At the end of year 2014, I wrote an essay summarizing China’s top diplomatic achievements and concluded that 2015 would be broadly successful as well. Now, at the end of 2015, we can reflect on those predictions and take a look at what 2016 might hold for Chinese foreign policy.
First, China continues behaving like a global leader on the international stage. This is consistent with China’s new slogan of “Big power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics,” meaning that China will seek to increase its global influence and power while espousing new ideas for international relations. From the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to global climate change agreements and even China’s September 3 military parade, the country has sought to promote a new framework for international relations for all countries. The goal of this framework is a “common destiny for all human kind.” Indeed, China’s influence and power have been increasing, particularly, in Africa and Latin America where development is still the top priority.
Second, China’s “One belt, one road” (OBOR) strategy has been making steady progress. The OBOR initiative has received support from more than 50 countries, demonstrating its value. Of course, there will be daunting challenges ahead as major projects will need to be implemented on the ground in unstable countries like Pakistan and the Central Asian states. But as long as China remains patient and refrains from intervening in other countries’ internal affairs too deeply, OBOR should be just fine. Above all, we need to keep in mind that the final evaluation of the success of the OBOR strategy will have to occur ten or 20 years from now.
Third, China’s management of the South China Sea disputes is successful and mature. Some might find this odd since 2015 witnessed many tense moments between China and other interested countries in the South China Sea, including the United States. However, given the very pessimistic expectations for the South China Sea situation in early 2015, one can say the year turned out to be not that bad at all for China. No serious conflicts occurred in the South China Sea involving China and other parties. Although the U.S. did send a destroyer within 12 nautical miles of a Chinese artificial island, nothing serious actually happened, again demonstrating the effectiveness of the existing communication channels between China and the United States. Both countries behaved rationally and in a mature fashion. This is good news for regional peace and stability.
Fourth, China’s economic diplomacy has been successful. Besides the AIIB, another big achievement of China’s economic diplomacy was the International Monetary Fund’s decision to include the Chinese yuan (renminbi) in its reserve currency basket. Although the short-term effects of the yuan becoming an IMF reserve currency are uncertain, the long-term effects are very positive for the international financial system and China’s own economic reforms and development. The IMF’s decision, along with the successful launch of the AIIB, demonstrates China’s growing influence and status in international economics. Sure, China is no longer growing in the double digits like it once did, but as long as it can maintain medium level growth in the 6-7 percent range, it still will be the most important economic engine for the world economy.
Fifth and finally, China’s deepening involvement in global governance was a major trend in 2015. This is a new area for China, but a predictable development as the country’s power and profile continues to grow. On one hand, the international community would expect and demand that China demonstrate more international responsibility in areas like climate change, counter-terrorism campaigns, and international finance. On the other hand, China’s expanding global interests and influence mean that Beijing will have to meet more challenges in areas like Africa and the Middle East, evidenced by the killing of one Chinese citizen by the Islamic State and three others by terrorists in Mali. These countervailing impulses mean that China must be more actively involved in setting up new global rules to defend its national interests and maintain global peace. Make no mistake: Beijing is actively engaged in this area. For example, this is why Chinese President Xi Jinping led a collective study session on global governance in October.
Whether or not China can repeat these same achievements in 2016 will depend on many factors, some of which are out of its control. But we can be confident that China’s foreign policy toolkit is mature enough to handle the full gamut of challenges ahead in 2016. No doubt, a few hot spots await China in 2016, such as the South China Sea situation and global economic development. Let us pay close attention to these issues heading into the new year.