Join our Mailing List

"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Beijing runs a diplomatic marathon

October 28, 2009

By Willy Lam
The Jamestown Foundation
China Brief Volume: 9 Issue: 21
October 22, 2009

After the extravaganza this month marking the
60th anniversary of the People's Republic of
China (PRC), the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)
leadership has unleashed what the domestic media
heralds as "marathon autumn diplomacy" (malasong qiuji waijiao).

Premier Wen Jiabao visited North Korea and Vice
President Xi Jinping is winding up a five-nation
tour of Europe. In anticipation of United States
President Barack Obama's first official visit to
China next month, CCP politburo member Li
Yuanchao and Central Military Commission (CMC)
vice chairman Xu Caihou are calling on the United States.

 From early October onward, dignitaries including
Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, South
Korean President Lee Myung-bak, Russian Prime
Minister Vladimir Putin and Vietnam Premier
Nguyen Tan Dung paid high-profile visits to the Middle Kingdom.

While these summits and conferences serve a
plethora of objectives, two related leitmotifs
merit particular scrutiny. Given that China is
assured of an 8% growth rate this year - the best
economic performance of any major country - the
Hu Jintao administration is eager to play up the
country's status as a "quasi-superpower" that is
also a responsible stakeholder in the world community.

Moreover, in the run-up to the Obama-Hu summit,
Beijing wants to boost its bargaining chips with
the United States by insisting on full equality
in what it sees as a developing Group of Two
(G-2). It is therefore hardly surprising that
another thrust of Beijing's autumn diplomacy is
to undercut the weakened superpower's global clout.

Immediately after the military parade on
Tiananmen Square on October 1, Premier Wen flew
to Pyongyang in an effort to persuade the
Stalinist regime to return to the six-party talks
on denuclearization hosted by Beijing. While Dear
Leader Kim Jong-il reiterated the North's
theoretical commitment to a nuclear-free Korean
Peninsula, the dictator only expressed his
country's "readiness to hold multilateral talks
depending on the outcome of the DPRK-US talks",
referring to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

Prior to Wen's arrival in North Korea, the
Chinese Foreign Ministry broke with past practice
by disclosing that Chinese food and fuel aid to
North Korea would be on the agenda. While the
premier failed to nudge Kim into making
concessions that would satisfy the United States,
Japan or South Korea, the Chinese leadership
apparently succeeded in enhancing Beijing's
ability to play the "North Korea card" vis-a-vis these three countries.

New agreements on enhancing trade with the DPRK,
which hit a record US$2.79 billion last year,
were signed. Beijing's decision to prop up the
Kim regime was tantamount to withdrawing from
participation in United Nations-authorized
sanctions against the rogue regime. The CCP
leadership's message to the United States seems
to be: Washington has to work more closely with
Beijing if it wants to put pressure on Kim to
halt its weapons program or to return to the negotiation table.

If some in the global community are disappointed
by Wen's expedition, Beijing appears convinced
that its role in hosting two seminal events this
month - the trilateral heads-of-government
meeting among China, Japan and South Korea as
well as the conclave of the premiers of the
Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) nations -
would buttress its credentials as a promoter of
global friendship and stability.

The get-together of representatives of the three
East Asian giants attracted more attention than
usual owing to new Japanese Prime Minister Yukio
Hatoyama's advocacy of the creation of an East
Asian Community (EAC). Yet partly because the EAC
would incorporate "pro-US" countries including
India, Australia and New Zealand, the CCP
administration's feedback has been lukewarm.
According to Tsinghua University Japan scholar
Liu Jiangyong, the EAC may be more viable as an
economic rather than a security-related concept.
Professor Liu criticized Tokyo for "putting too
much stress on developing the functions of the
US-Japan alliance, and that [Japan] has
[excessively] emphasized Western values".

The Hu-Wen team seems more interested in forging
some form of strategic partnership with Japan for
persuading Tokyo to refrain from applying the
US-Japan defense pact to Chinese territories.
After all, Beijing has always been nervous about
Tokyo's alleged role as a key agent of
Washington's "anti-China containment policy". It
is perhaps for this reason that during his
tete-a-tete with Hatoyama, Wen raised the
possibility of moving bilateral ties one step
forward by "ceaselessly injecting strategic input".

On the eve of his Democratic Party of Japan's
landslide victory in the August 30 Japanese
general elections, Hatoyama departed from
tradition by underscoring the imperative of
striking a balance between Tokyo's relations with the United States and China.

The eighth meeting of the SCO premiers in Beijing
made considerably more headway in terms of
synergy and commonality of purpose. The heads of
government from China, Russia, Kazakhstan,
Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan agreed to
tighten financial and trade cooperation to better
combat the global financial crisis.

For example, a special SCO fund is being
established to resolve financial shortfalls
coming out of joint projects among member
nations. Cash-rich Beijing has put up $10 billion
to help SCO nations that run into economic
difficulties. Apart from collaborative efforts to
combat terrorism, the SCO premiers did not dwell
much on political issues. Yet it is not for
nothing that since its inception in 2001 the SCO
has been characterized as a counter-balance to
the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

The fact that premiers from observer countries
including Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran took
part in the Beijing deliberations added an
obvious geopolitical dimension to the conclave.
While Beijing has steered clear of overt
criticism of American policies toward
Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, one message of
the SCO conclave seemed to be that, particularly
if Washington were forced to beat a retreat from
Afghanistan and neighboring trouble spots,
Beijing and SCO members might be well-placed to fill the vacuum.

That Beijing is primed for a more active role at
least in policy debates surrounding the Afghan
imbroglio is evidenced by a China Daily article
written by a senior expert at the official China
Council for National Security Policy Studies, Li
Qinggong. Li called upon Washington to "first put
an end to the war" and then to "promote
reconciliation among the Afghan government, the
Taliban and the country's major warlords".

Equally significant were bilateral talks between
Putin and Chinese leaders. The erstwhile
communist allies signed a pact on mutual
notification of plans for launching ballistic
missiles. Li Daguang, a military expert at
China's National Defense University, said this
testified to the "special relationship" between
the two countries, which already enjoy an "all-weather strategic partnership".

The two sides signed trade deals worth $4
billion. Moreover, Moscow agreed to sell China 70
billion cubic meters of natural gas per year.
Equally important is the fact that at least parts
of these transactions will be settled in yuan and
roubles. This has fed speculation that Beijing
and Moscow have joined hands in undermining the
"hegemony" of the American dollar.

China, of course, had signed similar agreements
earlier in the year with another of the BRIC
countries, Brazil. Moreover, China and Russia are
among several countries that are conducting
unpublicized talks with Middle East nations on
possibly ending the practice of pricing oil in US
dollars. Instead, oil-and-gas transactions could,
in the future, be settled with a basket of
currencies that includes the euro, the yuan and the yen.

Jockeying for position between China and the
United States was also evident in Vice President
Xi's trip to Europe - particularly in his
first-ever visits to Hungary, Bulgaria and
Romania. On the surface, economics and finance
were the sole purpose of the tour. For example,
Xi told a group of Hungarian politicians and
businessmen that China would "continue to
encourage our enterprises to import more from
Hungary, and also hopes Hungarian companies will
make greater efforts to explore the Chinese market".

Yet Xi's effort to woo Central and Eastern
Europeans came on the heels of Obama's surprise
announcement that the United States would stop
building a missile defense shield in Poland and
Hungary. Politicians in the Czech Republic and
Poland, including former Czech president Vaclav
Havel and former Polish president Lech Walesa,
have accused the Obama administration of
capitulation to Russia and leaving Eastern Europe
vulnerable to bullying by Moscow. Xi's trip can
be interpreted as a not-so-subtle way of selling
a "third alternative", that is, China, to an
important part of Europe that feels alienated
about both Russia and the United States.

To what extent has Beijing's autumn diplomacy
attained its main goals? At least in the near
term, the Obama administration seems anxious to
impress on China that it is being treated as
America's equal. This apparently underpins the
policy of "strategic reassurance" that Obama's
China experts have been sponsoring since the
summer. For example, Obama declined to meet the
Dalai Lama, during the latter's recent American
tour. It was the first time since 1991 that the
Tibetan spiritual leader failed to see a US
president while visiting the American capital.

Last week, the US government cleared Beijing of
complicity in the manipulation of the value of
the yuan. Washington said nothing about the fact
that Beijing's augmentation of economic aid to
the DPRK was a violation of the spirit if not the
letter of United Nations sanctions imposed on the
rogue regime after its May 25 nuclear test.
Further, senior US officials have continued to
keep mum over more evidence of Beijing's
violations of the human rights of dissidents and activist lawyers.

Moreover, there are expectations that in the wake
of the US visits by politburo member Li and
General Xu, Sino-American cooperation in areas
including the training of senior personnel and
military confidence-building might be enhanced.

Yet the downside of Beijing's multi-pronged
muscle flexing could also be considerable. Take,
for instance, China's intensifying border rows with India and Vietnam.

Tension along the Sino-Indian boundary is rising
even as a war of words is being waged by media in
both countries. It is notable that while India is
an observer of the SCO, its prime minister failed
to show up at the meeting of the group's heads of government in Beijing.

In mid-October, Premier Wen held talks with his
Vietnamese counterpart on the sidelines of the
10th Western China International Trade Fair in
Chingqong, Sichuan province. Both sides vowed to
increase bilateral trade to $25 billion next
year. Yet while the two leaders pledged to
"properly handle border and South China Sea
issues", little progress was made on resolving
sovereignty disputes over the Spratly Islands.

While Beijing's no-holds-barred projection of
military and diplomatic prowess could go some way
toward enhancing its role as global power broker,
it may also have rendered the "China threat"
theory more credible. In addition, the image of
the fire-spitting dragon could be so intimidating
that China's neighbors such as India and Vietnam
might opt for closer links with the United
States, the sole country that seems capable of
frustrating China's world-sized ambitions.

* Dr Willy Wo-Lap Lam is a Senior Fellow at The
Jamestown Foundation. He has worked in senior
editorial positions in international media
including Asiaweek newsmagazine, South China
Morning Post, and the Asia-Pacific Headquarters
of CNN. He is the author of five books on China,
including the recently published Chinese Politics
in the Hu Jintao Era: New Leaders, New
Challenges. Lam is an Adjunct Professor of China
studies at Akita International University, Japan,
and at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
Developed by plank