Xi Jinping, China’s president, has lately had little choice other than to ponder foreign policy. Last month his country played host to the leaders of the 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum; he then flew to Brisbane for a G20 summit, going on to visit other parts of Australia, New Zealand and Fiji.
In between, his prime minister, Li Keqiang, was in Myanmar for yet another summit, the 18-nation East Asian one.
This welter of diplomacy seems to have inspired Mr Xi–the most powerful leader in a generation of a country more powerful than for centuries–to spell out his foreign-policy vision. He did so in a speech at the end of November apparently intended in part to reassure China’s neighbours that a strong and rising China need not be feared. It was a good attempt, but not entirely successful.
Reassurance is needed. Hopes that China’s spectacular climb to superpower status might be completed without conflict have been dented in recent years. Its assertive approach to old but until recently largely quiescent territorial disputes with Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam and India has jangled nerves. In Asia, defence spending has risen sharply. America’s allies in the region have encouraged America to “rebalance” its military might into Asia and begun to strengthen co-operation between their own armed forces. Relations between America and China have been marred by fraught public disagreements.
The forum for Mr Xi’s speech was a high-level conference on foreign affairs in Beijing, the first such gathering since 2006. It was attended by his Politburo colleagues, senior soldiers and officials, including some ambassadors hauled back from abroad. The context and official media coverage suggested the speech was a big deal. It had three main messages. The first, which was largely implicit, was that China is now a great power and needs a foreign policy–and international respect–to match. Mr Xi seemed to suggest that China could no longer “hide its light” as Deng Xiaoping used to urge.
The second is that the world order and China’s neighbourhood are in flux. The trend, he argued, was to a “multipolar” world. But his audience would have understood this to mean that American power has begun to wane as China’s waxes. The third is that, although China will be no pushover when its interests are threatened, this delicate process can be managed peacefully, as a “win-win” for it and the outside world. “Peace and development” remain “the underlying trend of our times”.
This third message inspires the most optimistic interpretation of the speech: that China has realised that provocative behaviour has not only already harmed its own interests by alarming friendly countries, but also carries the risk of unintentional conflict. The emollient words follow some magnanimous gestures. In Beijing Mr Xi had shaken hands with men his government previously regarded as untouchables, such as Benigno Aquino, president of the Philippines, and Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister (albeit, in the latter case, as if the act caused him physical pain).
Far from punishing Australia and South Korea for their churlish, American-encouraged refusal to join its new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank as founder members, China rewarded them by concluding bilateral free-trade agreements. In meetings with regional leaders Barack Obama talked about Ebola, Islamic State and tension in the South China Sea; Mr Xi talked development and infrastructure and backed it up with tens of billions of dollars that China is ready to invest. Most striking of all, Mr Xi and Mr Obama announced a number of agreements, including on climate change and on confidence-building measures between the two armies, that transformed the tenor of their countries’ bilateral relations.
But probably not their substance. America and China are too intertwined in too many ways not to co-operate in some. But that does not remove the sources of tension and rivalry. In a speech in Brisbane, Mr Obama outlined the alternative security orders that might dictate Asia’s future: one based on “alliances of mutual security, international law and international norms that are upheld and the peaceful resolution of disputes”; or one based on “spheres of influence, or coercion, or intimidation where big nations bully the small”. It was clear which country he thought was leading each order.
When he spoke to Australia’s parliament in Canberra, Mr Xi went out of his way to stress that, although China was like “the big guy in the crowd”, it would not push people around or stand in their way. But this was also a reminder that China sees even relatively far-flung parts of the Pacific, such as American-allied Australia, as part of its local playground, where it could act the bully if it chose. And his speech in Beijing left open the possibility that it might have to. It referred to the “grave nature of international tensions and struggle” and “the protracted nature of contest over the international order”.
Nor did Mr Xi’s softer tone encompass any concession on China’s disputes with its neighbours. It has not stopped building on disputed rocks in the South China Sea. And after the awkward meeting with Mr Abe that seemed at least to mark an easing of tensions over the disputed Senkaku (or Diaoyu) islands, it sent coastguard boats to patrol there.
You can’t win-win them all
It is not just Mr Xi who hopes China’s rise can be win-win. Its neighbours and America agree that a prosperous, strong China, comfortable with its place in the global order, is preferable to a poor, weak and angry one. But on some issues, it is impossible for both sides to win. China’s territorial disputes, for example, with the possible exception of the one with India, which is big enough to allow room for a conceivable compromise, are zero-sum. Most fundamentally, China’s aspiration for regional leadership challenges American naval supremacy in the western Pacific. And little so far suggests that any American leader would be willing to lose enough to let Mr Xi’s China feel it had won.
Click here to subscribe to The Economist.
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.