As reported by B. Glaser and D. Pal in a very informative article on the China US Focus website, the Chinese government recently organized a high level meeting dedicated to periphery diplomacy for the first time ever. It was the first major gathering on foreign policy in Beijing since 2006, and it was attended by the entire Standing Committee of the Politburo, among many other high-ranking decision-makers. In other words, the conference was no joke.
Quoting Glaser and Pal, “the meeting re-emphasized China’s need for a stable external environment that is conducive to domestic economic reform”. They proceed by adding that “Chinese media coverage of Xi Jinping’s speech suggests that Beijing is seeking to correct some of the missteps in Chinese policy toward the region in recent years, promote China’s overall influence in its periphery, and counter the U.S. rebalance toward Asia”. Again, major words and intentions with clear implications for the whole of Asia and, of course, the U.S.
Even if the factual analysis provided by Glaser and Pal is spot on, their interpretation and conclusions cannot so easily be shared, as they are plagued by serious contradictions and empty claims. For starters, while they argue that China will not refrain from its territorial and maritime claims, including the “nine-dash line claim in the South China Sea”, they also assert that this renewed regional policy vision “is in stark contrast to China’s approach since 2010, especially over territorial disputes in the South China Sea where Beijing has bullied the other claimants”. To further elaborate on their negativity, they add mostly unsubstantiated claims about how China’s tensions with its neighbours will fail to improve despite this new rhetoric from Beijing.
Even if it is indeed “unlikely that a mere internal meeting will transform things on the ground”, the meeting effectively signals a change of tide in China’s regional policy. Far from simple rhetoric, Beijing looks ready to temporarily step back and partially follow Deng Xiaoping’s path once again by offering attractive win-win proposals to most of its neighbours. While the sustainability and long-term prospects of China’s charm offensive remain doubtful, it is hard to envision how countries which, as asserted by Glaser and Pal, “are dependent on China economically” will turn down its offers and look instead for cover from a wary, retreating U.S., whose grandiloquent Asia pivot is clearly faltering.
In fact, as Glaser and Pal reluctantly admit, the best outcome for all the involved parties (including the U.S.) is for China to find “a modus vivendi with its neighbors over their disagreements” with its new periphery policy, in which case “the competitive impulses of US and Chinese policy in Asia” would be eased and “prospects for better U.S.-China relations in the region will improve greatly”. For East Asia’s future to be a win-win for everyone, China’s move should be a winning one.