Under the “One Belt One Road” strategy (OBOR), China has two diplomatic priorities: diplomacy toward great powers and diplomacy toward neighboring countries. Neighboring diplomacy obviously has more potential for improvement than diplomacy toward the United States. During his visit to Singapore in November 2015, President Xi Jinping expounded clearly that neighborhood will be important for China’s overall diplomacy, and China will take on the duty of promoting neighboring peace, stability, and development. Xi also declared that neighboring countries will benefit from OBOR and become the chief cooperative partners of China.
Based on Chinese diplomacy in 2015, the first year of OBOR enforcement, the gravity of Chinese diplomacy is turning from great powers, especially the United States, toward neighboring countries. Moving forward, China’s diplomacy toward great powers, including the U.S., will decline, relatively . China, now identifying itself as a comprehensive great power, will try to adopt a more balanced approach to great power diplomacy, compared to previously when the U.S. relationship was the “core of the core” of Chinese diplomacy (中国外交的重中之重). Now, neighborhood diplomacy is moving to the center of Chinese diplomacy.
However, there are huge differences among the large number of neighboring countries. Based on that, China has to work out a conception on how to tackle each of them.
China defines its neighbors broadly. Neighboring countries refer to those who are located east of the Ural Mountains, the Bosporus Strait and the Suez Canal; south of the Caucasus Mountains; and west of the Bering Sea. There are 62 such countries, which implies that China should not, and cannot, conduct an equidistant diplomacy. China needs to sort its 62 neighboring countries then define the level, strength, pattern, and fields of diplomatic policy toward these countries.
China’s neighbors can be divided geographically into sub-regions: Northeast Asia (Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea and Mongolia), Southeast Asia (divided into two parts: the countries on the Indochina Peninsula, including Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Burma, and Thailand and the island countries, including Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, the Philippines, Indonesia and East Timor), South Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives), West Asia (the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkey, Israel, Palestine, Cyprus, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan), Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan), the South Caucasus (Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia) and Oceania (Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, and the 11 Pacific Islands countries).
According to their comprehensive power and relations with China, these countries could be divided into four main categories: sub-regional great powers (SGP), sub-regional secondary great powers (SSGP), sub-regional small and middle powers with close relations with China (SSCC), and other sub-regional small and middle powers (SSMP).
Focusing on China’s more immediate neighborhood, SGPs include Japan, Indonesia, Vietnam, India, Kazakhstan, and Australia; Russia, the sub-regional great power in North Asia, will be discussed separately later. SSGPs include Thailand, South Korea, Uzbekistan, New Zealand, Malaysia, and Pakistan. North Korea, Papua New Guinea, Turkmenistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, and Singapore should be categorized as SSCCs. The remaining countries belong to the SSMP category.
A blueprint for neighborhood diplomacy
Given the unstable political situation within many Silk Road countries, and the fact that OBOR is a long term strategy, China, besides inter-government relation, must develop ties with various parties in those countries, and pay attention to public diplomacy as well. In this regard, China can learn a lot from Japan, the United States, and European countries.
China needs to keep in mind that most programs and projects for cooperation should be proposed by Silk Road countries. China should only choose some areas for cooperation; an active China with hundred of project proposals will scare its neighbors and cause many unintended consequences. Besides that, China also needs to conduct diplomacy differently according to the category each country belongs to.
The principle for SGP is “cooperation with balance.” SGPs are often inclined to become global powers and worry about China’s influence in their respective regions. To balance China, they would like to develop close ties with a global power (say, the United States). The United States, as a unique superpower, will be sure to take them as tools for balancing China in Asia.
Acting as a “balancer” is an iron-clad rule practiced by different hegemons in past centuries. Why doesn’t China adopt that rule for itself?
China should apply this rule in different ways toward different SGPs according to their relations with China and America respectively. That is, counterbalance supplemented by cooperation toward Japan and India; cooperation supplemented by counterbalance toward Kazakhstan and Indonesia; equal measures of counterbalance and cooperation toward Vietnam and Australia.
For SSGPs, China should offer what could be called “sincere support with a limitation.” Facing strategic pressure from SGPs, SSGPs need strategic support from China. China should support these countries sincerely and strongly, with the limitation that these countries are China’s partners, not allies.
For SSCCs, China should carry out “whole support without guarantee.” A few SSCCs are good at handling their relations with different global powers and finding the most beneficial status for themselves. Most SSCCs do not mind relying heavily on China, especially in regards to economy development and infrastructure building. Besides infrastructure construction, China should place importance on improving their soft capabilities, such as legal systems, medical conditions, and education.
For SSMPs, China needs to conduct “cooperation limited to certain fields and methods.” For those states echoing the OBOR positively, China should show sincere support through some projects proposed by the host states, based on careful evaluation. Some of these may become SSCC-like partners in the future. For those whose evaluations of OBOR are not very positive, China should strictly evaluate proposed projects and only choose those that are low-risk. As to those states hostile toward OBOR, China may let it be. OBOR will last for at least eight years; China must have enough patience to see it through. Quality is better than speed.
Diplomacy toward “pivot countries”
To carry out OBOR effectively, China needs to find some “pivot countries,” by which I refer to those states having strong strategic ties with China and able to develop the model of OBOR. They are mainly from the SSGP category, secondarily SSCCs. Neighborhood diplomacy should propel this process. Pakistan, China’s only all-weather partner and with a population of 200 million, is one of the best candidates for a pivot country. Even so, projects for cooperation must go through feasible evaluations. China should slow down a bit on investment in Pakistan, as many failed programs will no doubt harm both bilateral relations and OBOR. Thailand, Malaysia, New Zealand, and Papua New Guinea are other candidates for pivot countries; possibly Uzbekistan as well.
I will argue that it is Bangladesh, rather than Sri Lanka and Myanmar, that will grow to become a pivot country. Based on intensive bilateral military cooperation, solid political relations (perhaps only next to Sino-Pakistani relations in South Asia) and economic complementarity, China and Bangladesh may expect a rapid and huge increase of bilateral cooperation.
According to my analytical framework, Indonesia and Kazakhstan will not become pivot countries, though both are enthusiastic toward OBOR. Their internal dynamics have created ceilings for bilateral political and economic cooperation. However, it’s possible they could provide pivotal fields for cooperation.
Diplomacy toward Russia
Russia, the most important country in China’s neighborhood diplomacy, deserve special attention. Russia plays an irreplaceable role for China when it comes to national security, international strategic collaboration, bilateral military cooperation, bilateral energy cooperation, and the construction of China’s envisioned economic corridor and land bridge. Thus, some Chinese scholars advocate rebuilding the Sino-Russia alliance. I disagree — Russia always fails to maintain stable relations with the United States and Europe; it keeps strategic prevention toward China in many ways; and its civilian technology, economic structure, and GDP are all far behind China’s.
If China and Russia form an alliance, China’s loss will obviously surpass China’s gains. Russia will dominate bilateral military cooperation while becoming China’s burden, economically and technically. The United States, together with its allies, will shift its China policy from engagement with prevention to total prevention. That will be a disaster for China’s foreign trade, inward/outward investment, technology imports, international education exchanges, etc. Under those conditions, many Silk Road countries would hesitate to join international institutions led by China.
Russia always views itself as a part of the Western world and keeps its main economic and cultural links with the West. Putin has also expressed many times that it is impossible to form any formal military alliance with China.
Sino-Russian relations should benefit both OBOR and China’s peaceful rise. Generally speaking, Sino-U.S. relations will prevail over Sino-Russia relations, though Russia is crucial for China’s neighborhood diplomacy.
Dr. Xue Li is Director of the Department of International Strategy at the Institute of World Economics and Politics, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Zheng Yuwen is a master’s degree student at China Foreign Affairs University.