Chinese officials have hailed 2016 as a great year for China’s Asia–Pacific policy. On top of all other successes, Beijing defeated a perceived regional attempt to pressure China into accepting the South China Sea arbitration ruling released in July. Then, much to its delight, the new President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, initiated a ‘pivot’ to China by pursuing a rapprochement with Beijing and by sidelining the arbitration ruling that was the singular achievement of his predecessor.
Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, thus declared that the ‘splendid turnabout’ of China–Philippines relations not only expelled many years of clouds over the relationship, but also eliminated a key obstacle to deepening China’s relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Riding on that positive momentum, China hopes that 2017 will be an even greater year for its Asia–Pacific policy. Beijing will try to seek three main outcomes: further reduce tensions in the South China Sea, repair and improve relations with ASEAN, and prevent the Trump administration from destabilising regional politics to China’s detriment. Those aims are being pursued by Chinese policymakers with great determination. In a clearly coordinated series of steps, China released three key foreign policy statements in a rapid succession in the second week of January.
On the 10th, vice foreign minister Liu Zhenmin published a signed article on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ website on the topic of China’s Asia–Pacific regional diplomacy. The article claims that China’s regional relations achieved a new step in 2016. In 2017, China will conduct high-level diplomacy and strategic initiatives by focusing on relations with regional countries.
On the 11th, Beijing released its first ever white paper on Asia–Pacific security cooperation—a document of historic significance in Chinese foreign policy. The paper’s intention, according to vice foreign minister Liu during a press briefing on the same day, is to help countries fully understand China’s policies for the region and appreciate its desire to pursue security cooperation. In particular, Liu highlighted China’s attempt to achieve ‘positive interactions’ with regional countries. Beijing respects the traditional influence and the current interests of the United States in the Asia–Pacific, he avowed, and confirmed that China has no intention of replacing Washington as the dominant power in Asia.
On the 14th, State Councillor Yang Jiechi, China’s top foreign policy official, published a signed article on Chinese foreign policy under the guidance of President Xi Jinping’s thinking. Significantly, the article represents the first authoritative articulation of Xi’s ‘foreign policy thought,’ suggesting that Beijing is systematising and integrating previously discrete elements of Chinese foreign policy since Xi came to power in 2012 into a more coherent whole.
Indeed, parts of the article read like a blueprint for China’s grand strategy in the Xi era. It describes China’s strategic goals of safeguarding its sovereignty, security and development interests, creating a more favourable international environment for peaceful development, and maintaining and extending China’s period of development.
While the article highlights peace, development, cooperation and “win-win” as the central themes of Chinese foreign policy, it also states that China isn’t afraid of protecting ‘bottom lines’ in matters concerning China’s core interests, such as Taiwan.
Not coincidentally, China’s Asia–Pacific white paper, while championing the cause of peace and cooperation, also warns that China will react to countries’ challenges to its sovereignty and maritime interests, such as those in the South China Sea.
Releasing such high-profile Chinese foreign policy statements over a number of days is unusual in recent times. Beijing may have realised that regional security politics over the past several years have too often focused on maritime disputes and tensions, to the detriment of China’s image and the momentum of regional cooperation. 2016 appeared to be a turning point because China managed to dial down tensions in the South China Sea while improving relations with key ASEAN countries including the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam. 2017 is therefore logically seen as a year of consolidation for the gains made in 2016. In fact, China’s regional environment appears better now than any time since 2009.
But Chinese officials also recognise that 2017 is going to be a tough year of great uncertainty and volatility. With the Philippines as the 2017 ASEAN chair, no ASEAN country is likely to stoke up tensions in the South China Sea. But the Trump administration has already given many signs of a hard-line approach to China, in issues ranging from trade to Taiwan to the South China Sea. That’s the wild card in China’s planned strategy for the Asia–Pacific this year.
The warning that China won’t shy away from forcefully protecting its core interests is nothing less than a pointed message to Trump. At the same time, Beijing wants to project the image that China, not the United States, is now a more reliable source of stability and prosperity in the region. It hopes that regional countries will receive that message too.
© The Strategist Blog, Australian Strategic Policy Institute