Enhancing Neighborhood Diplomacy in Response to Changes Unseen in a Century

Luo Zhaohui

China’s neighborhood is crucial for its security, development and prosperity. By prioritizing neighborhood in its overall diplomacy, China is committed to forging friendship and partnership with its neighbors, following the principle of amity, sincerity, mutual benefit and inclusiveness, and deepening win-win cooperation with the neighbors. This has contributed to the sustained sound momentum in its neighborhood. Since the beginning of this year, with a global pandemic rarely seen coupled with changes unseen in a century, as well as impact of the China-US contest, the complex factors in China’s neighborhood have been on the rise. 

Under the strong leadership of the CPC Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping at its core, China advanced both epidemic control and economic and social development. We swiftly made major strategic achievements in the fight against COVID-19 and became one of the first countries to return to positive economic growth. Focusing on epidemic-related diplomacy and practical cooperation, we worked with Asian neighbors in solidarity to fight the virus and restore the economy. Our cooperation contributed to enhanced political mutual trust, closer bond of interests, deepened friendship and new progress in China’s good-neighborly relations and cooperation with neighboring countries. We also strongly responded to the all-out approach of the United States to contain and bring China down, and firmly defended our sovereignty, security and development interests. 

I. Neighborhood Diplomacy in the Context of COVID-19 Response 

High-level exchanges steered the ship. President Xi Jinping’s visit to Myanmar, his first overseas trip in 2020, wrote a new chapter in the pauk-phaw friendship between China and Myanmar. In the wake of COVID-19, President Xi Jinping has had 17 phone conversations with leaders of 14 neighboring countries, reaching important consensus with them on strengthening COVID-19 response and cooperation in various fields, and pointing the way forward for growing China’s neighborhood relations under new circumstances. Premier Li Keqiang spoke on the phone with prime ministers of Viet Nam and Laos, and attended the Special ASEAN Plus Three (APT) Summit on COVID-19 and the third Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) Leaders’ Meeting via video link. Leaders of Cambodia, Mongolia and Pakistan visited China in spite of the epidemic. State Councilor Wang Yi had 37 phone conversations with 17 foreign ministers from neighboring countries, and held the Video Conferences of China-ASEAN, China-Japan-ROK, Russia-India-China (RIC), and China-Afghanistan-Pakistan-Nepal Foreign Ministers. China’s diplomacy also restarted offline with Director Yang Jiechi’s visit to Singapore, the ROK, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. State Councilor Wang Yi had meetings and talks with foreign ministers of Indonesia, Pakistan, Viet Nam and the Philippines, and special envoy of the Indonesian President, and paid visits to Mongolia, Cambodia, Malaysia, Laos and Thailand. 

Cooperation on COVID-19 response demonstrated our deep friendship. As a saying goes, those who love others will be returned with love. When China was battling COVID-19, its neighboring countries in Asia offered help to support China through various means. When the virus spread in neighboring countries, China provided a large amount of medical supplies and shared its experience in light of the needs of all its neighboring countries. We sent medical teams to countries including Cambodia, Pakistan, Laos, the Philippines, Myanmar and Malaysia, and held video conferences between Chinese medical experts and their counterparts from Mongolia and ASEAN and South Asian countries. China also worked closely with its neighbors on vaccine R&D and deployment to make vaccines accessible and affordable in the region and beyond. Local governments, businesses, civil organizations and people of relevant countries got involved in this joint fight against the virus, writing a touching chapter that gives true meaning to the verses “Though we live in different lands, the same moon and sky make us one”. 

Economic re-opening boosted our confidence. Being among the first to contain the virus, China worked actively to set up the joint prevention and control mechanism with the ROK, Mongolia, Singapore, Pakistan, the Maldives and Afghanistan. China’s border provinces also established this mechanism with places of neighboring countries bordering China. Such arrangements helped stem the cross-border transmission of the virus. We established “fast tracks” and “green lanes” for the flows of personnel and goods with countries such as the ROK, Singapore, Myanmar, Indonesia and Mongolia to ensure the stability of regional industrial and supply chains and help boost both their epidemic control and economic and social development. 

Economic and trade relations grew against headwinds. In the first half of this year, China’s trade with its neighbors in Asia reached US$632.1 billion, accounting for 31% of China’s total foreign trade. As China’s trade with ASEAN countries increased by 5.6% year-on-year, ASEAN has become China’s biggest trading partner by overtaking the EU. Southeast Asia received 76% of China’s non-financial direct investment to BRI partner countries. Major projects under the BRI framework continued to make progress. The upgrade of the ML-1 railway, the largest infrastructure project under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), was approved by the Pakistani government. With the subgrade earthwork basically completed, the China-Laos Railway kicked off its track-laying work. The construction of the Jakarta-Bandung Railway and the China-Thailand Railway continued to move forward. 

Solidarity and cooperation helped push back outside disturbances. The United States acted against the trend of the times by politicizing COVID-19, sowing discord with the South China Sea issue, building exclusive blocs, pushing for economic and technological decoupling, calling for ideological confrontation and undermining regional cooperation. In contrast, China and its neighbors maintained strategic communication both bilaterally and multilaterally, and worked to remove disturbances, build consensus, firmly support multilateralism and uphold open and inclusive cooperation. The regional countries agreed to properly handle differences through dialogue and consultation and focus on both epidemic response and development. With a stronger sense of justice and righteousness, regional countries have enhanced their consensus on pursuing peace, development and cooperation. 

II. Risks and Challenges in Neighborhood Diplomacy 

As the rampage of COVID-19 continues around the world, the upcoming autumn and winter seasons in the northern hemisphere increase the risk of resurgence. Confirmed cases in China’s neighboring countries and the wider region exceeded 10 million, taking up one third of the world’s total. As specified below, the spread of the virus, economic slowdown and the interference of extra-regional forces are posing multiple challenges to this region. 

First, the COVID-19 situation became severe. To date, there have been over 8 million confirmed cases in Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia and South Asia, with over 95% in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, the Philippines and Indonesia. India has nearly 7 million confirmed cases, the second highest in the world (by 9 October) only after the US. The situation in Japan, the ROK and Myanmar remained grave as a result of the resurgence. With the approaching of the autumn and winter seasons, which are more suitable for viruses to survive and spread, China’s neighbors are likely to experience another outbreak. For the moment, the proportion of imported cases from these countries to China is not big, but it keeps growing fast. The neighboring countries are connected by rivers and mountains with China, and the frequent people-to-people exchanges represent risks of case importation that cannot be ignored. 

Second, the economy plunged. COVID-19 dealt a huge blow to major economies in the region. Japan witnessed the third straight quarter of negative growth. Its economy in the second quarter of this year shrank by 7.8%, the worst contraction since comparable data became available. Singapore and India’s GDP in the second quarter fell by 6.7% and 23.9% year on year, representing the largest drop in a single quarter ever recorded. The Philippines’ GDP in the first half of this year declined by 9% year on year, the first negative half-year growth in the past 22 years. Indonesia experienced its first economic recession since 1999. The epidemic has disrupted the stability of regional industrial and supply chains, jeopardized regional countries’ trade and greatly reduced imports and exports of Japan, the ROK and India. The resurgence of the virus, if happens again, will cause even greater uncertainties for the economic recovery of neighboring countries. 

Third, the US was bent on stirring up troubles. It has taken a wholesale approach against China in an attempt to contain China. The US, Japan, India and Australia upgraded the Quad mechanism, seeking formal alliance similar to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in the Indo-Pacific region. The US also released its new policy on the South China Sea and tried to fan the flames, sow discord between China and ASEAN countries and disrupt the consultation process of a Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea. It flexed its muscles by sending 3,000 sorties of military aircraft and some 60 naval vessels to the South China Sea in the first half of this year alone, including, in most cases, bombers and dual carrier operations. Such acts have become the biggest factor fueling militarization in the South China Sea and the most dangerous factor jeopardizing peace in the Asia-Pacific region. 

Fourth, complex changes occurred in major-country relations. The US stirs up confrontation and creates division in China’s neighboring region, profoundly affecting the strategic environment of the region and relevant countries’ policies toward China. China and Japan are each other’s friendly close neighbors, and a bilateral relationship featuring long-term stability and friendly cooperation serves the interests of both countries. As the most important ally for the US in Asia, Japan is strenuously recalibrating its relations with China and the US. China and the ROK are important close neighbors and high-standard cooperative partners with extensive converging interests. In the meantime, given the alliance between the ROK and the US, China-ROK relations are inevitably affected by the US factor. China and India are both major developing countries that are rapidly revitalizing and each other’s important partners, but the recent frequent provocations by India have undermined both the situation in the border areas and practical cooperation between the two countries. ASEAN member states enjoy cooperative relations with both China and the US. They are repulsed by unilateralism, Cold-War mentality and acts that undermine regional unity and cooperation, but are also they are held hostage to these acts and faced with the dilemma of choosing sides. 

III. Open up New Prospects for Neighborhood Diplomacy in Asia 

Under new circumstances, China’s neighboring regions in Asia are embracing new development opportunities while confronting risks and challenges. Asia is still the world’s most vibrant region with the greatest potential for development. China and its neighboring countries become even more interconnected and interdependent, and the main theme of good-neighborliness, friendship and mutually beneficial cooperation has become stronger. We will continue to conscientiously study and implement Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy, take into account both domestic and international situations, strengthen strategic planning and deployment of strategies, and continuously deepen China’s friendly cooperative relations with neighboring countries, so as to make new contributions to the great revitalization of the Chinese nation and the building of an Asian community with a shared future and a community with a shared future for mankind. 

First, we will follow an integrated approach to key priorities. 

Always taking history as a mirror to guide the future, China is ready to strengthen communication with the new government of Japan, observe the principles reached in the four Sino-Japanese political documents and the spirit of the two countries’ consensus on the four principles, and actively work toward China-Japan relations in line with the requirements of the new era. 

China and the ROK need to exemplify win-win cooperation. We are ready to strengthen high-level exchanges and strategic communication with the ROK, drive synergies between development strategies, tap into and foster new growth drivers of bilateral cooperation, and advance international cooperation in multilateral areas, so as to further enhance China-ROK strategic cooperative partnership. 

We always pay high attention to relations with India. The two countries need to stick to our leaders’ strategic consensus that China and India are cooperative partners rather than rivals, and should offer development opportunities rather than constitute threats to each other. The two countries need to properly manage and control differences, promote de-escalation in the border area, and put our differences at an appropriate place in our bilateral relations, so as to firmly steer China-India relations in the right direction. 

China and ASEAN member states are strategic partners and friendly close neighbors. We need to drive close synergies between our development strategies, build consensus on cooperation, expand converging interests, strengthen ties of friendship, deepen exchanges on governance, and promote shared ideas and values. Our two sides need to strive for the full and effective implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and explore the use of flexible approaches to sustain the negotiation process of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, so as to effectively safeguard peace and stability in the South China Sea and our region. We need to make coordinated efforts to advance our friendly cooperative relations with different neighboring countries and build a more close-knit and solid network of friends and partners. 

Second, we will deepen regional cooperation in COVID-19 response. 

We are ready to continue to strengthen cooperation with neighboring countries in COVID-19 response and support relevant countries in putting COVID-19 under effective control as soon as possible. We need to make good use of collective control and treatment mechanisms and other arrangements with neighboring countries, and cement a neighboring shield against case import by strengthening distant control and other measures. In addition, we will ensure necessary movement of people, deepen cooperation on resuming work and production, and support regional economic recovery. We are ready to strengthen all-round cooperation on vaccine with regional countries, give priority to our neighboring countries’ needs once COVID-19 vaccine development and deployment in China is in place, and strengthen information sharing and cooperation in vaccine production, research and development and deployment. We are ready to strengthen public health cooperation with neighboring countries, take real actions to support COVID-19 ASEAN Response Fund, set up the ASEAN Regional Reserve of Medical Supplies for Public Health Emergencies, explore cooperation in areas including biological safety, and work together for a regional community of health. 

Third, we will support domestic and international circulations. 

China strives to steadily achieve a new development paradigm with domestic circulation as the mainstay and domestic and international circulations reinforcing each other. As recent economic data show, China’s economy presents sound prospect and is likely to overtake the US to become the world’s largest market this year. China will open itself up even wider and its development will deliver even greater benefits to neighboring countries. We need to strengthen coordination on macroeconomic policies with neighboring countries, pursue high-quality and high-standard Belt and Road development, and raise the level of connectivity and industrial cooperation. We need to explore the construction of regional networks of “fast tracks” and “green lanes” to ensure security and stability in industrial and supply chains. We need to continue to pursue innovation-driven development, deepen cooperation on digital economy and advance the development of a digital Silk Road, so as to create new growth drivers. We need to accelerate the development of a China-ASEAN Partnership on Blue Economy, continue to deepen the Lancang-Mekong sub-regional cooperation, and draw up a new blueprint for East Asian regional cooperation. We need to continue to uphold free trade, safeguard multilateralism, push for the signing of the RCEP within this year as scheduled and speed up the China-Japan-ROK FTA negotiations, so as to build a high-standard free trade network. 

Fourth, we will properly handle China-US regional competition and cooperation. 

The difference between China and the US is not over power and position, but a struggle between multilateralism and unilateralism, and between win-win cooperation and zero-sum game. Standing on the wrong side of history, the US made a series of provocative moves in China’s neighboring region. The US not only jeopardized China’s legitimate rights and interests, but also acted against the interests and aspirations of regional countries. 

China has no intention to drive the US out of Asia, and we are ready to strengthen friendly cooperation with the US and all other countries in the world. In his recent interview with Xinhua News Agency, State Councilor Wang Yi stated that China is ready to restart the dialogue mechanisms with the US side at any level, in any area and at any time, and proposed that the two countries draw up three lists respectively on cooperation, dialogue, and issues that need proper management. 

We are ready to maintain dialogue and communication with the US on Asia-Pacific affairs, conduct coordination on regional hotspot issues, third-party market cooperation and other issues, formulate joint proposals and hold joint activities within the framework of East Asia cooperation, and conduct more practical cooperation. In the meantime, when the US interferes in China’s domestic affairs, violates China’s legitimate rights and interests, and disrupts regional peace and stability, we will resolutely safeguard national interests and regional stability, and will continue to work in solidarity and cooperation with our neighboring countries in a resolute response to these acts. 

Fifth, we will play a constructive role on hotspot issues. 

The current situation on the Korean Peninsula remains generally stable, but the impasse in DPRK-US dialogue persists, as the US fails to respond to the DPRK’s legitimate concerns on security and development. China supports all words and actions that can help maintain the momentum of dialogue and de-escalation on the Peninsula, and will continue to play constructive roles in promoting political settlement of the Peninsula issue and sustaining regional peace and stability. China will continue to be a supporter, mediator and facilitator for the peace process in Afghanistan. We support the Intra-Afghan Negotiations in keeping to the fundamental direction of political settlement, upholding the basic principle of an Afghan-led process and pursuing the goal of a broad-based and inclusive framework. We also hope that the new government of Afghanistan will resolutely fight terrorism, uphold a foreign policy of peace and friendship, and truly realize peace, stability and development in Afghanistan. China proposes that Myanmar and Bangladesh should strengthen dialogue and consultation, and launch the process of returning displaced persons as soon as possible. We will continue to provide necessary support and assistance to both countries. 

As a Chinese saying goes, “Having friendly and close neighbors is most valuable for a country.” Facing a global pandemic rarely seen and changes unseen in a century, China will continue to follow the principle of pursuing amity, sincerity, mutual benefit and inclusiveness, stand with neighboring countries through thick and thin, and work with them for the sustained, stable neighborhood relations, and for a splendid new chapter in win-win development in Asia. 

Luo Zhaohui is Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China.