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UPDATED: March 24, 2015 NO. 6 FEBRUARY 5, 2015
China's New Diplomatic Horizon
A new geopolitical vision for China will see more active global engagement
By Robert Lawrence Kuhn

JOINING HANDS: The First China-Arab Towns Forum opens on June 17, 2014, in Quanzhou, southeast China's Fujian Province, one of the major ports along the ancient Maritime Silk Road (ZHANG GUOJUN)

An "inflection point" in mathematics occurs when there is a change of curvature, say from concave to convex, at a particular point on a curve. There is now, at this particular point of time, an inflection point occurring in China's diplomacy, as the country changes from reactive to pro-active in its international relations. Future historians may characterize this transformation as one of the defining geopolitical trends of the first half of the 21st century.

I am pleased to see China's emergence but too many outside the country are not—they worry, openly or privately, about what a strong China may do. The so-called "China threat" is real in that many believe it to be real. But do these people know the real China?

Late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997) once said that China should "keep a low profile and bide our time." His directive is often misinterpreted as advising that China, like a growing lion, should lie low while strengthening itself so that eventually it can pounce. In fact, Deng wanted China to focus on building its own economy so that, in addition to enhancing the standard of living of the Chinese people, China could never again be bullied by foreign powers and would finally take its rightful place among the great nations of the world.

Has China's "time" now come? Chinese President Xi Jinping has given his clearest directive for China's foreign policy and it is certainly more engaged with the world. Speaking to senior officials at the 2014 Central Conference on Work Relating to Foreign Affairs, Xi described China's new diplomacy.

Articulating the "strategic objectives and principal tasks of foreign affairs work," Xi stressed safeguarding China's core interests, crafting a conducive international environment and hastening the nation's emergence as a great power. China, he said, should "make friends and form partnership networks throughout the world" and "strive to gain more understanding and support from countries all over the world" for the Chinese dream [of the renewal of the Chinese nation]. Moreover, China should "develop a distinctive diplomatic approach befitting its role of a major country" in an increasingly multipolar world.

Xi recognizes that China cannot compete for global leadership by power alone. Economic and military strength, while necessary, are not sufficient. There must also be a moral or ethical component to China's development: China must ride the high road, offering an alternative geopolitical vision that is in some sense superior to that of the West. China, Xi asserted, should "see to it that equal importance is attached to justice and benefits, stress faithfulness, value friendship, carry forward righteousness, and foster ethics."

A few days after the conference, at a study session of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China on regional free trade, Xi called for China to "participate and lead, make China's voice heard, and inject more Chinese elements into international rules." To effect such historic change to the world order, Xi is reshaping the diplomatic landscape with new global thinking of "active engagement."

The One Belt and One Road initiatives [the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road] are Xi's new plan for multinational development and exemplify his strategic thinking. Actualizing the initiatives by appealing broadly to the roughly 50 countries that have signed on, Xi created the $40-billion Silk Road Fund to complement the more general $100-billion Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

Speaking to the Sixth Ministerial Conference of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum in Beijing in June 2014, President Xi enumerated principles of working together that apply broadly to the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (from Xi's book The Governance of China). "Looking back on the history of exchanges between the Chinese and Arab peoples, we immediately think of the land Silk Road and the maritime spice route. Our ancestors 'crossed the desert for months on end on post-horses,' and 'sailed the oceans day and night,' putting themselves at the forefront of friendly exchanges between different nations in the ancient world," he said.

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