SPEAKING FREELY Xi traces China's emerging world view
By Anand V
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
The succession of China's new leadership in China during March has generated significant interest about the course of China's foreign policy for the coming decade. For ensuring its national security as well as the achievement of planned developmental targets, it becomes imperative for the new leadership to take China's increasing engagement with the rest of the world further to a new level.
Foreign visits are an ideal platform for top-level interactions with leaders of other nations as well as for symbolic signaling. As a
result, the new leadership under President Xi Jinping kickstarted a series of foreign visits soon after taking charge of China's administration.
These series of visits are significant because within a period of three months, all major regions of the world were covered by the new Chinese leadership through five of their top decision makers. An overall analysis and assessment of these diplomatic visits can yield some significant indicators and patterns which could be used to decipher how the new leadership of China perceives their foreign policy priorities and their world view in terms of various regions and power centers.
President Xi visited Russia, Tanzania, South Africa and the Republic of Congo in his first visit during March 22-30. Russia was chosen as the first destination of President Xi Jinping. It mainly demonstrated the importance that China attaches to its strategic partnership with Russia. During the visit, both the nations showed willingness to enhance their strategic trust and cooperation. It was also an opportunity for both the powers to synchronize their perspectives and views with respect to the crisis in Syria ahead of the fifth BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) summit which was held later in the month.
Xi stated that the "Chinese dream" of "national rejuvenation" and the Russian cause of national development are mutually compatible and supportive. Xi also described the Sino-Russian relationship as "the most important one in the world and also the best one between major powers", which provides strategic stability in the international system.
By visiting Russia ahead of the US and describing Sino-Russian relationship in such a way, Xi apparently wanted to demonstrate a relative position of strength with respect to the US when he would subsequently meet President Barack Obama.
The next destination on Xi's priority list was Africa. China is Africa's largest trading partner and its abundant resources and emerging markets are becoming increasingly vital for China's economic growth. The visit to Tanzania reflects the importance attached and it must be noted here that Tanzania has been historically a key launch pad for China's entry into Africa.
Xi later proceeded to South Africa, the venue for the fifth BRICS summit, which provided an ideal occasion for both bilateral as well as multilateral diplomacy. China established a strategic partnership with South Africa in 2010 and considers the nation vital to consolidating its political influence over Africa.
China was also instrumental in including the largest African economy into the original BRIC grouping and making it BRICS. During the visit, South African President Jacob Zuma declared that his country was willing to step up coordination with China under BRICS, the Group of 20 and other multilateral frameworks to advance the "democratization of international relations".
During Xi's visit to South Africa, he attended the BRICS summit, the theme of which was "BRICS and Africa: Partnership for Development, Integration and Industrialization." The agenda of the meet was visibly oriented in favor of China. Xi also had separate meetings on the summit sidelines with the presidents of Mozambique, Ethiopia and especially Uganda, as it holds the rotating chairs of several African regional organizations.
During the summit, Xi proclaimed that the "21th century would sure be a century of rising for Africa", evidently in contrast to the lost decades of its recent past. The Chinese president also called on other nations to respect Africa's "dignity and independence" and emphasized that there is no "one-size-fits-all" development model in the world.
With these statements, Xi tried to exploit the African discontent with the flawed development policies prescribed by the West. Xi also used his concept of "Chinese dream" to connect China's strategic vision with the "African dream of gaining strength from unity and achieving development and rejuvenation". Xi garnered further support to China's Africa policy in his subsequent visit to the Republic of Congo, where the Congolese president publicly dismissed the theory of so-called "Chinese neo-colonialism" in Africa.
Xi's visit to Russia and the African nations was followed later by his visit to Trinidad and Tobago, Costa Rica, Mexico and the United States during May 31-June 8. Xi's visit to the Americas was scheduled to start in the Caribbean and then through Latin America and then conclude with the US. This appears to be deliberately planned to aggressively posture to the US in its traditional strategic backyard.
The Caribbean has become one of China's major destinations for overseas investment, especially in infrastructure projects and tourism. In addition, the Caribbean and Latin America, like Africa and the South Pacific had always been areas of diplomatic contest for recognition by People's Republic of China and Taiwan, currently dominated by the PRC.
More significantly, the Caribbean states, like the South Pacific, have strategic relevance as an international vote bank. During his visit to Trinidad and Tobago, Xi met the leaders of a number of other Caribbean nations. Xi made it a point to meet the president of Suriname, which hosts the most overseas Chinese in the Caribbean and also since it is about to take over the rotating presidency of the Union of South American Nations.
Xi also met the president of Antigua and Barbuda since the country will hold the rotating chair of the 68th session of the UN General Assembly. In addition, Xi met with the leaders of Guyana, Dominica, Barbados, Jamaica, Grenada and the Bahamas, which is also significant because of their geographical proximity to US.
After his visit to the Caribbean, Xi proceeded to Latin America. His first destination in the region was Costa Rica, which is the latest among the nations in the region to recognize the PRC. Xi's visit to Costa Rica also appears to be strategically planned since it will be taking up the rotating chair of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States next year. On his visit to Mexico, Xi pushed to put in place at an early date a forum of China-Latin America cooperation. China appears to also realize the significance of Mexico as a gateway to the region due to its Hispanic character, which a larger power like Brazil lacks.
Thus, with this segment of his visit, Xi appeared to have further consolidated the support of Latin America and the Caribbean in favor of China, considerably upsetting the clout of US in the region.
Xi visited the US on June 6-8 after his visit to the Caribbean and Latin America. The objective of the visit was not to cement any sort of agreements or initiatives, but to develop a comfortable relationship between the two leaders, Xi and Obama, to better understanding each other's concerns and personalities.
Xi's proposals, especially on the need to create a "new type of great power relations" were noted. The two presidents converged significantly on North Korea and climate change but failed to agree on big issues such as cyber-security, arms sales to Taiwan, economic issues and China's territorial disputes with neighbors.
In spite of the stark divergences and hostility on the issue of cyber-attacks, Obama gave a diluted stand in public on by stating that they "are not issues that are unique to the US-China relationship". He also notably stated that "oftentimes it's non-state actors who are engaging in these issues as well". This came in context of the whistleblower revelations about the PRISM program run by the US to access the communication data of domestic and foreign targets, and therefore took some pressure away from China.
Significantly, the Xi-Obama meeting coincided with the US inviting China to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Rim of the Pacific naval exercise in 2014.
In addition to Xi's visit abroad, the new Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visited India, Pakistan, Switzerland and Germany during May 19-29. Li selected India as the first destination, mainly to highlight China's willingness to normalize its relationship. This may be partly driven by economic motives. India's potential is being seen as an opportunity for China because it is emerging as a huge market for Chinese goods and services.
China also finds India a country where huge investment opportunities exist. But at the same time, geostrategic exigencies generated by the US pivot to Asia and the development of Indo-US strategic partnership has forced China to prevent India from getting used by the US against it.
The premier's visit was undermined by the Chinese military's transgression on Indian territory in Ladakh, apparently staged by politico-military hardliners for political assertion. Nevertheless, both nations pragmatically de-escalated the crisis and the visit resulted in China further advancing its economic interests in India.
Nonetheless, Li's visit was only a partial success as the Indian government also took a tough stance on Tibet's autonomy and strategically partnering with the US. This was interestingly a reversal of the commitments the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh reiterated to Xi Jinping at the BRICS summit in South Africa just two months before Li's visit.
After visiting India, Li proceeded to Pakistan which is China's "all-weather friend" and a strategically vital neighbor. In Pakistan, Li was conferred the country's highest award of "Nishan-e-Pakistan".
Li made sure that Pakistan reiterated its commitment to tackle the cross-border Uyghur terrorist threats to its restive Xinjiang province. Li also proposed steps for further deepening friendship and bilateral strategic cooperation especially in the maritime and connectivity sectors, which comes in context of China being handed over effective operational control of the Gwadar port.
After taking steps to consolidating China's foothold in South Asia, Li went on to visit Europe. His visit to the continent started with Switzerland, which was one of the first Western countries to recognize the PRC and the first continental European country to recognize China's market economy status. Li oversaw the conclusion of negotiations on establishing a bilateral free trade agreement (FTA), the first one of its kind that China has with continental Europe. Through this, China seems to signal to the rest of the European countries about its eagerness for concluding similar FTA's. Li subsequently visited Germany, which is his first visit to an EU country.
Germany accounts for nearly one third of China's total trade with the EU, and this has retained jobs in Germany and reinforced its status as EU's leading economy. As a result, China was successful in turning Germany in opposition to EU's trade protectionism against Chinese solar panels and mobile telecommunications equipment, dividing economic opinion further within the EU. However, Li declared that China supports Europe's role as an "important pole in a multipolar world" demonstrating its willingness for closer strategic ties with the continent.
The next level of visits was carried out by the new Foreign Minister Wang Yi who chose Southeast Asia as his first destination, and visited Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore and Brunei. It is for the first time that a Chinese Foreign Minister selected an Asian destination for his maiden foreign visit in 15 years. The four countries selected are by and large in fair terms with China. Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore are key players of the regional organization, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which Brunei is the current chair.
An agreement was reached in Indonesia, on pushing the Code of Conduct in South China Sea through the China-ASEAN working group mechanism. This was a major step of concession from the side of China which has always opposed multilateral discussions on the South China Sea and therefore this visit marks a watershed in regional geopolitics.
In other major diplomatic visits, the Chinese Vice Premier, Wang Yang visited Zimbabwe on May 21 and attended a special summit of the African Union for the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Organization of African Unity. Wu Sike, China's special envoy to the Middle East visited Israel and Palestine during April and later Jordan, Egypt and the Arab league headquarters in Cairo from May 28 to June 6. He met the leaders of these nations and discussed mostly the burning issues of Palestine and Syria.
The new leadership of China visited 17 countries and also attended the meetings of three international bodies in the past three months. A significant pattern that could be observed from this series of foreign visits is the attention China gave to engage with small nations which holds or is supposed to hold the chair of international bodies.
The main characteristic of President Xi's tour has been the usage of the "Chinese dream" of "national rejuvenation" to resonate with the aspirations of the countries and regions which he visited. From what could be inferred, the great powers and the developing world are emerging as the thrust area for the new leadership's foreign policy. China's neighborhood seems to be prioritized next with more emphasis on South Asia and Indian Ocean, with a special focus on India. Europe also seems to be prioritized at par, followed by the Middle East.
The Xi-Li administration evidently perceives China's great power status as not just an emerging pole, but also a dominant one in an emerging multi-polar world. In this order, China appears to consider only the US and Russia as being the other dominant poles, as evident from the fact that Xi's call for establishing a "new type of great power relations" was limited only to the US and Russia.
China realizes the dominance of the US in the current world order, and partnering with Russia provides it the most practical option to challenge this global dominance.
Further, China aims to take leadership of the entire developing world, at least as a first among equals for the time being. China appears to treat other emerging poles in the world order like India, Brazil, South Africa, the EU or ASEAN as lesser powers, and therefore would like them to bandwagon with China. Moreover, there remains no wavering in the new leadership's intent to create a unipolar Asia, as China still appears unwilling to consider any fellow Asian power to be of equal power status.
It must be concluded here that China has provided ample signaling to the rest of the world through such high-level visits about its intent, aspirations and fundamental goals. China's world view has taken a concrete shape and its major power role in the international system is being acknowledged by the members of the international community.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Anand V is a PhD Candidate and Senior Research Fellow at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal University. He has publications on China's space activities as an occasional paper (New Delhi Paper No.2 - "China's Space Capabilities") and as a chapter in an edited volume ("China's Satellite Programme" in Asian Defence Review 2012). His other areas of research include China's foreign and strategic policy as well as Sino-Indian relations.