China’s challenging neighborhood diplomacy

By Li Yincai Source:Global Times Published: 2017/7/24 20:58:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

There have been remarkable changes in China's neighborhood diplomacy in recent years. Taking active steps, China has endeavored to guide and shape the environment around it. But it faces increasing risks and challenges.

Over the past two years, China has seen significant fluctuations in its relations with neighboring countries, in particular the Philippines, South Korea and North Korea. The ruling of the South China Sea arbitration in July last year tried to invalidate China's claims in the waters, but Sino-Philippine relations soon saw shifts after Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte took office. China's ties with South Korea deteriorated dramatically after Seoul decided to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system on its soil, and forges toward an uncertain future. As Pyongyang conducted missile and nuclear tests regardless of strong international opposition, China has agreed to heighten the sanctions on the regime within the UN framework.

China is forming its style of diplomacy. It is willing to show goodwill, and has no fear of using a big stick when necessary. For instance, it provided economic benefits for the Duterte administration that had been shifting away from the US, and coordinated with his domestic policy.

Nonetheless, China's relationships with the three countries suggest it faces multiple challenges in maintaining security in its neighborhood.

China is not sufficiently aware about its security challenges. It often lags behind in taking precautions, and is short in capacity and experience to take the initiative. Hence it often finds itself in a passive position.

After the administration of then Philippine president Benigno Aquino III took the South China Sea dispute to the Permanent Court of Arbitration, China was compelled to put in massive diplomatic resources to cope with the situation, but still failed to turn around international opinion. The ruling came down overwhelmingly in favor of Philippine claims.

China-South Korea ties had been improving after Park Geun-hye held power. She even made an appearance at China's military parade in September to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII, despite pressure from Washington. However, the bilateral relationship plunged to its worst level due to the THAAD deployment. This apparently reflected problems in the two nations' communication and crisis management.

The shift of Duterte's policy on China and political chaos in South Korea have helped improve China's security situation. But this has been achieved due to changes in the politics of other countries and their adjustment in policy focus, such as Duterte's war on corruption and drugs in his country.

In the future, China still faces a number of challenges in its neighborhood. The challenges need to be addressed with a holistic approach if China wants to maintain and prolong its current period of strategic opportunity, promote its domestic economic and political situation, and push forward the implementation of its initiatives and proposals.

Since Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi came into power, he has adjusted India's policy on China. This year, the China-India border negotiations and the foreign ministers' meeting of China, Russia and India haven't been held. India skipped the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in May as it protested against the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and only sent Minister of State for External Affairs Vijay Kumar Singh to attend the meeting of BRICS foreign ministers last month. New Delhi's latest incursion over the Sino-Indian border is another example of its actions against Beijing.

Washington may put an end to its strategic patience with Pyongyang. Under the circumstances, the North Korean government may launch a new nuclear test and accelerate efforts to miniaturize nuclear warheads to put them on missiles.

China's challenges in the South China Sea remain. There is a possibility that Vietnam and other countries will bring their disputes with China to the international community, or that Southeast Asian countries will band together to resist China. As Seoul is set to deploy the THAAD system, the alliance of Japan, the US and South Korea may be strengthened.

Yet the biggest challenge for China lies in Donald Trump's China policy, given Washington's important position in the Asia-Pacific region and the unpredictability of the Trump administration. The anti-establishment president has made it more difficult for China and the US to coordinate their policies. But what's certain is that Washington will adopt an offshore balancing act to intensify the great power strategic competition, whoever the US president is. This definitely hampers China's diplomatic activities in its neighborhood and its strategic rise.

Political changes in China's neighbors will be a big test for China's diplomacy. In response, China needs to make choices and seek opportunities out of chaos for making breakthroughs and reshaping the situation. This entails great diplomatic wisdom and a coherent strategy.

The author is an assistant research fellow from the Institute of International Relations at Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.


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