the recent fall of Aleppo, there is hope that 2017 can bring an end to the war in Syria, and that the parties involved can enter into a negotiation at long last.

China, as befits its status as a current major world power, should play a significant role, both behind the scenes and in front of them, in establishing a new order in Syria. Careful and thoughtful Chinese diplomacy, in conjunction with efforts by the other interested nations, can also create a foundation for a more peaceful Middle East and North African region in the medium- to long-term. This would certainly be a win-win result which would demonstrate evidence of China's positive intentions in international affairs.

The author is a lecturer in international relations, Jan Masaryk Centre for International Studies, University of Economics in Prague. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn



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