Prof.DA Wei, Director,
Istitute of American Studies, Chinese Institutes of Contemporary International Relations
In the context of President Obama’s upcoming visit to Beijing, President Da introduced his talk on President Xi Ji-Ping’s new approach towards foreign strategy with a basic framework of understanding current China-US relations from 2012 onwards (after the 8th Party Congress.) He delineated two approaches to foreign policy: the first is known as taoguangyanghui which describes the approach China has certainly adopted in the past of keeping a low profile, while the second – towards which President Xi is increasingly leading China towards, argued our speaker – is known as fenfayouwei and involves a much more pro-active approach towards policy making and strategic planning.
Professor Da argued that President Xi and his government are progressing from a chaotic decision making process to a more coordinated process with top-down strategic planning (for instance with setting the agenda for issues such as the Air Defence Identification Zone.) For a long time, China’s foreign policy was one of avoiding crises – leadership tended to readily compromise in order to solve crises. However, our speaker asserted that now – partly as a direct result of Xi’s strong leadership — they are beginning to accept them, face them and manage them; from crisis aversion to crisis management (不惹事不怕事 – do not provoke trouble and yet do not fear getting involved with trouble.)
Prof. Da went on to describe how the Chinese government is moving away from a US-centric approach to foreign policy towards something that takes into account a new model of major power relations in the world with, for instance, the recent conference on periphery diplomacy (focusing on neighbouring powers, not the US,) indicating that China is less content simply to appease the US now. Instead, in recent years, it was described how China has moved towards a more morality, value-based diplomacy particularly with regards to China’s role in Africa (though Prof. Da paid heed to questions in the West over China’s role in Africa, he went on to argue that without providing aid and supporting countries regardless of corruption, how were they ever to progress to a place in which a better system could develop?)
What hasn’t changed, it was argued, is the framework of this policy-making: it is still within an international, highly-globalised environment, in a multi-power world in which a modernised China is now taking her place. Xi’s style can be summed-up as ‘hard realism’ argued Prof. Da. An approach still based on the state rather than multilateralism or regionalism, with an emphasis on sovereignty and territory and the expansion of the military (though Dr Da argues this is a defensive move.)
China, it was argued, is part of a new model for a major power relationship that revolves around bottom-line ideas, not small conflicts and confrontation. Working on a basis of ‘mutual respect,’ China recognises the US as important but not the centre – recognising also the roles of Russia and Africa. With balanced and strong military capabilities from either side achieving peace rather than causing war through the concept of deterrents, an interest-based cooperation that remains emotionally neutral (Xi neither likes nor dislikes the US asserted Prof. Da,) the major powers can coexist peacefully the professor cheeringly asserted.
Meanwhile, while China is redressing the balance in its foreign policy away from the US， the US itself is rebalancing in the Asia Pacific with a ‘hard liberalist’ line: it is the only place in which the US is enlarging its presence, implementing an ‘aggressive’ and proactive regional strategy which involves supporting alliances that will put pressure on China (for instance, with Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam.) Prof. Da asked the attention-grabbing question: Is the US trying to contain, encircle or undermine China and its development and stability in the Pacific area? Is China indeed trying to write the status quo in the region? Because of course there are many of those who’d argue that China’s newly-assertive behaviour globally and within the region will change the norms of the world in an inevitable challenge to the US.
We can only hope, in that case, that China’s more proactive approach to foreign strategy is indeed as peaceful and balanced as Prof. Da believes it to be.The concise nature of the professor’s talk allowed for plenty of time afterwards for questions – with the presentation clearly having excited many thoughts among the audience as question after question was asked, covering all areas.
We began with a topic hot on many’s lips for the last month: The Crimea, with one audience member asking if our speaker felt that Xi Jin-Ping feared Russia in the way that Mao did (despite America’s fear of that relationship)?Da Wei stated his belief that Russia is no threat for China, claiming that the only thing Russians are strong on is nuclear power, but this will never be used against China. Instead, China didn’t vote with the US or Russia on Crimea, because China and Russia have a strategic cooperation partnership and will support each other on major issues. It is felt in China that the West squandered opportunities for friendship with Russia during the Yeltsin years and China understands the geopolitical pressure from the US bloc that Russia is facing so, while it doesn’t support the invasion of Crimea, it understands that the Ukraine’s move towards the EU was symptomatic of the current difficulties Russia is facing in relation to the West and with these – argued Dr Da – China can sympathise.
The next question asked for the professor’s opinion on the role of conflicting ideologies in the in the relationship between the US and China. Dr Da agreed that – though people try to avoid the topic – ideology plays an important part in US-Sino relations. Certainly, part of the distrust between US and China comes from this difference in ideology – with the Chinese government feeling concerned about US intent in its region, and the security of China’s political institutions. Dr Da starkly stated that leaders believe US would topple CCPs legitimacy if they had the chance. On the other side of the world, in the US, ‘Communism’ still comes with almost entirely negative connotations. Though Communism in China is totally different from that of the Soviet Union, it’s still seen as scary and foreign for that reason – obviously stirring emotions left-over from the Cold War. Presumably this acts as a bar for total cooperation between the two sides in future.
Another question was asked about the extent to which President Xi himself sets policy with the confident response that he is indeed a very strong leader (in contrast to his predecessors.) Having rapidly established legitimacy since he came to power, Dr Da likened him to China’s famed president of the 80’s: Deng Xiaoping, arguing that Xi, in fact, has exceeded China’s expectations of a strong leader and is in a much better position than Obama to represent his own government’s foreign policy, having already personally impacted it so greatly.
Further questions touched upon China’s provision of no-strings attached aid to Africa – indicating that you don’t have to become a democracy to modernise and develop. Dr Da spoke in favour of this behaviour stating that fundamentally giving aid is something good for African countries. We can’t wait for democracy to give them money. If everyone waited for China to democratise, there wouldn’t have been normalisation in the sixties and seventies. Actually, it was only following all this that China did change. Can we afford to wait for corruption to totally end before helping them?
The evening finished with the question of how far Putin has to go before China openly tries to influence the course of events in the worsening situation in Crimea. Dr Da said that he and his colleagues believed that if Russia was to invade East Ukraine they would have gone too far. As already discussed, China does not wish to join Western sanctions in this area but that does not mean they support Russia and if Russia goes further — well, it’s not in their interests. The status of East Ukraine is the test.
Report by: Clio Chartres