CREDIT: <a href="">Trent Strohm</a> (<a href="">CC</a>).
CREDIT: Trent Strohm (CC).

Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Commentary: China's Diplomacy Contradicts Power Politics

Jan 9, 2009

On December 15, 2008, a mood of felicity pervaded the Taiwan Strait, where China had lobbed missiles and alarmed the world in 1995–96. The celebration this time was over the launch of direct postal, shipping, and air links between China and its island neighbor. This milestone event outstrips the formerly prevailing pessimism, seals the trend of Sino-Taiwan détente, and carries implications of global and historic dimensions. Yet it did not seem assured just a few months ago.

In early March, Taiwan's then-Vice President Annette Lu warned that China might take "irrational actions" against Taiwan before the presidential election three weeks later. Her worries were widely shared, as the cross-strait atmosphere was tense due to a Taiwanese referendum on United Nations membership. Beijing angrily condemned it as an attempt to inch toward independence.

The election nonetheless went peacefully. In June, Professor Yan Xuetong at Tsinghua University in Beijing publicly apologized for having expected military conflicts across the Taiwan Strait no later than 2008.

In late October, Zhang Mingqing, a deputy minister from Beijing toured Taiwan to prepare for his boss Chen Yunlin's visit in early November. Zhang was shoved to the ground at one point by an unfriendly independence advocate, yet the insulting event did not derail Chen's trip.

Chen arrived later and signed four breakthrough agreements with his Taiwanese counterpart to promote closer cross-strait links. He is the highest ranking Chinese official to have visited Taiwan since 1949 when the People's Republic of China was founded. Chen's visit was marred by boisterous and bloody protests that resulted in 150 injuries among police and demonstrators, and the unpleasant circumstances cast a shadow of uncertainty over whether the "three major links" would materialize as planned.

In the past, Beijing was easily irritated by Taiwan's assertive behavior and often given to overreaction. These days, Beijing's Taiwan policy is marked with patience, agility, and sophistication. It is an integral part of Beijing's global strategy, characterized by confidence and an emphasis on using non-military instruments such as diplomacy, economy, culture, and psychology. China's rapidly improving military capabilities serve as the backbone of its non-military instruments. The idea is reminiscent of the Theodore Roosevelt adage: "Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far." The result is remarkable.

China now faces a world in which all countries have basically stable or improving relations with Beijing—notable exceptions being non-state actors such as Falun Gong and the Tibetans in exile. This phenomenon is unique among great powers today, and rare in China's long history of incessant warfare with frontier "barbarians." Think of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for the United States, hostility in Georgia for Russia, and the North Korean threat for Japan. In contrast, China has been making friends around the globe, even with former enemies.

In May, Tokyo and Beijing signed a comprehensive agreement on promoting a "mutually beneficial relationship." In June, the problematic East China Sea negotiations over contested oil deposits bore fruit, followed by the first Japanese warship, the Sazanami, visiting China since the end of the Sino-Japanese War in 1945.

In October, Russia and China completed the final settlement of their long-disputed border of more than 4,300 kilometers, where decades ago skirmishes would persist for years. Later last year, Beijing was negotiating a $25 billion loan to Russian oil companies as Russia's economy deteriorated.

China-India trade grew 69 percent during the first half of 2008 compared to the same period a year before, and the two countries, which fought in 1962, have held joint naval and counter-terrorism exercises in recent years.

China has been Vietnam's leading trade partner for four years, despite the 1979 invasion by the People's Liberation Army. This past October, bilateral trade hit nearly $17 billion, surpassing the amount of trade for the entire previous year.

In April, a Pentagon-PLA hotline went operational. The lack of such a hotline worried Washington during the 1995–96 strait crisis and again in April 2001 when a U.S. reconnaissance plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet. Beijing and Washington now conduct about 60 official dialogues annually.

On November 9, just five days after Barack Obama was elected U.S. president, Beijing courted his goodwill by announcing a $586 billion stimulus package to expand China's domestic market and buy more American products, which Obama had been calling for since August. The Chinese economy had been slowing since September due to shrinking exports, but they waited to announce the package until after the U.S. election.

Even with the recently strained relations between Beijing and French president Nicolas Sarkozy over his meeting with the Dalai Lama, Sino-French relations are fundamentally stable given that bilateral trade grew 22 percent between January and October 2008.

If these trends continue, textbooks that teach inevitable clashes between competing powers may have to be rewritten.

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