China has always been especially sensitive when it comes to diplomatic protocol.
This is not only because diplomacy places great emphasis on formalities, but also because since the Opium Wars, China has had more than 170 years of what it feels is humiliation at foreign hands.
Therefore, the “casual” summit in which US President Barack Obama and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping (習近平) broke with formality and did not wear ties surprised many and won Xi praise for what they said was a strong expression of his self-confidence.
It was this self-confidence that allowed Xi to declare that “The vast Pacific Ocean has enough space for two large countries like the US and China.”
Also, when explaining Beijing’s ideas of governance, Xi stated that the “Chinese Dream” and the “American Dream” are the same dreams people share around the world. These comments led to Xi stealing some of Obama’s spotlight.
After the meeting, Xi said “China and the US must find a new path, one that is different from the inevitable confrontation and conflict between the major countries of the past,” adding that a new chapter in cooperation between China and the US in the Asia-Pacific region had been opened.
During the summit the idea emerged that a new type of big power relationship between the US and China would develop, in which they would jointly manage the Asia-Pacific region.
This would be ominous for Taiwan because China sees the Taiwan Strait as a core interest, and Taiwan will bear the brunt of the impact of this new kind of relationship.
It is a cause for concern that China will target Taiwan as the first part of the region to control.
However, though the summit did away with diplomatic formalities and Obama and Xi engaged in “earnest” dialogue for almost eight hours, they found little common ground, so little, in fact, that it is hard to guess what Xi’s idea of a new kind of relationship between the two great powers will look like.
China’s strong nationalism did not just start when Xi began talking about the “Chinese Dream.” China has been posturing as a “great power” ever since it hosted the Olympics in 2008, after which Beijing had frequent nationalistic conflicts with neighboring countries that became increasingly serious in 2010.
However, just as Chinese emotions heated, Hao Yufan (郝雨凡), dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities at the University of Macau, published an article about China’s lack of a grand diplomatic strategy forcing it simply to react to a string of incidents.
The article sparked heated debate within Chinese academia on whether China had such a diplomatic strategy.
Much was made of China’s “peaceful rise” to power; its traditional anti-hegemonism and anti-alliance ideas; how it does not interfere with the internal affairs of other countries based on its own values; how it spurs the global economy with its strong economic growth; and why it constantly runs into trouble with other countries when it provides hundred of billions of yuan in foreign aid and tens of billions each year on debt-forgiveness to poorer countries.
Many people asked why China is not gaining more influence, why it is always bullied by the international community and why nobody is willing to stand up and speak for China when it suffers injustices.
It was said that China’s current status is far from what it was under former Chinese leaders Mao Zedong (毛澤東) and Deng Xiaoping ( 鄧小平) and that China is also still behind the US, which despite its sluggish economy is an arrogant, imperialist bully.
As these heated debates were taking place in academia, Xin Lijian (信力建), chairman of the Xinfu Education Group penned an article about China’s lack of a grand diplomatic strategy ahead of the summit between Obama and Xi.
In it he used the traditional Chinese strategic ideas of “alliance” and “counter-alliance” as well as “being friends with a distant state while attacking a neighboring state” to show just how bad a situation China is in when it comes to diplomacy.
In the article, Xin questioned which of these three strategies China has adopted in regards to its current diplomatic policy.
“Alliance” is a traditional diplomatic strategy involving an alliance between several weaker states coming together to overcome one strong power.
However, in his article, Xin says that China is wary of employing this strategy because it is unwilling to follow international democratic trends.
Moreover, the democratic nations surrounding China remain suspicious of it and take every precaution they can against it.
Neighboring countries with which China used to be on good terms have mostly gone through democratic transformations and distanced themselves from Beijing, while pretending to get along with it.
On the other hand, those countries that have remained more traditional in their ideology now view China coldly as being “revisionist” because of its economic reforms.
Beijing has diplomatic relations with many countries, yet it has very few allies, and although it has many vested interests, it has very few sources of protection.
It also has business dealings with many countries, but very few friends and cannot use its friends to tackle the US.
“Counter-alliance” is a strategy that the ancient state of Qin (秦) used as a single strong state attacking weaker states, in line with the idea that the strong eats the weak.
While there is no question that the US is the modern superpower, the unstable nature of Sino-US relations leaves China helpless against other weaker nations.
Qin also adopted the strategy of “being friends with a distant state while attacking a neighboring state” to annex neighboring states. However, China today attacks countries that are distant to it and those close to it, thus remaining in opposition to them all.
In contrast, the US is friends with countries close to China and thus benefits the most from this.
Therefore Xin’s description of China’s current diplomatic relations is one that puts it in the context of popular Chinese history and poignantly shows the truth about Chinese diplomacy.
Perhaps because Taiwan is a weaker nation than China, it was hard for the majority of Taiwanese to see through the seeming casualness of the Obama-Xi summit through to the more pointed truth about Chinese diplomacy.
With that truth about China’s diplomacy now clearer, it does not mean that Taiwan should condemn China.
After all, it is dangerous for a nation without any power to criticize a great power.
Yet, it would also be grave and foolish for a weaker nation to make random policy decisions when they are unclear what a great power is up to.
Lin Cho-shui is a former Democratic Progressive Party legislator.
Translated by Drew Cameron