Repairing China's image of 'regional bully' a priority for Xi

Repairing China's image of 'regional bully' a priority for Xi
Chinese President Xi Jinping on November 21, 2014.

BEIJING - Expect President Xi Jinping to use 2015 to mend fences with China's neighbours after two tension-filled years that saw Beijing launching an air defence zone and deploying an oil rig to stake its maritime claims, analysts say.

Keeping ties on an even keel is necessary for China to repair its image as a "regional bully" on the one hand, and to open up new markets to shore up the continuing slump in the world's No. 2 economy on the other, they add.

"This priority originates from the diplomatic debacles in the past few years and the belief that as long as China does not have a solid, secure and well-managed neighbourhood, such vulnerability will always undermine its security and emergence as a regional and global power," said Washington-based analyst Yun Sun at Stimson Centre, a think-tank.

Signs that repairing neighbourly ties is a top priority for Mr Xi have been clear since October 2013 when the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) called an unprecedented conference on China's relations with countries on the periphery.

Last November, he met Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the sidelines of the Apec summit in Beijing after both sides agreed to resume official exchanges and cooperation mechanisms halted since Tokyo nationalised some of the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in 2012.

The strongest proof came late in November when China ranked relations with its neighbours higher in priority than relations with the United States and other major powers at the Central Work Conference on Foreign Relations chaired by Mr Xi.

China's diplomatic relationships have hit both highs and lows as Mr Xi adopted a more assertive and nuanced foreign policy.

While Beijing pushed its territorial claims forcefully - launching an air defence identification zone in the East China Sea in November 2013 and parking an oil rig near the disputed Paracel islands in the South China Sea last July - it also spared no effort to woo its neighbours with investments and cooperation pacts.

Analysts expect Mr Xi to rely heavily on economic diplomacy to win over countries in the region through initiatives such as the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road.

"Xi seems to have a strong interest in making the success of the 'Belt and Road' initiative his major foreign policy legacy in the coming years," said Singapore-based analyst Li Mingjiang of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

But it does not mean China will now adopt a soft approach to tackling all issues with its neighbours.

"China will not abandon coercive measures on issues it deems important, such as on the maritime disputes in the South China Sea," Dr Yun said.

It won't be easy to win over neighbours though, analyst Scott Harold of the Rand Corporation noted. China had pressed neighbours like Japan and the Philippines "very hard" since late 2013 and those countries are now "leery of Xi's China", he said.

A key indicator of China's resolve to maintain stable ties would be the way it handles the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in August. Will the official rhetoric from the government and media be restrained or provocative?

Among China's neighbours, Singapore will feature prominently this year as both countries celebrate 25 years of diplomatic relations and could launch a third government-to-government project to mark the occasion.

Despite the elevated priority for neighbourly ties, China continues to view seriously its relations with major powers like Russia and the US, say observers.

This is because tensions could arise if the beleaguered Russian economy drags down China's, and if Washington continues to pressure Beijing on cyber security issues, among others.

As with all crystal-ball gazing exercises, one has to expect the unexpected, say observers, who cite possible challenges to Mr Xi's 2015 diplomatic priorities.

One key variable is the domestic situation, more specifically how China's economy performs and whether a relentless anti-corruption campaign triggers a pushback against Mr Xi and his disciplinary chief Wang Qishan.

"The leadership may be tempted to adopt a more aggressively nationalistic posture in foreign affairs in order to divert domestic attention towards alleged foreign adversaries and thus inspire a 'patriotic' rallying around the leadership," said analyst Don Keyser of Nottingham University.

Other possible challenges, said Dr Yun, include a maritime contingency in the East or South China seas, or a North Korea contingency such as another nuclear test or new military provocations.

Taiwan's presidential election in early 2016 could also sway China's foreign policy options, especially if Beijing is worried that the Democratic Progressive Party may pursue independence again if it were to triumph at the polls.

Said Mr Keyser: "There are many other situations one could envisage arising 'unexpectedly', either in China's domestic situation or in relations with other nations, that would wholly alter China's strategic ordering of its priorities and its specific actions."

This article was first published on January 7, 2015.
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