Illustration: Liu Rui/GT
The past year, 2016, was surprisingly eventful in the realm of international politics as frustrating geopolitical challenges in the South China Sea posed obstacles for China. The fallout from these emerging events has certainly impacted China's diplomacy and the international community which did not expect the twists and turns throughout 2016 at the beginning of the year. This unsettles us from any positive predictions about what is coming in 2017, in which significant uncertainties are likely to continue.
We don't need to feel pessimistic about the new international circumstances facing China's foreign policy. It may not encounter extremely difficult challenges, but the development of Sino-US relations is the most important challenge.
US President-elect Donald Trump is not sworn in yet, but his moves such as his cabinet appointments, call with Taiwan's leader and comments on the "one China" policy, as well as his provocation of US trade with China, have led many Chinese to consider him as hawkish.
In a sense, Beijing's confrontation with the next US government, which is still in transition, has begun. On the positive side, it provides opportunities for the two governments to communicate and avoid possible conflicts while discussing crucial issues with each other.
At this stage, China should stand firm to its cardinal principles and seek Trump's recognition on some important issues, which would help him realize that any concessions he tries to force Beijing to make would come at a high price for Washington and result in a situation at cross purposes. The positive aspect of the transition is that Trump's authority would not be damaged severely if he backs off from his criticism against China and take time to think rationally about what is favorable and what is considered impetuous before he takes power.
As a matter of fact, it is still in question if Trump could be a powerful president. He tried ways to prove himself as a president who is strong, capable and has lots of ideas. So far, he hasn't shown any potential to be a great president which essentially builds on two important elements - the country's strong power and the leadership to tip the balances - which are still in question now, especially his leadership which will require more probative achievements and time.
In the medium- to long-term of Sino-US relations, Beijing should see that it is imperative to take a clear standpoint and firm resolve, not just a nice nod to the US, at the early stage of Trump's administration so that China would better stabilize its diplomacy situation and safeguard its national interests. It is always better to cooperate after a fight than to fight after cooperation, especially given that there are unavoidable conflicts in some areas between the two countries. China should enlighten the US with refusals of the latter's unreasonable demand, and discouraging its opportunism in the development of its diplomatic relations.
Challenges that China's periphery diplomacy will be facing in 2017 may arise from the South China Sea, the Korean Peninsula and the Taiwan Straits, which will potentially affect the Sino-US relationship and its future development. For the first half of 2017, many neighboring countries would form their diplomatic policies based on what they see from the engagement between China and the US.
With its own diplomatic efforts in the complicated 2016, Beijing became effective in dealing with some heated regional issues while Trump's presidency could be a factor leading to disturbances. If such disturbances can be well managed, China's periphery diplomacy will be improved. In a nutshell, some of the hot issues China feels frustrated with would be set aside extensively or permanently if Beijing could withstand pressures from the US whose influence in the region is about to wane.
But if Beijing failed, it would face mounting pressure from these issues. Thus, the major battle for China's diplomacy in 2017 is Sino-US relations, as well as its spill-over effect in neighboring countries. This is a vital game in which the situation for China is not really grave. We should not exaggerate such concern or uncertainty of the diplomatic situation, and underestimate China's influential power in the region.
Instead, China should be confident that it can curb the momentum of the new US government and create a long-term favorable situation that is beneficial to China.
The author is a professor at the Guangdong Research Institute for International Strategies. firstname.lastname@example.org