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UPDATED: March 18, 2015 NO. 12 MARCH 19, 2015
New Challenges
A diverse range of global issues puts Chinese diplomacy to the test
By Kerry Brown

HOST DIPLOMACY: Chinese President Xi Jinping (second left, front row) and leaders of other Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation economies attend their annual meeting in Beijing on November 11, 2014 (LAN HONGGUANG)

The National People's Congress, China's top legislature, opened its annual full session on March 5. Both the Report on the Government Work delivered by Premier Li Keqiang at its opening and the press conference held on March 8 by Foreign Minister Wang Yi on its sidelines made one thing abundantly clear: What happens inside China is linked to and profoundly affects the outside world. Likewise, what happens in the world outside China has a big impact on the country. The search therefore for harmony between the inner and outer realms is important.

But this is hard to achieve because, as former British diplomat Robert Cooper made clear in a book he wrote in the early 2000s, while governments can try to control the levers of policy and influence in their internal affairs, most of these are not relevant and strong once you cross your own border. With foreign affairs, the choice to have some kind of impact over the actions of others is reduced to moral persuasion, intellectual influence, appeal to self-interest, and--in the most extreme cases--force. Each carries high risks, and has a significantly high rate of failure.

Global responsibility

China needs to think about these issues because in terms of its international role and status, it is now in a unique position, one which has much promise but many threats and challenges. Listening to the menu of issues that Foreign Minister Wang spoke about only underlines this new situation. There are few places in the world now where China does not have to take a position, whether it be on issues in the Middle East and in particular Iran's potential nuclear program, development challenges in Africa, Russia's problems with America and Europe over Ukraine, or issues closer to home--India, Myanmar and North Korea. On all of these, Wang had to devote some time.

Ironically, the most important of all the foreign relations--that with the United States--got the most straightforward response. President Xi Jinping will visit the United States later this year, continuing an unprecedented period of high-level engagement between the two powers. Few current world leaders have gotten to know each other better than Xi and President Barack Obama. The fruits of this were seen in the hugely important climate change accord agreed in Beijing between the two countries last November. Sino-U.S. relations are complex, but they are now underpinned by a very real foundation of common interest and understanding on both sides. That is good news for the rest of the world.

Beyond relations with the United States, things quickly become less straightforward. Under Xi's leadership, China has started to describe the outside world in a number of "meta-narratives"--easy-to-remember monikers by which other regions and countries have their relationship with China summarized by a single phrase. China and the United States are building a new model of major-country relations; China and the EU have established partnership for peace, growth, reform and civilization. With Russia and the continent of Africa, China is seeking distinct comprehensive strategic partnerships. The most ambitious of all these phrases is "the New Silk Road" or what Wang called "the Belt and the Road," which covers a vast network of different countries across Central Asia and into the South and Southeast Asian regions.

The use of this phrase works in two areas. Despite embracing such a wide variety of countries and partners, it creates a common sense of reciprocity. The land and maritime silk roads are shared between different partners and stress the trade and cultural links they have in common. Their fundamental point of convergence is economic commonalities, something that appeals to everyone's understanding of what best serves them and where they have strong incentives to engage with others on an equal basis. However, the Silk Road concept--while it talks of the present and future--looks back to history, and to patterns of engagement that, in some cases, have existed for many centuries. That gives it a more stable feel. It is not something being created from scratch, but is rather being reenergized and reinvigorated.

Because of China's economic prominence now, it does need messages like this by which the outside world can understand it. Over the last decade, phrases like the "peaceful development of China" have been tried, but they tended to make foreign partners wary, because of the stress they placed on China, rather than China's place in the world. The new grand narratives in a sense achieve this, by talking much more about the global context. "New-model of major-country relations" with the United States, "partnership for peace, growth, reform and civilization" with the EU, and "New Silk Road" not once contain the word "China." They convey instead a cosmopolitan outlook. In that sense, they are united by linking into an idea of China being a cosmopolitan power.

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