As China’s domestic economy undergoes deep structural adjustments, it is entering a period of smooth and steady economic development known as the New Normal. China has accumulated economic strength in a rapid and sustained fashion, creating the need for far-reaching adjustments to China’s diplomatic policies. Keeping a low profile (taoguang yanghui) is no longer a suitable policy for a country with growing influence in economics and other spheres. The new strategy of “striving for achievement” (fenfa youwei) is more conducive to China’s goal of accomplishing its national rise. In contrast to its long track record of rapid economic growth, China has only begun to adjust its diplomacy to the conditions of the New Normal with the goal of “striving for achievement.” 

In terms of actual practice, what substantive diplomatic steps can China take to serve its national interests? Which measures will best serve China as the country rejuvenates itself? These questions all are worth careful consideration.  

Tong Zhao
Tong Zhao is a senior fellow in Carnegie’s Nuclear Policy Program based at the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy.
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In theory, the faster a nation rises, the easier it becomes to do so successfully, the idea being that if a rising nation acquires hard power rapidly enough, then other countries will not have time to react or balance against it. Such a scenario leaves other countries with no choice but to accept the new international order. Yet as China’s economy grapples with the New Normal, this objective has become more difficult to attain. The U.S. economic recovery continues to gain momentum, which has made it harder for China to close the gap between itself and the United States.

Emerging economies such as India have shown the potential for high-speed development, making it more challenging for China to maintain its lead over India. The New Normal could delay China’s rise, which would give other nations more time to assess China’s strategic intentions and decide how to respond. The attitudes of the international community toward China’s rise, and especially the perceptions of Beijing’s neighbors, will have a great impact on the degree to which China rises successfully and smoothly. This is true whether or not these countries are supportive of China’s growing clout.

Continuing its tradition of peaceful development, a strong China will become a positive force for peace and stability worldwide. The people of China are fully confident of this fact, but convincing the international community may prove to be incredibly difficult. Limited understanding of China has left a number of nations suspicious of China’s development strategy and causing them to worry that China will challenge the existing international order. Therefore, while China’s diplomacy has entered a new stage of “striving for achievement,” it still faces serious issues. The task of creating a favorable international environment has become all the more arduous. 

Under the New Normal, China’s economy must remain faithful to the concept of scientific development.  These conditions do not indicate an overly heavy emphasis on rapid growth—rather, they point to a focus on adjusting development methods, allowing structural transformation to take place, and ensuring sustainable, long-term development. It is true, however, that China’s diplomacy is undergoing a period of strategic transformation based on the New Normal, but Chinese foreign policy should also place more emphasis on the scientific method as well as conceptual innovation and change.

Establishing Practical Objectives         

Despite China’s vast economic strength—and related large-scale initiatives such as the One Belt, One Road policy—China’s efforts to expand its outward investment and economic cooperation with other nations still face an uphill battle. Domestic enterprises often encounter setbacks when expanding overseas. China’s high-speed rail technology, for instance, has achieved impressive results in international markets, but only after a difficult period of trial and error. Petrochemical enterprises have been making great strides, but have also suffered heavy losses because of political upheaval in certain overseas markets. 

The nuclear energy industry also hopes to internationalize by riding the momentum of China’s robust industrial development. The nuclear industry, however, has become increasingly aware of its own technical weaknesses in the face of fierce overseas competition. China is currently constructing more nuclear power plants than any other country in the world by a substantial margin. But even so, this does not mean that China’s nuclear power industry occupies a dominant position on the international stage. Many technical improvements and advances are based on knowledge that is accumulated over time, given that progress very rarely takes place by leaps and bounds. Therefore, even if an industry has achieved large-scale development and built up sizable momentum, it still needs to take things slowly and advance steadily when going global.

This is true in economics and even more so in diplomacy. China’s rapidly growing economic strength has allowed the country to expand its diplomatic efforts. Mutually beneficial economic and trade relations have deepened China’s political relationships with many countries in Latin America; Africa; Southeast, South, and Central Asia; and the Middle East. Chinese scholars, however, have not yet fully researched the differing domestic situations in these countries. China has not established solid networks of people who understand the local conditions in these countries, nor has it identified common ground with local populations. Consequently, the slightest domestic political unrest in these countries has the capacity to negatively impact their bilateral relations with China. Careful long-term diplomacy is needed to achieve substantial, stable diplomatic progress. 

More importantly, China’s policy of “striving for achievement” has fostered a diplomatic attitude driven by self-interest, the sort of mentality appropriate for a great power. But this does not indicate a shift toward self-centeredness. The international community has differing interpretations of China’s rise and the strategic intentions behind adjustments to its foreign policy, and some of these interpretations vary significantly from China’s domestic perceptions of itself. Ignoring these differing perspectives or attempting to forcibly stifle them would be unbecoming of a great power and would be detrimental to maintaining a favorable international environment. 

Managing Differing Global Perceptions

The degree of development that China has achieved in a few short decades took Western countries at least a century to accomplish. China is no longer weak, and its people are unlikely to forget the West’s past pridefulness. And although it already has become the world’s second largest economy and ranks high in many other global measures of development, China is still often at the receiving end of deep-rooted Western arrogance. However, when it finally becomes a major power, or even a superpower, China first and foremost must avoid the mistakes of Western countries that China has repeatedly criticized in the past—mistakes such as placing too much trust in hard power and demonstrating a lack of concern for the perspectives of other nations. 

Differences in perception have always been a source of international conflict. U.S. leaders are often fond of pointing out how the United States embraced China after the Cold War—opening up its own domestic market and altruistically supporting China’s economic development—as evidence that the United States does not seek to contain China. But as Chinese people see things, the United States welcomed China’s decision to open its economy and join the World Trade Organization primarily to enhance its own economic growth. Certainly such policies benefited China economically, but the United States had its own motivations for doing so—China need not be especially grateful. 

Today, however, it is China’s economic development that acts as a driving force for global economic growth, and China’s rise has created opportunities for economic development in many other countries. The Chinese government tries to emphasize that it welcomes its neighbors to benefit freely from China’s development, and Beijing also is striving to spearhead infrastructure projects—such as energy pipelines and road networks—that will promote region-wide prosperity. Yet China’s policies of pursuing mutual benefit and mutual assistance while putting its own interests on the back burner will not necessarily guarantee positive growth in China’s overall ties with these countries. China should, therefore, temper its expectations. 

What one side views as accommodating others’ interests at one’s own expense may be viewed by the other side as the pursuit of self-interest—this dynamic is nothing out of the ordinary. The key is to understand the other side’s perceptions from their own point of view, while maintaining space for the other side to exercise autonomy  and to get a tangible sense of China’s sincere desire to share the benefits of development as cooperation takes place. In this way, China can use mutually beneficial cooperative ventures to improve bilateral relations with other countries.

Managing differences in perception becomes all the more crucial when disagreements arise. Southeast Asia is one of the most important regions for the implementation of China’s One Belt One Road plan for enhancing interconnectedness with neighboring countries. Maritime territorial disputes, however, have hindered China’s efforts to establish closer ties with Southeast Asian nations. As China has adjusted its diplomatic approach, the country has become more inclined to deal with disputes directly as they arise rather than setting them aside to be addressed later.

In the eyes of domestic scholars, China is taking firmer diplomatic stances to signal that it intends to play a role in establishing the rules that govern international affairs. What China views as demonstrating its strength, however, has been interpreted by some nations as a form of bullying and a challenge to existing international institutions. Many Chinese scholars advocate a non-equidistant approach to diplomacy that involves maintaining cordial relations with other countries while forgoing formal alliances. With its clearly defined system of inducements and penalties, this carrots-and-sticks approach has been interpreted as a kind of coercion. This difference in perspective has severely undermined attempts to foster consensus and mutual trust. Avoiding or forcibly suppressing these differences will make them more difficult to reconcile and will not help resolve disagreements. In the short term, this will hinder growth in China’s relations with its neighbors; in the long term, these differences will further strengthen U.S. cooperation with its Asian allies in their mutual resistance to China’s rise. 

In the Southern Hemisphere, for example, Australia has never had any major conflicts of interest with China, yet rising tensions in the South China Sea have prompted Australia to view China as a potential long-term threat. Consequently, Australia has moved closer to the United States and Japan. This has inevitably reinforced resistance to China’s ongoing rise. The task of managing such differences is not only unavoidable but must be faced directly.       

A New Framework for the Rights and Responsibilities of Major Powers

China’s proposal for a new way of thinking about countries’ rights and responsibilities within the global order is an important means of resolving perceptual differences between countries. The United States and several other Western countries often play the morality card on the international stage, but these efforts have not garnered widespread approval. One of the main reasons for this is that in practice these countries often employ double standards and are unable to adhere to their own principles. This is true across a range of  issues, including nonproliferation, terrorism, human rights, and matters of sovereignty. To a certain extent, this situation exists because the United States has shied away from self-reflection and self-criticism. U.S. double standards invariably make other nations suspicious of U.S. intentions, bringing differences in perception to the forefront. 

The new framework of countries’ rights and responsibilities that China has advanced emphasizes “upholding justice, adhering to fairness, and prioritizing morality” (jianchi zhengyi, bingchi gongdao, daoyi wei xian). The key is to clarify moral principles and enacting a common standard. When it comes to international affairs, one of the most basic measures a nation can take in addressing perceptual differences is to clearly express its own principles and standards and insist that they be implemented. Prior to joining international institutions, China was free to criticize their shortcomings. Now, however, China faces a host of issues involving its participation and even leadership in improving these institutions. It is said that breaking something down is easier than building something up. The process of shaping such institutions is a great test of policymakers’ ability to view global events objectively from multiple perspectives and to think about the long term.

For example, in the case of the international nonproliferation regime, the international community is now focused intently on Iran. The parties involved are working hard to create a set of norms that restrict Iran’s nuclear program in order to minimize the likelihood that Tehran will have opportunities to develop nuclear weapons. China and Iran have positive diplomatic relations, and China does not oppose Iran’s legitimate right to develop peaceful nuclear energy capabilities. 

Once the international community has accepted these norms, however, it is possible that they could be integrated into international institutions and used to regulate future nuclear energy programs in other nonnuclear states. China does not necessarily welcome nuclear energy programs in countries such as Japan and Vietnam. From the outset, China needs to consider whether these norms will satisfy China’s future security concerns involving these nations. If China lacks a long-term plan and voices its support for these norms in the beginning, only to oppose them later when they are applied to other countries, China could be accused of holding double standards. Therefore, the guiding principle of China’s policy of upholding justice, adhering to fairness, and prioritizing morality is how well it can be applied in specific situations. The key for China is to stick to clear principles and common standards from start to finish, which requires policymakers to display long-term vision and firm resolve. 

Increasing the Predictability of Great Power Diplomacy

Clarifying future intentions is another effective way to eliminate perceptual differences. For small and medium-sized nations whose national survival is not assured, maintaining strategic ambiguity and adopting policies of brinkmanship are the most effective means of cementing security guarantees and enhancing maneuverability. This approach, however, is not necessarily well-suited to a rising great power intent on creating a conducive environment. An important goal of Chinese diplomacy is to ensure that the country’s peaceful intentions are not misunderstood by the international community. At the same time, China must iron out perceptual differences so as to avoid unnecessary efforts of resistance and containment. Therefore maintaining transparency and predictability in its grand strategy is vitally important to China.  
As China’s national strength continues to grow, the country inevitably will become more willing to defend its national interests. Bottom-line diplomacy is becoming a frequent topic of discussion. Communicating its bottom lines and being willing to defend them firmly is increasingly a point of national consensus in China. Yet in the rest of the world’s eyes, China’s transition from maintaining ambiguous bottom lines to advancing more explicit ones is a rather abrupt change. 

Some countries remained concerned about whether China will adopt firmer policies once it becomes stronger. This is a matter that calls for China to respond actively and provide positive leadership. For China, bottom-line diplomacy should not only involve conveying its bottom lines, but also explaining the rationale behind them and behind future policy trends, which will alleviate international misgivings about the future direction of Chinese strategy. China can take the initiative in explaining its positions on issues like how the country thinks about itself, how its traditional values shape its strategic culture, how China views existing international institutions and the international security environment, and how it understands its developing national defense needs.

During the APEC Summit in November 2014, President Xi Jinping took a nighttime stroll at Yingtai with President Barack Obama. In this conversation, Xi detailed China’s understanding of its development path and explained how historical, cultural, and political factors shaped these policy decisions. President Xi also indicated how China expects its future development to unfold. Such an in-depth and candid exchange was extremely effective for fostering mutual understanding between these two national leaders, enhancing strategic transparency, and building mutual trust. Positive outcomes in high-level Sino-U.S. diplomacy sets a positive tone for carrying out multifaceted diplomatic activities at lower levels of government.

Looking back over the last year, China’s economy has entered a New Normal period of steady growth, and Chinese diplomacy has entered a comprehensive new stage that entails “striving for achievement.” Implementing the One Belt, One Road’s infrastructure projects for enhancing regional connectively has rendered economics and diplomacy inseparable, bringing together domestic construction and international development. In this new environment, great power diplomacy faces new challenges and opportunities. Effectively managing perceptual differences between countries and maintaining a favorable environment for development will greatly help China smoothly navigate this period of strategic adjustments.

This article was originally published in Chinese by the China Policy Review (print edition)