Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) has requested to meet US President Barack Obama in Los Angeles during his first foreign tour. The two leaders will surely have much to discuss.
China has a number of pressing political and economic issues to address at the moment, not least foreign relations, for now is possibly China’s most isolated time since the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) came to power.
During a visit to Pakistan late last month, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (李克強) issued a joint statement with his “iron brother” and “all-weather friend,” and Xinhua news agency had to recall its original reports on Li’s statements about continued cooperation against “terrorism, separatism and extremism” and exclude it from its news reports.
Since the Tiananmen Square Massacre of June 4, 1989, China has consistently attempted to leverage Russia when trying to guard against the kind of “peaceful evolution” — the hope that despotic regimes might gradually develop democracy, freedom and prosperity by means other than violent revolution — that the US would ideally like to see happen.
It was for this reason Beijing finally settled a dispute over the 1.56 million square kilometers of territory along the Chinese-Russian border it claimed Tsarist Russia had unfairly annexed as part of one of the unequal treaties forced upon the Manchu Qing imperial government in the 19th century.
Russia was Xi’s first destination after becoming president in March.
This should have been a major political coup for Russian President Vladimir Putin, but the Russian media had other things in mind. It had become fixated with the potential meeting of the two first ladies, as Xi was to be accompanied by his wife, Peng Liyuan (彭麗媛). However, this became a one-woman show, as Putin’s wife, Lyudmila Putina, failed to make an appearance for the entire duration of the visit.
Soon after Xi’s departure, Putin played host to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
The reason for Putin’s Janus maneuver was surely his unease at the consistent territorial demands China is making of its neighboring countries. Siberia, after all, is already home to many Chinese immigrants. Other neighboring states, less powerful than Russia, are even more unsettled by China’s increasingly aggressive attitude. The invocation of the phrase “since antiquity” seems sufficient for China to make territorial demands of other states, and this is backed up with military menace.
It is no wonder these neighboring states welcome the US’ “return to Asia.”
All Xi needs do to ameliorate this situation is to show goodwill to the US, and the general feeling is that Xi will, indeed, show respect for US as the superior power, and maybe even do it some favors. The problem is the considerable influence the elite “princelings” set has in the Chinese military.
Dizzy with the success of China’s recent rise, they are pushing for military expansionism, and hold that anyone objecting to this policy is a traitor to the Chinese.
Is all this goodwill on Xi’s part one-way, or is he looking for something in return?
If China is serious about promoting peaceful foreign relations and creating conditions conducive to reform, the US will certainly be willing to help. If, however, if he is doing this in exchange for a break-up of the US-Japan alliance, he has his work cut out for him.
Whatever the case may be, the fact that Xi is attempting to foster good relations with the US does, at the very least, conform to the historical strategy of cultivating good relations with distant states, while being hostile to those nearer home.
First used in highest antiquity in China, it is a method the Han Chinese have used in invading other countries and expanding their territories from their original home in the Central Plains in the lower reaches of the Yellow River to the current extent of China’s borders.
The Chinese bitterly denounce the incursions into their territories by Western powers in the 19th century, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the Han Chinese have obliterated and annexed countless bordering “barbarian” states over the course of a history of expansionism spanning many millennia. From what we see today, little has changed in this regard.
Late Chinese leader Mao Zedong (毛澤東) was well aware of the strategy of befriending distant states and attacking neighboring ones, but given the persuasive influence the Soviet Union had on the victory of the Chinese Communists over the Nationalists he was initially obliged to side unreservedly with the Soviet Union against the US, and to see it as the main enemy.
Indeed, he was even willing to concede territory in the interests of maintaining the international anti-US united front with other communist countries.
This was a situation that was to hold all the way until the early 1970s with a change to the befriending distant states policy signaled by China’s rapprochement with the US, a policy continued by late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平).
Tiananmen was a watershed moment, as the Chinese placed responsibility for the pro-democracy movement at the feet of the US, and the US once again became the enemy.
The princelings, mindful of conserving their political power, recoil at the very idea of universal values, and have a love-hate relationship with the US.
Nevertheless, favorable relations with Washington will serve China’s needs well, and if Beijing wants to use the befriending different states policy to restore, and perhaps even surpass, the glory of the Manchu Qing Dynasty, China’s neighboring countries are in for a rough ride.
This is especially true of Japan. After all, there is a theory that many Japanese are descendants of Xu Fu (徐福) — whom legend has it landed in Japan two millennia ago on a quest for the elixir of immortality — and his entourage, meaning that they could be said to be, “since antiquity,” Chinese.
Paul Lin is a political commentator.
Translated by Paul Cooper