Championing the Cause of Peace and Cooperation andPromoting Stability and Growth in the Neighborhood

--- A Review of China’s Neighborhood Situation and Diplomacy in 2016

By Zhou Jian*

In 2016, China experienced complex dynamics in its neighborhood and made extraordinary diplomatic efforts. Despite the sluggish recovery of the world economy, emerging geopolitical elements, and headwinds against globalization, China’s neighborhood maintained general stability and relatively fast growth. Yet, it also faced destabilizing factors and uncertainties, such as mounting downward pressure on economies, protruding hotspot and thorny issues, and rising security challenges. Under the strong leadership of the CPC Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping as its core, China achieved diplomatic successes in promoting landmark projects and properly handling tricky issues and hotspots in its neighborhood.

1. The trend of the times breeds major adjustments

The aspiration for peace, growth and cooperation remained strong in the neighborhood of China. The Asia-Pacific region, in particular, has increasingly become an anchor for stability, a high ground of cooperation, and an engine of growth. More and more countries cast their attention to this promising region. Meanwhile, the deep-seated aftermath of the international financial crisis continued to ferment. Forces within and without the region made moves on their chessboard as the regional situation evolved, leaving a deep and complex impact on the economic, political and security landscape in China’s neighborhood.

Regional economy achieved outstanding performance, but downward pressure was mounting. In 2016, the region continued to contribute greatly to the global economy with its sustained fast growth and showed great potentials for future growth, adding a highlight to the sluggish world economy. IMF projection indicated that the Asia-Pacific would grow by 5.4% this year, with most East Asian countries growing by over 5.5%. An Asian Development Bank report suggested that the developing economies in Asia, represented by China, contributed over 60% of global growth and remained a high ground in world development. At the same time, the lethargic world economy, fluctuating international financial market, geopolitical risks and the Brexit created adverse spillovers. Japan’s super-scale quantitative easing produced prominent negative effects. These aggravated the economic difficulties for some countries. It became an imminent challenge for countries in the region to balance multiple tasks such as structural adjustment and growth promotion under such unhelpful environment.

Cooperation among major countries deepened, but competition heightened at the same time. China, the United States, Russia, and other premier players engaged in communication and coordination over the Asia-Pacific affairs at various levels. Major countries increasingly sought help and cooperation from one another, particularly through multilateral and bilateral dialogue and cooperation, in the fields of trade and investment, non-traditional security issues and environmental protection. It was in the common interest of major actors as well as other regional players. But it was concerning that a certain major country’s regional policy designed for maintaining its hegemony led to rising strategic misgivings and competition among major powers. The US pushed for a re-balance in the Asia-Pacific, with the US-Japan alliance at its core and a TPP as the platform. While Asia-Pacific countries pursued integration and inclusive growth, such relentless efforts to make and strengthen exclusive arrangements on security and free trade targeting a specific major country was apparently out of accord with the times. While parties were in urgent need of coordination to cope with the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula and to ensure stability in the South China Sea, the US pushed for the deployment of THAAD anti-missile system in the Republic of Korea and drew together a handful of countries for the joint patrol in the South China Sea, jeopardizing major-country relations and regional stability. Japan, on its part, insisted on its wrong position on history. It pressurized UNESCO repeatedly by refusing to pay its due share of contribution after the Documents of the Nanjing Massacre was inscribed in Memory of the World Register. It took a step further in lifting the ban on its right to collective defense and made troubles on issues related to the South China Sea and the Taiwan Straits. These actions sowed the seeds of disarray for regional peace and security.

Regional situation was stable in general, but risks and challenges remained prominent. Compared with other regions in the world, most parts of China’s neighborhood were free from conflict and war, and bristled with economic and social vigor. But the resurfacing of geopolitical considerations and the rise of hotspot issues in the region manifested destabilizing factors and uncertainties. In Northeast Asia, the DPRK’s violation of the UN Security Council resolution, as evidenced by two nuclear tests and multiple missile tests, led to new escalations. Taking this opportunity, the US and the ROK held a joint military exercise of an unprecedented scale and pushed for the deployment of THAAD in the ROK, threatening international strategic balance and security in Northeast Asia. The spiraling tensions of nuclear tests and anti-missile deployment brought dark clouds over the Peninsula. In Southeast Asia, some countries unrelated to the issue were stirring troubles by fueling up the arbitration case on the South China Sea initiated by the Philippines, acting even more proactively than the case initiator. They challenged China on its legitimate territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests in an attempt to denigrate China’s image and heighten conflicts between regional countries. Fortunately, China, ASEAN and the countries concerned returned to the right track of settling differences through dialogue and consultation, bankrupting calculations of the few trouble-makers. In other places, confrontation between India and Pakistan escalated. Reconciliation process in Afghanistan stagnated. Outside forces interfered with power transitions in Central Asian countries. Terrorism and extremism spilled over to Central Asia, South Asia and Southeast Asia at an accelerated pace. Both traditional and non-traditional security challenges were on the rise.

Regional cooperation grew steadily, but there were many constraints. Regional integration made significant progress, thanks to the joint efforts of countries in China’s neighborhood. The two wheels, namely, political and security cooperation, and economic and trade cooperation, were rolling again and picked up speed. In this year, the ASEAN Community was founded; and the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Mechanism was officially launched. The China-Japan-ROK Leaders’ Meeting was at a crucial stage after it was resumed last year. Sub-regions in both the north and the south could now join forces to power up East Asian cooperation. For the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a major breakthrough was achieved in membership expansion and extended the organization’s influence from Northeast Asia and Central Asia to South Asia. Economic and trade cooperation bonded regional countries together and drove cooperation in other fields in the neighborhood. Asian countries have signed close to 150 free trade agreements, 40% of which are within the region, and trade within Asia took up over 50% of the total foreign trade of all Asian countries. In 2016, countries attending the East Asia summits reaffirmed their commitment to an East Asia economic community; the Collective Strategic Study toward an FTAAP led by China and the US yielded consensus on most of the issues, moving economic integration in the Asia-Pacific one step further. But it would be wrong to forget the protruding imbalance in regional cooperation and the contrast between the economic “long plank” and the security “short plank”. And over-emphasis on the geo-strategic nature of free trade arrangements is incompatible with the trend of regional integration and would make it hard to garner support and participation.

2. The trend of the times calls for great vision

With globalization growing deeper and regional integration moving fast forward, national interests of countries in China’s neighborhood converge to a greater extent, shaping an intertwined community of shared future. As people longed for development and prosperity, peace and stability became an irresistible trend. China and all the other peace-loving countries in the region worked together to blaze new trails and set new records for the Asian Miracle. In 2016, China’s neighborhood continued to be the leading engine for global growth. It was by no means a coincidence, but a hard-won achievement. Facts have proven time and again that commitment to peace, stability, win-win cooperation, equality and inclusiveness is the only way toward long-term stability and development.

Jointly safeguard peace and security and promote regional stability. At the G20 Hangzhou Summit, President Xi Jinping pointed out that without peace, there will be no development; and without stability, there will be no prosperity. Countries are all closely linked in their security. No country can develop on its own or resolve all problems without working with others. As the trend towards a multi-polar world gains more momentum, a group of developing countries including China are getting stronger, driving the balance of power in Asia towards a direction that is more conducive to peace. Committed to the path of peaceful development, China is exploring a new type of state-to-state relations featuring dialogue instead of confrontation and partnership instead of alliance, and a new paradigm of peaceful, equal-footed and inclusive partnerships. China embraces the trend of the times and has actively practiced an Asian vision on security that is common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable. China has made great efforts to advance the sound development of the SCO, Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA), ASEAN Regional Forum, Xiangshan Forum and other regional security platforms. It is fair to say that the pursuit of stability, mutual trust and security is shared by all peace-loving people in the region. We maintain that countries inside or outside the region and people in the East or the West should go beyond the Cold War mentality of either alliance or confrontation, and stick to the right direction of ensuring lasting peace and stability in the region.

Jointly seek win-win cooperation and steer economic development. Globalization is reshaping the world. Those who adapt to it thrive and those who go against it decline. Nearly half of the economies who successfully got rid of the middle-income trap after the end of World War II are in East Asia. They succeeded because they participated in the globalization process. Since the onset of its reform and opening up, China has maintained rapid economic growth, which can be attributed to a large extent to the fact that China has acted in the spirit of mutual benefit, openness and cooperation and worked with all parties to make the pie of common interests bigger. Just as Premier Li Keqiang pointed out at the summit commemorating the 25th anniversary of China-ASEAN dialogue relations, cooperation based on common interests will be the strongest and longest-lasting of all. China champions equitable, open, comprehensive and innovative development, aligns the Belt and Road Initiative with the development strategy of countries, and strives to build a global value chain and an open world economic system that benefits all, which conforms to the fundamental interests of countries inside and outside the region. Seeking cooperation rather than confrontation and win-win results instead of dominance, accommodating others’ interests while pursuing our own, and aiming at common development when developing oneself, this is the only way that will lead us to success.

Jointly promote equality and inclusiveness and achieve common progress. Currently, there are two voices when it comes to how countries in this region shall get along. One believes that common progress will be achieved when there is mutual inclusiveness, respect and learning among different countries, ethnic groups, religions and cultures. It is in this spirit that, in Asia, a land of colorful cultures, diverse ethnicities and plural institutions, China and other countries have championed together the Five Principles of Peaceful coexistence, followed the Asian way of mutual respect, consultation, consensus and accommodation of each others’ comfort levels, and established the SCO spirit of mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality, consultation, respect for diverse civilizations and seeking common development. The other voice however believes that some civilizations and social systems are superior and more advanced than others and everyone is destined to bow to Western systems and models. People holding this view go to great length to use issues left from history to instigate conflict and confrontation among countries and “color revolution” inside societies. This is in essence colonialist thinking. At the opening ceremony of the fifth meeting of the CICA Ministers of Foreign Affairs, President Xi pointed out that Asians are known to be open, inclusive and visionary. We welcome countries outside the region making positive contribution to peace and stability here and working with Asian countries to promote security, stability, development and prosperity of Asia. As the wheel of the 21st century moves forward, the Asian spirit of equal treatment, seeking common ground while putting aside differences, openness and inclusiveness will shine brighter, and it is high time that the Western-centrism lost its ground.

3. All-round diplomatic efforts open up new vistas

Following these visions, China’s diplomacy has been committed to building friendship and partnership with its neighbors to foster an amicable, secure and prosperous neighborhood under the principle of amity, sincerity, mutual benefit and inclusiveness. It has advanced its cooperation with neighbors across the board, fulfilled its responsibilities in promoting regional peace and development, taken on the task of safeguarding national sovereignty, security and development interests, and created a stable and favorable neighborhood environment for the country’s endeavor to realize the two centenary goals. Under the strong leadership of the CPC Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping as its core, China’s neighborhood diplomacy in 2016 has made proactive and pioneering efforts and produced fruitful outcomes and positive impact.

Expanding the “circle of friends” through high-level exchanges. Chinese leaders’ had contacts with leaders of almost all surrounding countries through exchanges of visits and multilateral conferences. Within this year, President Xi Jinping and President Putin exchanged visits and had meetings on multiple occasions, giving a strong boost to the strategic partnership of coordination between the two countries. During the G20 Hangzhou Summit, President Xi met with leaders of Kazakhstan, India, Indonesia and the Republic of Korea and reached broad agreement on enhancing mutual trust and cooperation. President Xi attended the SCO Tashkent Summit and visited Uzbekistan, Cambodia and Bangladesh, charting the course of SCO development and China’s relations with Central Asian countries, and comprehensively enhancing China’s mutual trust and cooperation with traditional friends. Premier Li Keqiang attended the Boao Forum for Asia, the Asia-Europe Meeting, leaders’ meetings on East Asia cooperation, the meeting of the Council of Heads of States of Member States of the SCO and visited Laos, Mongolia and other countries in the neighborhood, bringing regional cooperation and China’s relations with relevant countries to greater depth. Other Chinese leaders have also conducted fruitful diplomatic activities in the neighborhood. Philippine President Duterte and State Counsellor of Myanmar Ang San Suu Kyi chose China as the first non-ASEAN country they visited since taking office, marking further consolidation of the friendship between these countries and China.

Centering on the Belt and Road Initiative, and opening up new prospects for mutually beneficial cooperation. Since President Xi proposed the initiative of jointly building the Belt and Road three years ago, the principle of wide consultation, joint contribution and shared benefit has taken deeper root in people’s mind and the Initiative has delivered more outcomes. First, the preliminary overall plan is completed. More than 100 countries and international organizations have taken an active part in the Initiative, and over 30 countries and international organizations have signed cooperation agreements with China. Second, breakthroughs were made in key projects. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is well underway. The guidelines of the China-Mongolia-Russia economic corridor was signed. China has established 46 overseas cooperation zones with countries along the routes of the Belt and Road. Third, early harvests are made in connectivity. The pace of building the new Eurasian Land Bridge is quickened. The Jakarta-Bandung high-speed railway and the China-Laos rail have been launched. Fourth, industrial capacity cooperation is advancing at a higher speed. China has signed cooperation agreements with 20 countries and the industrial capacity cooperation funds China established have totaled more than US$100 billion. Fifth, progress has been made in institutional innovation. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank is up and running and the first batch of projects funded by the Silk Road Fund were launched. Last June, during his visit to Uzbekistan, President Xi Jinping drew a blueprint for the development of the Belt and Road Initiative by pointing out that “Tremendous efforts should be made for the implementation of agreed projects and sustained development of the Belt and Road Initiative.” He said China would work with countries along the routes to build a win-win cooperation network, create a new cooperation model, foster a diversified cooperation platform and advance projects in priority areas for the Belt and Road Initiative, with a view to building a green and skill-based Silk Road for health and peace. The building of the Belt and Road is creating ever stronger momentum for the pursuit of peace and development in the neighborhood.

Focusing on the management of hotspots to firmly uphold stability and national interests. Faced with tough hotspot issues such as the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula and the issue of the South China Sea, China is always committed to regional stability and core national interests. On the issue of the Korean Peninsula, China is committed to achieving denuclearization and peace and stability on the peninsula and resolving the issue through dialogue and consultation. Acting as a stability anchor for the region, China is advancing in parallel tracks, the denuclearization and the replacement of the armistice agreement with a peace treaty, and calls on all parties to come back to the Six-Party Talks based on the September 19th Joint Statement. China supports and faithfully implements UNSC Resolution 2270 and urges all parties to remain calm and exercise restraint. Voicing its clear opposition to the plan of the United States and the ROK to deploy the THAAD anti-missile system in the ROK, China is determined to uphold its strategic security and regional peace and stability. 

On the issue of the South China Sea, China is committed to resolving the issue through negotiations and consultation. Supporting and championing the dual-track approach initiated by ASEAN countries to properly handle the South China Sea issue, and focusing on the greatest common interests of regional countries in maintaining regional stability, China plays the role of a stability anchor for the region. This year, pending the so-called award of the arbitration case initiated by the Philippines, certain forces within and outside the region attempted to use the opportunity to challenge China’s sovereignty and maritime rights and interests and smear China’s image. We fought back with intensified counter measures and ensured the smooth handling of the issue at the ASEM Summit, the ASEAN-China Foreign Ministers’ Meeting and the East Asia Summit. China and ASEAN issued a joint statement on the full and effective implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, adopted Guidelines for the Hotline Communications among Senior Officials of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs of China and ASEAN Member States in Response to Maritime Emergencies and issued a joint statement on the application of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea in the South China Sea, drawing the parties back to the right track of peacefully resolving differences through dialogue and consultation. In particular, President Xi and President Duterte reached important consensus on improving and growing the bilateral relations, which returned China-Philippines relations to the right track and reduced the arbitration award to nothing more than a piece of paper. Multiple objectives of upholding sovereignty and territorial integrity, stabilizing the South China Sea and maintaining regional peace were realized. The past experience and the reality prove once again that only when regional countries hold in their own hands the key to settlement of the issue can the South China Sea and the region enjoy enduring peace and stability. 

Relying on multilateral mechanisms to elevate regional cooperation to a new level. The spirit of amity, sincerity, mutual benefit and inclusiveness brings about lasting benefits. In 2016, China actively engaged in regional cooperation in the neighborhood with important progress made across the board. On the economic front, the protocol on the upgrading of the China-ASEAN Free Trade Area came into effect officially, further liberalizing and facilitating two-way trade and investment. China and ASEAN issued a joint statement on production capacity cooperation at the summit commemorating the 25th anniversary of their dialogue relations, injecting new impetus to the win-win cooperation between China and the ten ASEAN countries. With China’s efforts, the APT Statement on Promoting Sustainable Development was issued at the APT Leaders’ Meeting and the Vientiane Declaration on Promoting Infrastructure Development Cooperation in the East Asia Summit, which further deepened cooperation on infrastructure and promoted sustainable development in the region. China played a successful host to the first Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Leaders’ Meeting, which set up three cooperation pillars, namely, political and security issues, economic and sustainable development and social, cultural and people-to-people exchanges, and identified five key priority areas including connectivity, production capacity, cross-border economic cooperation, water resources, agriculture and poverty reduction. China launched a special fund for Lancang-Mekong cooperation, providing new driving force for deepening China-ASEAN cooperation and narrowing development gaps within ASEAN. China, Japan and the ROK hosted the foreign ministers’ meeting, commerce ministers’ meeting, education ministers’ meeting and negotiations on free trade area to implement the outcomes of last year’s leaders’ meeting and further deepen practical cooperation. 

On the security front, China continued to live up to the vision of common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security and actively advanced a security management model with Asian characteristics. By hosting the CICA foreign ministers’ meeting for the first time and submitting the Conclusions of 2014-2016 CICA Chinese Chairmanship and 2016-2018 Chairmanship Working Envisage, China promoted deeper political mutual trust and security cooperation in the region. With the Tashkent Declaration of the Fifteenth Anniversary of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization signed by President Xi and other SCO leaders and the MOU on Honoring the Obligations of Joining the SCO signed by India and Pakistan, SCO, this important platform for regional security dialogue and cooperation, grew from strength to strength. China continued to work with ASEAN countries to negotiate and conclude a treaty of good neighborliness, friendship and cooperation, advance the institutionalization of the unofficial meetings between their defense ministers and consolidate the ministerial dialogue mechanism on law enforcement and security cooperation. China supported the development of track 1.5 and track 2 dialogue mechanisms such as the Xiangshan Forum and actively engaged in multilateral security dialogue and cooperation mechanisms in the region. China took an active part in dialogue and cooperation under the framework of the ASEAN Regional Forum and strengthened its cooperation with countries to address non-traditional security threats such as terrorism, natural disasters, transnational crimes and communicable diseases. China also took an active part in the reconciliation process in Afghanistan and made relentless efforts in promoting the improvement of India-Pakistan relations, with a view to both fostering an enabling neighborhood for its own peace and development and providing more public goods for regional peace and stability. 

The year 2017 is a significant one in China’s peace and development course. The 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China is around the corner. Our reform and development have come to a critical stage. As world multi-polarization, economic globalization and social application of information technology are gaining momentum, regional and global landscapes are going through profound changes. We believe that, under the strong leadership of the CPC Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core, China’s major-country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics will continue to promote good-neighborliness and win-win cooperation as its priority, live up to the neighborhood diplomacy spirit of amity, sincerity, mutual benefit and inclusiveness and firmly uphold sovereignty, national security and development interests, with a view to fostering a more stable and enabling neighborhood for the successful opening of the 19th CPC National Congress and China’s reform and development and to making even greater contribution to the lofty cause of world peace and development.

* Zhou Jian is the Deputy Director General of the Department of Policy Planning of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.