With its growing global influence, China has reached a strategic turning point. Beijing must decide if it wants to continue a low-profile path of non-interference or if it should be more assertive and take a greater stake in world affairs. Brett Blackshaw, Regional Unit Chief at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, moderated a panel discussion on China’s grand diplomatic strategy. Panelists included Xia Liping of Tongji University, Holli A. Semetko of Emory University, Cai Tuo of China University, and Horace G. Campbell of Syracuse University.

China’s Diplomatic Adjustment

  • Emergence of a Strategic Pattern: The focus of the global political economy has shifted from the Atlantic to the Pacific, reflecting the emerging role of developing countries, Xia stated. The West has accepted that developing world is playing an increasingly important part in the global financial system, while developing countries, including China, are increasingly willing to participate in the international political system.
  • Trends in the International System: China will achieve true modernization by the middle of this century, Xia contended. However, as the global order changes, he predicted that there will be a natural de-emphasis on the great powers of the United States and China.
  • Security: The United States and China share many common challenges and goals in both traditional and nontraditional security, including combating terrorist threats, confronting the prospect of global climate change, and halting nuclear proliferation (particularly in North Korea), Xia added.
  • Human Development:  The world is witnessing a conflict between human development and natural resources, which has lead to clashes over resource procurement, Xia said. This is evidenced in the China’s maritime industrialization and the conflicts in the South China Sea over potential resource rights.
  • Traditional Paradigm Shift: A majority of scholars in China still cling to traditional views of Chinese low-profile diplomacy. Xia argued that there should be a diplomatic adjustment toward peaceful development. China can no longer be a “free rider” and must play the role of a “reasonable” big country, he contended.
  • The Taiwan Issue: According to Xia, China must focus its national defense efforts on unifying the Mainland and Taiwan, but it is critical that this is not done in a threatening manner.
  • The Lonely Emerging Giant: China is different from other emerging countries. It still has unsettled border issues, though it has chosen to focus on the welfare of its citizens. Xia argued that China must make use of its newfound economic power in diplomacy. It must work peacefully with other powers in the South China Sea, but if other countries act aggressively, China can impose economic sanctions to exert its power.
  • Why Does China’s Diplomacy Need to Transform?: According to Cai, some Chinese domestic issues have become internationalized and vice versa. Examples of such issues include energy, climate change, and resource procurements. Accordingly, 2012 presents several over these intertwined domestic-international geopolitical changes. These include: the U.S. presidential elections, the change in Chinese leadership, South Korean presidential elections, and political elections in Hong Kong and Macau.
  • Integration of Domestic and International Politics: As more global attention is shifted to China, other nations will begin to sharpen their assessment of the direction China is moving in. This will naturally create a more complex international political system. Cai believes that China, perhaps begrudgingly so, cannot afford to develop further without increasing participation in the international community.

Specific Trends

  • The United States: China, as a developing country, must maintain a stable interstate relationship with the United States and should not worry about becoming an emerging superpower, Cai said. The United States has a safe and stable geopolitical environment, while China still has to deal with North Korea, cross-strait issues, and disputes in the South China Sea.
  • Africa: Campbell stressed that Africa should be central to China’s diplomatic curriculum to match China’s diplomatic rhetoric of holding Africa as “a friend.”
  • The European Debt Crisis: There has been a shift in the fundamental nature of the international political economy, as a result of what George Soros called a “crisis of capitalism,” Campbell said. He warned that leaders must be leery of turning to militarism, competitive devaluation, and trade wars to avoid domestic economic crisis.
  • Avoiding Military Conflict: China can be influential in preventing conflict around the world. Campbell argued that China should take a stronger leadership role on UN Security Council to prevent Israel from attacking Iran. China should practice proactive diplomacy to prevent intervention in the name of peace and humanitarianism. This would give meaning to its white paper on peaceful development.
  • Bio-economy: The rising emphasis in the global economy on energy and resources, termed the “bio-economy,” is making obsolete old forms of diplomacy, Campbell said. There is a new form of “energy diplomacy” that will require investment in new energy.
  • Domestic Development: In order to engage in this diplomatic transformation, Cai argued that China must create sustainable domestic development and promote energy independence, social stability, and political security. This will help to establish the “harmonious society” that government officials are perpetually touting, Cai added.
  • Finding a Balance: While China is determined to become strong, Cai suggested that Beijing needed to find a balance between “power and soul.” He compared China to the Chinese basketball star Yao Ming, who has the intellect of a child. China can be big and powerful, but it needs to develop its “mental” capacity, he said. This is particularly pertinent to the development of the country’s economy and strategy.

U.S. Media and Chinese Public Diplomacy

  • Building Stronger Relationships: Since the media often portrays foreign relations in the framework of threats, the United States and China launched initiatives in 2009 to build stronger relationships in order to diminish these negative stereotypes. Television news allows the two countries to convey messages to their respective populations, explained Semetko.
  • Declining TV Influence: Even with its decline in viewership, television news programs are still the most common way of disseminating information in the United States. In fact, ratings have gone up in the 25-54 year old demographics, the most coveted age group. According to Semetko, people have become more dependent on news media to orient themselves politically. She believes that TV news in the United States has become more important than the news press at influencing public opinion.
  • Variance in the Main Networks’ Coverage: The three largest networks in the United States, ABC, CBS, and NBC, covered China in different ways over the past couple of years, Semetko explained. NBC covered primarily natural disasters and crime related stories in China, as well as President Hu Jintao’s 2011 state visit to the United States. ABC’s Diane Sawyer did a week long special in 2011 on China that took in-depth looks at a range of topics, such as the use of English in China, energy, business, and the views of U.S. citizens on China. CBS focused primarily on Chinese issues that directly affected U.S. domestic policy in 2010. In 2011, it covered President Hu’s visit to the United States and did an expose on white-collar Americans living in China.
  • Positive and Negative Spin: Some of the more polarizing cable news networks have different slants on China, added Semetko. For example, Fox News has had the most consistently negative reporting on China in the 2010 and 2011, while CNN has been more positive.