On March 8, Foreign Minister Wang Yi held a press conference in Beijing as part of the ongoing session of the National People’s Congress. He both reflected on China’s foreign policy during the first year of Xi Jinping’s leadership, and also laid out priorities and plans for 2014.
When asked to describe what “struck you the most about China’s diplomacy in the past year,” Wang summed up China’s foreign policy with one word: “active.” He explained, “China’s diplomacy in 2013 was broader in horizon and more active in conduct.” China’s foreign policy has certainly been both active and broad under the Xi-Li leadership. Even before officially taking his post as president, Xi Jinping introduced the concept of “new type great power relations” to guide China’s diplomacy with the U.S., and also with other major countries such as Russia. At the same time, China has not neglected its traditional ties to Africa, while also expanding its diplomatic initiatives in Central and South America.
On the economic front, China has introduced a plethora of new bilateral and multilateral initiatives, particularly in its immediate neighborhood. The most ambitious projects are the Silk Road Economic Belt and the corresponding Maritime Silk Road, each of which includes smaller pieces such as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) economic corridor. China has also been actively pursuing free trade agreements with its neighbors, including Australia, South Korea, and India.
However, some of China’s neighbors will likely be concerned that Wang Yi, in giving examples of its “active” foreign policy, placed China having “vigorously defended its territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests” at the top of the list. It sends a clear signal that China values a firm stance on the East and South China Sea territorial disputes even above its other ambitious foreign policy initiatives.
Later in the press conference, Wang offered a potential olive branch. “We are willing to listen to voices from our neighboring countries and respond to their doubts about China’s neighborhood policy,” Wang said. He added, “We will never bully smaller countries, yet we will never accept unreasonable demands from smaller countries.” Given that Wang promised to “defend every inch of territory that belongs to us,” China might take a hard line on what it considers an “unreasonable demand” from other claimants in the territorial disputes (the New York Times’ summary of Wang Yi’s press conference ascribed to this view).
On the issue of China-Japan relations specifically, Wang insisted that “on issues of principle such as history and territory, there is no room for compromise.” Wang Yi’s comments put the onus for repairing China-Japan relations squarely on the Japanese government—China has little interest in breaking the diplomatic ice unless Japan makes the first move.
Wang Yi also promised that China “will be more active in playing the role of a responsible, big country,” especially on the international stage. Specifically, Wang mentioned that China “will advance and protect the legitimate rights and interests of developing countries and make the international order more just and reasonable.” This might hint that China will increasingly seek to wrest control of the international order away from the United States, and move towards a multi-polar world that allows for shared leadership among both developed and developing nations. As the largest and most prosperous developing nation, China often sees itself as the leader of the developing world—meaning more input from developing countries would likely translate to more Chinese leadership on the international stage.
In more specific terms, Wang pointed to some areas where China will expand it efforts to be a “responsible big country” by taking a more active role in international issues. First, he promised that China will remain involved in Afghanistan as NATO and U.S. troops leave the country. China will “work with the international community to actively facilitate political reconciliation in Afghanistan, support the peace and reconstruction efforts and encourage Afghanistan to be more involved in regional cooperation,” Wang said. Wang Yi himself recently visited Kabul, laying the grounds for increased Chinese interactions with Afghanistan over the coming year.
Wang also emphasized China’s hope that the Six Party Talks over North Korea’s nuclear program can begin again soon. “The Six-Party Talks is the only dialogue mechanism acceptable to all the parties. As the host country, we hope it can be resumed as soon as possible,” Wang said. China has been making a push for restarting the talks in recent months, indicating that the Xi-Li leadership will take a more active stance on the Korean nuclear issue.
Wang also stressed that China will play a more active role in protecting the rights and interests of Chinese citizens and businesses abroad, a theme that was also included in Li Keqiang’s government work report. “It could be a small thing like helping our nationals to get their documentation in order or get into contact with their relatives and friends, or it could be a big operation such as rescuing Chinese hostages or carrying out large-scale evacuation of overseas Chinese nationals,” Wang said. China historically carried out such an evacuation of citizens from Libya in 2011, just before the no-fly zone went into effect. That event was seen as a watershed moment, where China’s government demonstrated a new ability to protect its citizens overseas. This continues to be a focus of the Chinese government, and will help dictate how China responds to various overseas events.
According to Wang, the three requirements for Chinese diplomacy are “confidence,” “backbone,” and “generosity.” Each of these concepts is tied up with confidence and pride in China’s power: “Confidence comes from the strength and prosperity of our motherland … The backbone comes from our national pride … Generosity comes from the self-confidence of an old civilization.” Other countries (such as the U.S., Japan, and the Philippines) may not like what a confident Chinese foreign policy looks like—these nations would probably use the word “assertive” or even “aggressive” rather than confident—but they had best get used to it. Wang Yi’s press conference made it clear that China’s foreign policy is not going to change course, but merely push further down the path already laid in 2013.