Thu, Nov 20, 2014 - Page 6 News List

Hard diplomacy is ahead, but China shows soft side

CALMING THE WATERS:China has made conciliatory gestures to its regional rivals and reached deals with the US on climate change, but uncertainties lie ahead

Reuters, BEIJING

Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife, Peng Liyuan, wave atop a set of airplane stairs at Sydney airport before departing from Australia yesterday.

Photo: Reuters

From a military rules-of-the-road agreement with Washington to US$20 billion in loans for Southeast Asia, Beijing has set aside the tensions of recent years to present a softer side to the world in the past week.

However, proof of whether Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) is serious about narrowing differences that have marked his first two years in office will depend on how China’s festering disputes are managed in the months ahead.

The possibilities for disagreement are many, from cyberspying to land reclamation in the disputed South China Sea and the deeply emotional issue for China of how Japan deals with next year’s 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.

China set nerves on edge with its air defense identification zone over the East China Sea, by sending an oil rig deep into waters disputed with Vietnam and by unveiling advanced new weapons, including a prototype stealth fighter.

However, in recent days, China has gone out of its way to set minds at ease as Xi hosted the APEC summit.

China made conciliatory gestures to Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan, and, with US President Barack Obama, agreed to a climate deal and to lower the risk of misunderstandings during military encounters.

“We still have to observe what happens in the next six to 12 months or even longer, but I think that now we stand at the beginning of a substantive change in Chinese foreign policy,” said Shi Yinhong (時殷弘), head of the Center for American Studies at Beijing’s Renmin University, who has also advised the government on diplomatic issues.

Reliance on the military has been replaced by money to guide China’s diplomacy, Shi said, pointing to the US$40 billion New Silk Road fund and US$50 billion China-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank announced before APEC.

More than US$120 billion has been promised since May to Africa, Southeast Asia and Central Asia.

“The message is that China sincerely hopes that it can play its role as a responsible power,” the official China Daily newspaper wrote in an editorial on Monday.

The root causes of past disagreements have, for now, been set aside.

Xinhua news agency sought to temper expectations following Xi’s meeting with Obama last week, saying that, despite the “amicable tone,” “still much has to be done to translate promises into reality.”

As if to remind the US of China’s growing military power, the day before Xi and Obama’s summit, the Chinese military unveiled a sophisticated new stealth fighter jet at an air show in the south of the country.

“A lot of problems exist and there will be a lot of uncertainty in the days to come,” said Jia Qingguo (賈慶國), dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University, who has also advised the government on diplomacy.

China has long sought to address fears in the region, and globally, that economic growth will inevitably bring a more muscular diplomatic and military approach.

During a summit of Southeast Asia leaders in Myanmar last week, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (李克強) proposed a friendship treaty, yet held to the line that Beijing will only settle South China Sea disputes directly with other claimants.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino III said he and Xi had a good meeting in Beijing, but the Philippine military says there has been no sign of China reducing its presence in parts of the South China Sea that Manila also claims.

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