It has been almost two years since the US has shifted its orientation back to Asia. Its foreign policy’s motive is clear: containing the rise of China. The Obama administration has initiated a number of strategies to reassure the stability of the Asia-Pacific region, for instance, stationing 2,500 marines in the northern part of Australia and pushing forward the Trans-Pacific Partnership to assert its influence in the region.
Despite the return of the US in this region, China has designed a strategy to respond to its American counterpart. Recent developments of diplomacy in Asia suggest the possibility that China is currently reformulating the so-called “good neighbor policy” as it once pursued in the 1990s.
In Chinese diplomatic history, the Chinese people have learned not to face many foes simultaneously. Zhuge Liang, the Chinese legendary strategist in the late Han dynasty period, advised his generals not to wage war on two sides at the same time. His formula of grand strategy bears a resemblance to Bismarck’s recipe in Europe of the late 19th century, that is, a state should position itself as the two among the three. To simply put, a statesman should avoid alienating his own nation into a minority status. In a similar vein, in the 1970s when the relations with Russia became deteriorating, China sought a rapprochement with the US to counterbalance the then Soviet Union in order to eschew a conflict from two fronts.
Similarly, back into the 1990s, China became more assertive in participating with multilateral forums in Southeast Asia after being sanctioned by the West. The Chinese government provided public goods for Asian nations, for instance, by maintaining its currency value in the 1997 Asian financial crisis, which rescued many suffering nations, by proposing a free trade agreement in favor of Southeast Asian neighbors in 2001, and by joining the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia in 2003, the first major power to sign this regional pact.
In 2013, China begins to respond to the US’ Asia-pacific approach by rebuilding good ties with its surrounding neighbors, for instance, Russia and Southeast Asian countries.
The relations with Russia became cordial in the aftermath of Putin’s visit to China since the beginning of this year. Feeling insecure of American’s increasing role in the region, Russia, China’s neighbor and the US’ Cold War rival, countered the US strategy by boosting tie with China. Earlier this year, President of Russia Vladimir Putin showed signs of looking eastward, as some news commentators believed that it was “Putin’s pivot to China.” As a result, China is at ease from confronting two major powers at the same time.
After the improvement in Sino-Russian relations, China has further demonstrated its smart diplomacy in response to the US by seeking to readjust the relationships with its conflicting parties in the issue of sovereignty over South China Sea. In July, Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, advanced an initiative to ease anxieties among the conflicting parties by proposing to formulate the “Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.” This is a clear signal that China wishes to manage the disputes through an agreement based on win-win national interests of every party involved.
In the beginning of October 2013, President of China, Xi Jinping, before partaking in the APEC Summit, visited Malaysia and Indonesia to deepen mutual understanding, trust and friendship. As a result of the state visits in two countries, China concluded five-year trade cooperation agreements with the two nations.
Recently, Prime Minister of China Li Keqiang paid state visits to Brunei, Thailand, and Vietnam.
In Brunei where Li attended the East Asian leaders’ meeting, Premier Li vowed his support on strengthening regional cooperation. This positive attitude of China will enhance better environment to pursue trade and economic activities in Southeast Asia.
Li’s visit to Thailand also yielded productive policy results for the Thais. Prime Minister of Thailand Yingluck Shinnawatra stated that China pledged to purchase more rice from Thailand. The Chinese economic support to Thailand undoubtedly mitigates the domestic tension over the issue of rice, which has been dividing the government and its opposition for a year. Moreover, Premier Li also encouraged cultural exchange and people-to-people relations between the Chinese and Thais.
Li’s visit to Vietnam also symbolized China’s optimistic attempt to find a solution to Sino-Vietnamese conflict by enhancing cooperation in maritime, onshore, and financial aspects.
All in all, China has diplomatically counterbalanced the return of the US in this region by constructing a strong network of relationship between China and Southeast Asian countries. China’s good neighbor policy has been implemented, not only to hedge against the US, but also to seek a common ground among conflicting parties in the issue of South China Sea.
This is a long term Chinese strategy to deal with its own backyard. China’s focus on Southeast Asia after the 1990s revitalizes the good neighbor policy again. With regard to the US’ presence in the region, China’s proactive role in Southeast Asia will turn this part of the world into the field of great power politics.
Peera Charoenvattananukul is a graduate student in Master’s of International Relations at the University of Cambridge. Previously he worked as a research assistant to a project funded by National Security of Thailand on arms reduction. He received his bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Thammasat University.