What to Expect From Chinese Diplomacy in 2015


On March 8, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi held a press conference to highlight China’s diplomatic goals for 2015 (one of many such press events held on the sidelines of the National People’s Congress). A transcript is online in both English and the original Chinese. To save Diplomat readers from having to go through the entire Q&A session, I’ve outlined four trends to watch below.

1. China is going all-in on its Silk Road plans in 2015. The ideas of a Silk Road Economic Belt and a Maritime Silk Road (often shorted to “the Belt and Road”) were first raised in separate speeches by President Xi Jinping in fall 2013. The initiative was rapidly fleshed out over the next year — by fall 2014, China had developed not one but two avenues of financing the infrastructure projects that will make up the “Belt and Road” (the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Silk Road infrastructure fund).

According to Wang, China will continue to heavily promote the “Belt and Road.” He told journalists that “one focus” would be one of the “keywords for China’s diplomacy in 2015” – and that “one focus” is on “making all-around progress in the ‘Belt and Road’ initiative.” In other words, except the “Belt and Road” to continue to dominate China’s diplomacy with countries along the planned route.

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At the same time, however, Wang tried to quell suspicions that the “Belt and Road” is a disguised attempt at hegemony. “It is a product of inclusive cooperation, not a tool of geopolitics, and must not be viewed with the outdated Cold War mentality,” Wang said. He promised “equal-footed cooperation” with Silk Road partners and said China “will be sensitive to the comfort level of our partners.”

2. China wants to use the 70th anniversary of the UN to promote reform. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations. Beijing sees this as an opportunity to push for changes in the way the international organization works (I outlined China’s vision for an updated UN in a previous piece).

In his press conference, Wang firmly denied that China wants to overturn the international order, but made clear that China wants to “improve” the system. “Seventy years have passed. The international situation and landscape has changed dramatically. Naturally, the international order needs to be updated,” Wang said. That means promoting “the legitimate rights and interests of development countries” (a group China claims membership in) and making the UN more democratic by allowing for greater participation by rising powers.

3. China expects concrete accomplishments in its relationship with Russia – not so much with the U.S. Recent progress in China-Russia relationship have led to a wealth of commentaries envisioning a new Moscow-Beijing bloc that will actively seek to oppose the West (see here, here, here, and here for similar stores from The Diplomat). Despite these growing fears, Wang tried to emphasize that China values its relationship with both Russia and the U.S., but the specifics of his comments made it clear that ties with Moscow are progressing more rapidly.

When discussing China-Russia ties, Wang praised the “strong strategic trust” between the two sides. Thanks to an “enormous internal impetus” for bilateral cooperation, Wang said, China and Russia have a number of concrete goals in mind for 2015: increasing bilateral trade to $100 billion; signing an agreement to cooperate on the Silk Road Economic Belt; beginning “strategic cooperation” on developing Russia’s Far East; and continuing “to intensify our cooperation in the financial, oil and gas, and nuclear-power sectors.” There will be plenty of opportunity for deal-making — Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin are widely expected to exchange visits this year, as each side will participate in each other’s commemoration events for the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.

As for China-U.S. relations, Wang continued to stress China’s framework of “new model major-country relations” (even though this phrase has largely fallen out of favor in Washington). Compared to his remarks on Russia, Wang spent much more time acknowledging the “disagreements” between China and the U.S., although he insisted such problems are only natural. Still, Wang didn’t list a single concrete goal for the relationship, only making vague references to the hope for better “strategic trust” and “positive interactions” in the Asia-Pacific and for cyberspace to become a “new frontier of [China-U.S.] cooperation.”

4. China is edging toward “major country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics.” As Wang pointed out in his press conference, 2014 was a big year for China experimenting with new roles on the international stage – rushing aid to West Africa during the Ebola outbreak, taking up a larger role in the talks over Iran’s nuclear program, and becoming more active as a global mediator (both in South Sudan and, increasingly, in Afghanistan). These moves all tie into Xi’s grand pronouncement last year that China will pursue “major country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics.”

China now has national interests at stake in every corner of the globe (including, as one journalist pointed out, a growing number of Chinese citizens living and travelling abroad), and China’s stake in regional security and humanitarian issues will only continue to grow. Accordingly, Beijing is taking steps to be more actively involved in seeking a resolution to those issues while still trying to stay within its policy of non-interference (the “Chinese characteristics” aspect).

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