Time to Rethink Chinese Diplomacy


In the current international system, China is a “nonconformist” when it comes to its political system and ideology. Strictly speaking, China is part of a small minority, with only North Korea, Vietnam, and Cuba as ideological allies. While some Chinese are thinking about how to restrain or even replace the U.S. after China has fully risen, most countries are either openly or secretly considering how to restrain or limit a risen China.

Many years ago, when some IR scholars were considering how to restrain the U.S., I put forth my opinion: If China wants to truly rise, the first question it needs to solve is not how to restrain the U.S., but how to restrain China’s own behavior after it has risen. Many people were confused or even shocked to hear this. I explained: “If you don’t let the world see that a risen China can be restrained, it may be that China will not get a chance to rise at all!”

I was not exaggerating. Just look at China’s current leaders: in their speeches at every international forum, they endlessly emphasize China’s peaceful rise and promise that China will never seek hegemony. Everywhere they go, they give promises and assurances to people. In truth, China’s leaders are quite clear about this point: the whole world is afraid that China will be completely uncontrollable after it has risen.

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Maybe some people will say, “I don’t care what they think, we will continue to develop.” The problem is that, sooner or later, China’s rise will be interrupted or even halted by some sudden crisis unless the international community’s suspicions about China’s rise are addressed.

Therefore, I think we should take up the task of ensuring that risen China will not become a global tyrant, and demonstrate that this is not a problem other countries need to consider and ultimately take countermeasures against. China, itself having been ravaged by foreign invaders for a hundred years, will prevent other countries from bullying us again. But we should let the world know that we can guarantee China will not set out to bully other countries, particularly our weaker neighbors. I have often criticized scholars who preach that “weak counties have no diplomacy.” If we embrace this slogan while China rises, after we have become a world leader, will the 200-some “weak countries” really have no way to engage us diplomatically?

The U.S. has been immensely powerful for half a century, and it has at times adopted methods that both disgust and frighten the world. But for many years, the U.S. has shaped its own diplomatic values and gained the trust of most countries in the world, becoming the protector of the international system that China benefits from today. If China truly wants to challenge the U.S. in the future, besides winning the hearts of the Chinese people, the most important thing will be for China to obtain the trust of most countries in the world.

Without a doubt, this sort of trust must be built on the restriction of strong countries’ power! We often say that China’s greatest problem today is that there is no limit on absolute power. After President Xi Jinping assumed power, he said that he wanted to place power within “the cage of regulations.” I’m not sure how much farther China will go down that road, but on the international level, there are similar problems regarding the limitation and use of power. One of the most important factors in this regard is the unique core value system of each country.

For some time, the Abe administration is Japan has actively targeted China with “value-oriented diplomacy.” Japan tries to isolate or even encircle China by appealing to nearby countries with democratic systems, particularly the U.S. and Australia. Of course, this “value-oriented diplomacy” fell flat as many Asian countries (including Australia) weren’t willing to join in. Still, this approach should inspire some deep contemplation from China’s leaders. When it comes to diplomacy, China unfailingly demands that its partners respect every kind of political system. But has China prepared its own values for the coming competition for great power status or even global hegemony? Are other countries really prepared to give the title of global number one to a “political nonconformist?”

China can keep everyone from talking about each other’s political systems and paths, and can forbid them from interfering in how it treats its own people. But China must have clear values when it comes to international interactions and foreign relations. Do we support dictatorships or democracies, closed societies or free ones? Do we support tyrannical countries or do we stand with the majority of nations? We cannot avoid these questions, much less muddle our way through them by insisting on respect for other’s choices.

For many years now, China’s diplomacy has over-emphasized mutual respect for sovereignty and not interfering in other’s internal affairs. As a result, when Chinese people were being murdered in other countries, China’s government stuck fast to its “non-interference” principle. When some countries that depend on China’s support for their very survival run amok, China’s government still “respects” them. With this sort of diplomacy, there’s no sign of the proper respect that should be accorded to human rights, freedom, and human dignity. We have to reflect on this diplomacy. Otherwise, no matter how good China is at political maneuvering, it will come to nothing in the end – China will discover it doesn’t have a single true friend in the international community.

A country cannot do without core values. In international exchanges especially, it’s even more crucial for a country to have values that other countries can believe in. Often, these two levels of values are interrelated. At the 18th Party Congress in 2012, the Chinese Communist Party put forth the “12 core socialist values” – prosperity, democracy, civility, harmony, freedom, equality, justice, rule of law, patriotism, dedication, integrity, and friendship. The values China brings to international exchanges should also be based on these twelve words. Combine those values with peaceful development, mutually beneficial cooperation, and harmonious “win-win” relations, and we have a complete set of diplomatic values that the international community can agree on.

Only by sincerely promoting and practicing these values can China ultimately win the trust of most countries and clear away the obstacles blocking its true rise. Diplomacy without values has a hard time gaining trust from the international community. The next step for Chinese diplomacy should be value-oriented diplomacy. That should not mean diplomacy that pushes our own values on other countries, but rather a diplomacy that is based on our values. This type of diplomacy is truly valuable.

This piece originally appeared in Chinese on Yang Hengjun’s blog. The original post can be found here.

Yang Hengjun is a Chinese independent scholar, novelist, and blogger. He once worked in the Chinese Foreign Ministry and as a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC. Yang received his Ph.D. from the University of Technology, Sydney in Australia. His Chinese language blog is featured on major Chinese current affairs and international relations portals and his pieces receive millions of hits. Yang’s blog can be accessed at www.yanghengjun.com.

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