The Changing Face of Chinese Diplomacy


Nov 25, 2003

By Evan S. Medeiros and Taylor Fravel

This commentary originally appeared in Asian Wall Street Journal on November 25, 2003.

One of the most curious and underexamined aspects of the evolving North Korean nuclear crisis is the active and leading role played by China in the last nine months. Breaking with years of traditional Chinese passivity on global-security challenges, Beijing has helped to walk both Pyongyang and Washington back from the brink, surprising even China's critics.

Chinese diplomats were instrumental in bringing about a first round of tripartite discussions and six-party talks. Since then, senior Chinese officials have shuttled between Pyongyang and Washington to maintain momentum for the next round. Beijing has also used coercive measures such as a reported temporary suspension of oil supplies, an “inspection” of a North Korean ship in a Chinese port and shifting troop deployments on the China-North Korean border.

Beijing's consistent efforts to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue is one of many indications of a broader evolution in China's diplomacy. In recent years, Beijing's foreign policy has begun to reflect a more sophisticated, confident and, at times, constructive and proactive approach toward regional and global affairs.

For many previous decades until the mid-1990s, China regularly criticized the structure of the international system and complained that other powers colluded against its interests. Beijing now increasingly appears to be embracing the current constellation of international institutions, rules and norms as a means through which to promote and pursue its national interests. China is now working within the international system as opposed to criticizing and challenging it.

Evidence of the changes in Chinese diplomacy abound. China has expanded the breadth and depth of its bilateral relations, joined numerous regional and international agreements and increased the quality of its participation in multilateral organizations.

Beijing's embrace of multilateral institutions represents one of the most dramatic shifts in its foreign relations. In the early 1990s, China was wary of such forums as venues that would criticize and constrain China. Beijing now views participation as a means to shape international rules, improve relations with neighboring countries (especially in Southeast Asia) and limit what it perceives as undue U.S. global influence.

In East Asia, China has actively engaged the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the Asean Regional Forum. Beijing has taken a series of calculated steps to reassure Asean states that China's rise doesn't threaten their economic and security interests.

In 2001, China proposed the establishment of a China-Asean Free Trade Area, the first of its kind. To allay regional fears about its territorial ambitions, China also agreed to a Declaration on a Code of Conduct for the island disputes in the South China Sea. And Beijing most recently signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, one of the first non-Asean states to take this step, signaling its acceptance of their norms of conflict resolution.

Elsewhere in the region, China led the establishment of a multilateral organization focused on regional security in Central Asia, known as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The group now has six members who cooperate on border demilitarization, counter terrorism and trade.

Beyond Asia, China initiated an annual meeting with the European Union in 1998 and recently approached the North Atlantic Treaty Organization about starting an annual dialogue on strategic perceptions and regional security threats. This effort stands in stark contrast to China's traditionally critical approach to U.S.-led security alliances.

In the U.N. Security Council, China voted in favor of the November 2002 U.N. Resolution 1441 on weapons inspections in Iraq. This was only the second time since China joined the U.N. in 1971 that it supported a Security Council resolution under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which authorizes the use of force. Through the 1990s, while it generally did not block U.N. action, China abstained on similar votes, including during the first Gulf War. More recently, China has voted in support of resolutions relating to the rebuilding of Iraq.

Over the past 10 years, China has signed several key arms control and nonproliferation treaties. Beijing has also issued numerous domestic export control laws in an effort to enforce these new nonproliferation commitments. While differences in interpretation of the regimes and problems with implementing controls on sensitive technology exports continue, the overall trend is encouraging.

China has also actively addressed numerous territorial disputes that historically soured its regional relations. Since 1991, it has resolved disputes with Laos, Russia, Vietnam, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. In these settlements, China often received less than half of the disputed areas. In addition, China has instituted troop reductions and confidence-building measures on border security with key neighbors such as India and Russia.

Likewise, the execution of China's diplomacy has become more sophisticated, as Beijing seeks to shape world opinion. At an individual level, China's third and fourth generation of leaders have sought to personalize China's diplomacy by traveling abroad far more than previous leaders.

More broadly, China has issued well over a dozen “white papers” outlining the government's official position on domestic and international policy issues. The Foreign Ministry's and State Council's Web pages include an impressive trove of basic data on Chinese positions, new policy developments and official statements. Perhaps most surprising, Chinese officials have started providing the international press with Western-style “background briefings” before and after major diplomatic events.

Within the last few years, and especially since September 11, 2001, even more dramatic shifts have occurred in China's thinking about its role in the international system. Influential Chinese analysts have begun advocating that China abandon its long-held victim mentality and instead promote the adoption of a “great-power mentality.”

An important manifestation of these ideas is that Chinese strategists increasingly see their interests as more akin to major powers and less associated with those of developing nations. This change alone represents a significant perceptual shift from the 1990s, when many Chinese still viewed their nation as disenfranchised by globalization, the other major powers, and multilateral forums. Reflecting this change, President Hu Jintao was the first Chinese leader to attend a dialogue meeting of the Group of Eight leading nations this past summer.

Chinese diplomats and political leaders now talk about “shared global responsibilities” and improving cooperation among “great powers” (which includes China) to combat global security threats. This thinking stands in stark contrast to China's previously narrow view of its national interests, its identity as a major power and its role in the international community.

A final, major element of China's new thinking is a recent, if grudging, acceptance that the world is for the moment unipolar and that U.S. preponderance will persist for decades. Although Chinese leaders publicly tout multipolarization as the trend of the times (and condemn American unilateralism), Chinese analysts also acknowledge that their country cannot (and will not) challenge U.S. global dominance anytime soon.

While all these trends are important, China still faces serious obstacles to becoming a high-profile, much less a dominant, player in the international community. Even as the country's diplomacy becomes more active, Chinese leaders need to grapple with severe political, social and economic challenges.

China's new diplomacy presents Asian and American leaders with both opportunities and challenges. China's active participation in international institutions creates more chances to elicit its assistance on key issues. Recent examples of this trend include U.S.-China cooperation on counterterrorism, counternarcotics and nonproliferation.

However, policy makers should remember that even as China becomes more engaged, it is also growing more adept at using its foreign policy and foreign relations to serve Chinese interests. Today's China is certainly smarter and more sophisticated -- but not necessarily kinder or gentler.

Beijing's new skills may at times frustrate Washington's objectives, as China is potentially becoming better equipped to challenge the policies of the U.S. and its allies. China's ability to consistently outmaneuver the U.S. at the U.N. Human Rights Commission in recent years should serve as a wake-up call.

China is dissatisfied with some aspects of the international system, such as U.S. preponderance and especially the status of Taiwan. Washington should remain aware of these frustrations and shape its ties with Asian nations in a way that recognizes the reality of China's expanding regional role. China is rapidly emerging as the engine of growth in Asia, which affords it increasing influence and leverage. Washington needs to pay consistent attention to managing relations with regional friends and allies, if it hopes to maintain its pull.

A longer-term task for the entire international community is to ensure that China's new diplomacy is consistent with regional stability and security. China's top political leaders have deemed the next 20 years a strategic opportunity to develop their country. An opening exists for the international community as well, and policy makers should use it wisely, to manage China's emergence as a diplomatic power.

Mr. Medeiros is an associate political scientist at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization. Mr. Fravel is a fellow at the Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard University.

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