Periphery Diplomacy: Moving to the Center of China’s Foreign Policy

Authours: Jianwei Wang, Hoo Tiang Boon
Date: 2018
An important event which largely evaded world attention took place in Beijing on October 24–25, 2013. In what was an unprecedented first, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) convened a foreign policy work conference specifically on the theme of China’s periphery diplomacy (周边外交). Participated by, among others, the Politburo standing committee, members of key Central Committee organs, members of the Leading Small Group on Foreign affairs, and senior diplomats, it was the second high-level CCP meeting on foreign policy since 2006 and the first specific forum on periphery diplomacy since the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) establishment in 1949.
At this meeting, Xi Jinping underscored the priority and salience of periphery diplomacy in Chinese foreign policy, noting that it is crucial that China strove for “an excellent peripheral environment for [its] development” so as to achieve the two Centennials’ objectives and realize the “Chinese dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Periphery regions, Xi stated, “are strategically significant to our country in terms of geography, the environment, and relationships.” This strategic salience required China’s foreign policy actors to “enhance political good will; deepen regional economic integration; increase [its] cultural influence; and improve regional security cooperation” in its periphery regions. These statements affirmed the importance of a stable external milieu, in particular its neighboring regions, for China’s domestic development, and recognized the centrality of periphery diplomacy to achieve this goal.
Yet, this emphasis on periphery or neighborhood diplomacy encompassed more than just holding it up as a priority aspect of the Chinese foreign policy. The neighborhood diplomacy that Xi outlined is also envisioned to be comprehensive and all-rounded. In other words, Chinese periphery diplomacy should be omnidirectional: the entire periphery region — and not just specific peripheries — will be the focus of China’s “new” peripheral diplomacy. This called for Chinese foreign policy to extend its focus beyond its traditional focus on the East Asia region and pay equal, if not more, attention to its “non-traditional” periphery and western geographies such as Central and South Asia. This “look East and look West too” policy message was clearly reflected in Xi’s speech when he pointedly evoked the idea of reviving the Silk Road Economic Belt.4 In addition, the extension of “periphery” has also been enlarged. Traditionally, the concept only means those countries that share border with China. Now it goes beyond that to cover the so-called “greater periphery”.
It is with this context in mind that we carried out a research project focusing on China’s “new”, more holistic periphery diplomacy. This book is the outcome of this research attention, and it features a global cast of specialists examining the various dimensions of China’s evolving relations with its neighborhood. It asks a number of central questions about China’s evolving periphery diplomacy. How has China’s understanding and cognition of its peripheral environment evolved? What has driven China’s more periphery-centered foreign policy? To what extent has China developed a coherent periphery strategy? What are the shifts and continuities in its periphery policy? In what ways have its periphery diplomacy had an impact on the relationships with key regional players and regional integration in Asia? And what is the emerging trajectory of this periphery policy under Xi Jinping? These are some of the important questions that deserve deeper and more complete examination and this book attempts to find the answers.
Addressing Scholarship
Beyond shedding more light on the aforementioned questions, this volume also addresses a number of puzzles in the study of China’s international relations. First, while there has been considerable literature that discusses China’s relations with its “traditional” periphery of East Asia — it is traditional to the extent that this geography has conventionally been understood as dominating Beijing’s regional focus — the scholarship on China’s interactions with its non-traditional periphery such as Central and South Asia is relatively sparser. How can we understand China’s growing interactions with these non-traditional regions? What has China done to manage its border areas and how do these efforts relate to Chinese diplomacy vis-à-vis its non-traditional periphery? What are the consequences of China’s intensifying engagement with this non-traditional periphery? There is clearly a need for a systematic effort to better understand the complexities of China’s burgeoning linkages with its non-traditional periphery.
Second, the findings of the book can serve a reference point to compare China’s policies toward its traditional periphery and nontraditional periphery. How are the policies different or similar? What accounts for these divergences/convergences, to the extent they exist? Is there an increasing strategic and diplomatic shift toward the western periphery of China, relative to the eastern periphery? The answers to these questions may help one better appreciate the full substance of China’s evolving periphery diplomacy.
Third, insights drawn from this volume connect to the larger picture of China’s rise. China’s global re-emergence is one of the key leitmotifs of the 21st century. This subject has been interrogated and analyzed from various angles and multiple theoretical perspectives. But we argue that looking at China’s ascendancy from the lens of its periphery strategy — including its engagement with both of its traditional and non-traditional periphery — is an important and potentially more fruitful way of approaching the issue. Indeed, the experience in recent years demonstrates that the challenges and difficulties China has been facing in its process of rising largely come from its periphery. We are therefore arguing that a more comprehensive understanding of China’s neighborhood diplomacy will lead to a fuller and deeper interpretation of China’s rise and its implications.
Periphery Diplomacy in Action
In striving for a more holistic perspective, the book argues that China’s periphery diplomacy has evolved to become more ambitious, more extensive and more proactive. The latter characteristic is the key. No longer content to be a passive recipient of the strategic currents in Asia, Beijing is now taking more initiative to actively shape its regional context. The increased sophistication of Chinese periphery diplomacy is reflected in the calibrated ways in which Beijing has sought to balance its seemingly “contradictory” twin goals of pursuing deeper and stronger regional relations while safeguarding or advancing its regional territorial interests. The chapters in this book undertake an in-depth inquiry in these regards.
Broad regional context
The first part of the book is aimed at providing a regional setting to contextualize China’s periphery policy.
China’s policy toward its neighboring nations in large measures is determined by its perception of the peripheral environment. In Chapter 2, Jianwei Wang traces the evolution of Chinese leaders and foreign policy elites’ perception of China’s changing peripheral environment, including the nature, causes, implications of the changes as well as the possible ways to deal with them. While different assessment and opinions do exist, three consensuses have emerged. First, the weight of periphery diplomacy in China’s overall diplomacy has significantly increased. Second, China’s peripheral environment has become, if not necessarily worse, more complex and challenging in recent years. Third, while the main source of changes in China’s new periphery comes from the exogenous powers such as the United States and its regional allies, the rise of China per se is also a critical contributing factor. Finally, China needs new ideas, approaches and strategies to deal with a new and more dynamic peripheral environment.
The most consequential variable in this environment is the United States. The greater U.S. strategic focus on Asia in recent years is examined by Xin Jin in Chapter 3. Jin notes that while several Asian states have become more dependent on China economically, a number of them have increasingly tilted toward the U.S. in the security arena. This has led to suggestions that the more vigorous responses by some regional states were in part an outcome of their strategic emboldenment by the stronger U.S. regional presence; in that sense, U.S.–China dynamics have an inevitable impact on shaping regional security dynamics. Jin suggests that Sino-American relations have reached a historical crossroad. While both powers perceive each other with having fundamental strategic importance and are able to (thus far) address their differences in a relatively pragmatic way, this could change in the future and a potentially more conflictual U.S.– China relationship cannot be discounted. This certainly has turned out to be true in terms of the relationship under the Trump administration.
This notion of a prospective U.S.–China conflict is an argument commonly made by realist scholars or power transition theorists. According to these scholars, a structural dilemma exists when an emerging power rises to challenge the incumbent power, making war or conflict more likely to break out. Harvard scholar Graham Allison calls this the “Thucydides trap”, and it has been suggested that the U.S. and China are headed toward this trap as both “contest for supremacy” in Asia.
While not set up to address the debate on U.S.–China power transition, Dan Liu’s Chapter 4 looks at one possible factor in mitigating great power competition, one that relates to role of ideas — specifically, China’s New Security Concept. The concept calls for the rejection of zero-sum, Cold War security thinking in preference for “mutual trust, mutual benefits, equality and coordination” in regional security approaches. Liu’s chapter shows how China has tried to actualize its New Security Concept and temper regional concerns through its growing involvement in bilateral and multilateral confidencebuilding measures (CBMs). The latter form of CBMs, in particular, has become increasingly important in China’s periphery diplomacy. The author also discusses obstacles facing China’s efforts to increase mutual trust and confidence with its neighbors.
Northeast and Southeast Asia
The second part of the book dives deeper into China’s diplomacy with the “traditional” periphery of East Asia. Northeast Asia is the regional focus of Chapters 5 and 6. Ru Sun examines China’s evolving policy in the Korean peninsula, noting that while its relations with the South (ROK) have moved forward, dynamics with the North (DPRK) have become more strained. Beijing has been particularly frustrated by Pyongyang’s pursuit of its nuclear and missile program, and has publicly backed UN Security Council’s resolutions that impose sanctions on the DPRK. This tougher Chinese response does not mean, however, that Beijing has fundamentally shifted its policy toward North Korea. The DPRK is still significant for China’s strategic interests, and Beijing continues to see negotiations as the best way to promote enduring stability in the Korean peninsula. The recent rapid thaw of the relationship between China and DPRK seems to suggest that the fundamentals underlying the relationship remain intact.
In Chapter 6, Yunxiang Liang discusses the complex dynamics between China and Japan. The history issues as well as rising nationalisms in both countries have challenged this relationship, while the disputes over maritime boundaries in the East China Sea and the sovereignty of the Diaoyu–Senkaku islets have added further complications in recent years. These complications make it even more important, Liang argues, for both countries to resolve their differences through diplomacy and dialogue. The Sino-Japanese Four Point Consensus that was reached in November 2014, for example, is a right step in that direction. Liang suggests that the France–Germany example in Europe may be a possible model of regional cooperation that could help China and Japan achieve positive breakthroughs in their relationship. The slow improvement in Sino-Japanese relations apparently points to this direction.
Following the examination on China’s Northeast Asia relations, the book turns its regional focus toward Southeast Asia. In Chapter 7, instead of dealing with China’s relations with ASEAN countries in a bilateral fashion, Zhimin Lin explores Beijing’s engagement with ASEAN — the most important institution in the region. He argues that ASEAN countries serve as a litmus test of how well or difficult it is for China to manage relations with its neighboring countries. China’s engagement with ASEAN and its affiliated institutions has helped create a new model for China to manage its relations with neighboring countries. In this endeavor, China developed an approach of regionalism that is different from both the American and European ones. Instead of focusing on security and formal agreements, China’s institutional engagement with ASEAN is more open-ended and informal. The challenge for Beijing is whether such an approach is sufficient to manage conflicts rising from competing interests. The tension and subsequent gap between China and ASEAN on the issue of South China Sea highlight China’s dilemma in engaging ASEAN countries.
This is exactly the focus of Chapter 8. In that chapter, Penghong Cai analyzes China’s strategic relations with ASEAN countries, noting the security dimension of this relationship has generally lagged behind its economic facet. The escalation of the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, differences in perceptions over China’s intentions and its maritime behavior, the growing capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy as well as the U.S.’s Asia strategy are some key factors that have led to a more complicated security landscape between China and ASEAN countries. While China will not give up what it considers to be its legitimate security and territorial interests in maritime Southeast Asia, it will also not turn away from cooperative and “soft power” solutions to strengthen regional stability.
One of these soft power responses in Southeast Asia is discussed in Chapter 9. Qichao Wang highlights the series of coproduced documentary films that detail and illustrate the cooperative aspects — people- to-people relations, cultural ties, economic transactions, etc. — of relations between China and the Mekong river countries (Cambodia, Myanmar, Lao, Vietnam and Thailand). According to him, the documentary series significantly improved the image of China in the Mekong river countries and greatly facilitated the cultural exchanges between China and these countries. Wang’s contribution is unique in that it presents a view of China’s periphery diplomacy from a “media” perspective, and draws attention to the lesser-explored subject of China’s soft power projection in Southeast Asia.
South Asia
China’s complex and expanding relations in South Asia are explored in the third thematic segment of the book. Gancheng Zhao provides a broad strategic analysis of developments in Sino-Indian relations in Chapter 10. Zhao suggests that the shifting complexities of China–India relations can be traced to the shifting mutual perceptions of both Asian powers even as these perceptions are continually shaped by changes in the global strategic milieu and their respective global “status”. For Beijing, India has grown in strategic importance and is now a central component of its periphery diplomacy. China sees relations with India as a “litmus test” for a successful periphery diplomacy (particularly in its western periphery), and in that respect, has continued with efforts to “make India a strategic partner”. There have been a number of convergent areas which bind both sides closer strategically, including growing bilateral trade ties, cooperation in international organizations or groups such as BRICS, and reform of the global economic and financial architecture, among others. At the same time, issues such as the long-standing border dispute, military dynamics, trading imbalance, contestation over water resources, and China’s expanding presence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region, are some divergent aspects that continue to cast a shadow on the bilateral relationship.
One of the more contentious aspects — the border demarcation dispute — is examined in further depth by Nazia Hussain in Chapter 11. This enduring dispute, in particular, the differing interpretations over the Line of Actual Control (LAC), is arguably a key factor why both China and India have had limited progress in the political/security domain of their relationship. Here, Hussain adopts an evolutionary approach to explain why the border dispute is still unresolved after more than five decades, scrutinizing the origins of the dispute, the 1962 Sino-Indian war, as well as the developments and factors that have shaped the border negotiations since that war. Hussain observes that India’s “humiliating” loss in the 1962 war continues to shape Indian psyches toward China, and until the border dispute, which is a reminder of that painful defeat, is amicably resolved, a more strategically aligned relationship may be elusive.
In Chapter 12, Raghavendra Mishra, discusses another specific aspect of China’s engagement in South Asia, with a focus on “ measuring” its maritime context in the Indian Ocean region (IOR). As someone with naval experience, Mishra provides a valuable “practitioner’s” perspective, though it must be emphasized that this view does not reflect the positions/policies of the Indian government or the Royal Indian Navy. Mishra’s assessment — where he locates the key Chinese interests in the IOR and explores the IOR dynamics between China and India — leads to the conclusion that (at least in the maritime domain), a “paradoxical and uneasy mix of cooperation and rivalry” or what some would term “congagement”, exists and persists. But this is not an unmanageable strategic situation, and it is opined that the mature and prudent leaderships in both capitals will go a long way in addressing the complexity of the relations between both powers.
Central Asia
The final part of the book is devoted to an examination of China’s relations with the other key geographic areas of its “non-traditional” periphery, Central Asia. Chapter 13 presents a unique Central Asian perspective on this issue. Aidar Amrebayev, a Kazakhstani scholar, discusses the broad overview of geostrategic developments in Central Asia, noting the region has always been a geographic area that is shaped by great power politics or what he notes as the “ratio of centres of power”. Today’s strategic context presents Central Asian states with three politico-economic models or “projects”: the Russian model of a more Soviet-style Eurasian integration, China’s Silk Road Economic Belt and the American democratic-sovereignty template. While each has its strengths/weaknesses, Central Asian states “cannot afford to choose” one or the other as this may mean not only a closer induction into a particular power’s orbit and hence a potential loss in strategic autonomy, but there may also be “contradictory interactive impacts” from the other competing powers. Thus, Central Asian countries have sought to maintain a balance between the big powers, “optimizing the benefits offered to them while keeping a distance”.
The discussion on regional geopolitical currents is complemented by Alessandro Arduino’s (Chapter 14) study of the broad economic developments in Central Asia, with a particular reference to China’s burgeoning economic interests there. Arduino notes that China has emerged as a major economic player in Central Asia, a development which has engendered both optimism and anxiety among regional states. Even as China’s economic approach toward the region has increasingly focused on transregional integration, a strong energy focus is palpable. Thus, even as regional infrastructural investment and development are being prioritized, a key objective of China’s economic agenda has been to develop an “alternative land energy route”. Beijing also hopes that the development of its Central Asian periphery will have a reciprocal economic impact on its autonomous region of Xinjiang, which borders Tajikstan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, and whose modernization is seen as vital for addressing the separatist and terrorism problems there. Arduino points out that, under Xi Jinping, the key platform to advance China’s development interests in Central Asia has been the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB).
A deeper examination of China’s SREB is the focus of Hongzhou Zhang’s Chapter 15. The SREB, the overland wing of China’s One Belt One Road initiative, is noted as a “key pillar” of Beijing’s larger global strategy, and to that end, the Chinese government has been making much effort to strategize and pursue this plan. But as Zhang observes, the Central Asian region is key to its success. This means that certain regional dynamics, particularly in Central Asia, will present complications for China’s SREB. Not only is Central Asia a meeting point for great power politics, Central Asia remains fractured by ongoing disputes or contestations involving boundary, water and energy interests as well as geopolitical differences and rivalry. Moreover, as the previous chapter also points out, a degree of ambivalence still colors Central Asian states’ perceptions toward the SREB.
The final chapter by Ambrish Dhaka focuses on another specific aspect of China’s Central Asia strategy, namely its policy toward the regionally and geopolitically critical state of Afghanistan. This is a country described as the “Heart of Asia”, with a strategic geography that intersects South Asia, Central Asia, Eurasia and the Middle East. Beijing recognizes the strategic potential of Afghanistan, and in the wake of the 2014 drawdown of U.S. forces, it has tried to play an increasingly larger role in that country. Afghanistan is critical for Chinese interests in Central Asia as well as its broader western periphery. Economically, Kabul is seen as a vital “trade and transit hub” for China’s transregional development plans as well as its energy/ resource needs. On security, particularly relating to its own concerns over the problems of separatism, terrorism and extremism in Xinjiang, Beijing perceives “it needs more than its traditional regional partner” of Pakistan, and Kabul represents a “front-line” state on this front. Moreover, Afghanistan has an ineluctable security and geopolitical nexus to Pakistan (which itself is a key South Asian partner to China).
Taken together, the chapters of this volume explore the various facets of China’s “new”, more omnidirectional regional policy — an evolving diplomacy that pays equal, if not more, attention to China’s western periphery at a time when the declared focus of U.S. strategy is to turn greater American attention eastward. Indeed, the Indo- Pacific strategy being developed by the Trump administration brings attention to the new dimension of great power rivalry in the India Ocean region. Ultimately, the chapters aim to provide another platform from which one may understand China’s periphery policy and, by extension, its international relations and rise, in greater totality and depth.