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Confidence can help diplomacy

By Xue Li | China Daily | Updated: 2014-12-02 07:48

Greater awareness of other countries' non-hostile intentions in forming partnerships can foster an amicable neighborhood

President Xi Jinping underlined the importance of China's neighborhood diplomacy at the Central Conference on Work Relating to Foreign Affairs held in Beijing on Friday and Saturday. He stressed that "we should promote neighborhood diplomacy, turn China's neighborhood areas into a community of shared destiny, continue to follow the principles of amity, sincerity, mutual benefit and inclusiveness in conducting neighborhood diplomacy, promote friendship and partnership with our neighbors, foster an amicable, secure and prosperous neighborhood environment, and boost win-win cooperation and connectivity with our neighbors."

But to do a good job in neighborhood diplomacy, we also need to build up our confidence.

Diplomacy among neighboring countries has been a hot topic in the Chinese media. When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Japan in September, it was interpreted as "echoing" Japan's intention of containing China. Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung was said to be giving "support to India against China" when he visited India. Even Philippine President Benigno Aquino III's tour to Europe was reported with headlines "seeking support for disputes in the South China Sea".

Such assertions show domestic public opinion lacks confidence, and is sometimes too nervous. Actually, cooperation is the trend in global politics, which is both advocated and followed by China.

For historical reasons, China has territorial disputes with many neighbors. Some of them, for example India, are successfully controlling the disputes and preventing the disputes from hindering economic cooperation.

Some others, though, have failed to control the territorial disputes and as a result they have affected mutual economic ties; among them Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam. It is these nations that some Chinese media and analysts worry and speculate about, especially when their moves involve global powers such as the United States. Many media typically describe the moves as "containing China".

Yet instead of clinging to its Cold War policy of "containing China", the United States has actually been advocating the balancing of power, which admits China's rise while also remaining cautious about any possible challenge. The US has repeatedly stressed that it does not want the Chinese government or nation to fall because it is not in accordance with its interests.

Nor do China's neighbors want to "contain China" either, because that might degrade them into being tools of US' balancing of power. India follows a non-alignment policy, while Vietnam does not intend to challenge China's patience. The Philippines has never expressed a single word about solving territorial disputes with military force. Even Japan, which sees its relationship with China worsening, is cautiously avoiding any conflict because that would make it more dependent upon US.

The trend that has persisted from the 1990s until today is forming strategic partnerships, which feature collective security, cooperation on non-traditional security topics, and not being against any third party. China has at least 44 strategic partnerships and they cover most of its neighbors; the US has also forged strategic partnerships with global nations.

From this point of view, the diplomatic moves of China's neighbors don't appear so threatening. Aquino III meant to promote European investment, while India and Japan mainly discussed improving economic ties, as Modi is seeking to revive India's economy, and Vietnam's premier intended to increase bilateral trade with India through his visit. It is impossible to exclude the possibility that "containing China" was one of the topics discussed, but it has not been the main one because China's relations with them are not worsening.

According to a most popular international relations theory, nations "construct" bilateral relations through interaction: while confrontation and lack of mutual trust lead to fiercer confrontation, constructive moves with mutual goodwill can promote cooperation. China needs to be confident of its diplomacy, and promote, not curb, trust.

China is not a global naval power, but its navy far exceeds those of all the Association of Southeast Asian Nations combined and the latter won't choose a military solution for territorial disputes.

China's growing comprehensive capability also makes it a rational choice for neighbors to cooperate with instead of confronting it. No neighbor openly advocates military confrontation with China.

Territorial disputes have never been the main topics defining China's peripheral relations. Of the 14 continental neighbors that had territorial disputes with China, 12 have solved them through peaceful means; the maritime disputes can follow a similar path.

Of course, neighbors' doubts about China's rise are inevitable, but that makes it more necessary to promote trust. China has a good record of solving disputes peacefully, and its diplomacy should show neighbors its sincerity and reflect its goodwill.

In one word, if China's neighbors forge strategic partnerships without being against any third party, that will be a good way to enhance a new sense of security and break the old dilemma of power politics. It's time for China to be more confident about the strategic partnerships among the neighbors.

The author is a researcher at the Institute of World Economics and Politics at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

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