China’s New Diplomacy: Rationale, Strategies and Significance

China's New Diplomacy

Author(s): Zhiqun Zhu

ISBN: 978-1-4094-0169-4

Publisher: Ashgate Publishing Limited

Year: 2010

Price: ₤55.00

Reviewed by Avinash Anil Godbole, Research Assistant, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi, India.

As a rising power with a huge economic capacity, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has shown the willingness to engage countries around the world. It has done so by getting over its earlier policy of keeping a low profile and focusing on internal affair and by adopting a proactive approach to foreign relations. By doing so, today China has reached a position in which it is substantially influencing global politics and in addition, in more than one way is already having a huge impact on foreign policies of other countries, not just towards the PRC, but also towards other countries, mainly as a response to Chinese engagement with those countries.

 Scholars and practitioners of world affairs are trying to understand the contours of emerging China as a global power. Mostly the consensus has been that China’s rise, different as it is from the earlier power shifts, is having a paradigmatic impact on the world affairs. Within that framework, among other things, one of the core questions under study is about China’s foreign policy and diplomacy strategies, as to what exactly China is doing differently to engage the small and developing countries around the world. Zhiqun Zhu’s book, China’s New Diplomacy Rationale, strategies and significance, is an exercise to simplify and to some extent justify, the new Chinese diplomacy. He does this by understanding China’s diplomacy towards Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, South Pacific, Central Asia and South East Asia.

In the introductory chapter of the book, the author discusses the new Chinese diplomacy and presents its components and features. He also contextualizes this new diplomacy in the theory of China’s peaceful rise/ development. The author argues that the new diplomacy is commensurate with the peaceful rise thesis and that is why the new diplomacy is a sharp departure from the more aggressive policy in the 1970s and 1980s. This book’s core argument is that “China’s new diplomacy has been chiefly motivated by the need to secure energy and commodity resources, to search for new markets for Chinese exports and investment, to isolate Taiwan internationally, and to project China’s image as a responsible and peaceful power” (p. 6). The author undertakes this study through three questions that focus on the subtitle of the book, rationale strategies and significance, 1: Why has China practiced new diplomacy since the early 1990s? 2: How has China implemented its new diplomacy? 3: What are the implications for the international political economy? (P.5). Influence being one of the most important objectives, soft power is one of the important tools of the new diplomacy, argues the author. As a late entrant to the field of global engagement and that too as a rising power, it was inevitable for the PRC to utilize a different set of mechanisms to extend its global influence. Therefore, from a constructivist understanding, in which the author bases his case, the new diplomacy is the Chinese interpretation and application of its rise to a power status using peaceful means (p. 15). Implicit in this assertion is the appreciation of the flexibility shown in the practice of Chinese diplomacy since the author goes on to argue in the subsequent section that “China does not seem to have settled on a grand strategy in its foreign policy for the future” (p.16). He goes on to say that, despite this, the mistakes China makes in the process are part of its learning process as a growing power. Therefore, at the outset the author takes a somewhat lenient stance that continues in the subsequent chapters of the book. He concludes the first chapter by arguing “by tracing China’s diplomatic activities around the world, this book challenges the “China threat” discourse and proposes that China’s growing power and increased involvement in international affairs are essentially positive for China, its partners and international political economy” (p. 19).

In the subsequent chapters, the book deals with China’s diplomacy with specific geographic regions. The chapters of the books are well organized within themselves and they focus on the three thematic questions discussed above as to why, how and what next, in the context of each of the geographic regions. In addition, these chapters are rich in detail and data on trade and bilateral visits, which is the central strength of the book. Therefore, the author must be complimented for the extensive research he has undertaken for the book. It is evident in the footnotes as his sources vary from white papers to media to statements of people in positions of authority. However there is a relatively lesser usage of academic writings in the source materials. For scholars looking at China’s foreign relations with developing countries, this book can is a rich source of detailed information.
China’s relations with small developing countries are based on three major pillars, energy, isolation of Taiwan and Soft power diplomacy. As a growing power China’s energy needs are huge and growing. Africa has been a part of China’s import strategy for more than two decades. Besides this, Taiwan enjoyed substantial diplomatic recognition in the developing countries, largely owning to the ‘cheque book  diplomacy’, which China has tried to counter through its aggressive diplomacy. African votes also count in the United Nations (UN), which China has tried to influence through the new diplomacy. Besides, it acts as balancer against Western influence, too. This thematic structure repeats itself throughout the book and this helps maintain consistency of reading from the perspective of the reader. However it also causes repetition of some sorts since the same drivers are referred to again and again in the context of Chinese diplomacy towards specific countries or regions. Therefore, it is felt that an independent thematic chapter on the drivers of the new Chinese diplomacy would have enriched the book further by helping it avoid repetition and tightening the chapters further. However, the matter of organisation of the book is dependent on personal style preferences of the author; therefore it is not a huge problem in this book.

However, a couple of shortfalls are worth noting. The first shortcoming of the book is that more than once it falls prey to rhetoric on Chinese diplomacy. From an academic point of view, this is completely avoidable. For example, at one instance the author quotes from another source “Unlike American business people, who are risk-averse and spoiled in terms of the personal lifestyle they expect, the Chinese take economic risks for the prospect of gain, and Chinese workers will go and live anywhere. In contrast, American companies have always had difficulty finding people to work in Africa.” (p. 36). As a late entrant, China has had little choices in selecting its energy partners around the world. However, that does not mean that China is necessarily following better practices for energy trade than the rest of the world. In fact, it well looks to be the case that opportunities in overseas project give much needed employment opportunities to the poor Chinese citizen. In that context it would be useful to know whether they had a real choice in deciding whether or not to go to risk prone parts of Africa. That the author stops short of taking any kind of stance on this argument reduces the merit of the argument.

One of the perpetual debates surrounding the PRC is whether it is an emerging power or a developing country. On more than one occasions, the author refers to China’s cooperation with the developing countries as “a successful example of “South-South” cooperation” (p.41) while in the same chapters, he also argues that China is a responsible and reemerging power” (p.43). Therefore, one is not clear as to where the author places China in the hierarchy of nations. It would be naiveté to simply rest the case by placing China’s relations with the developing world as South-South cooperation simply because these relations are far from equitable and the developing countries are certainly unsure about the long term implications of their engagement with the PRC on present terms.

To its merit, the author does present criticisms of China’s policy in the developing countries. He argues that China has to do much more than simply following its commercial interests. China’s mercantilist policies may harm institutionalization of good governance or sustainable practices among the developing countries. The author does take a critical view of China’s non-interference policies that help sustain violent authoritarian regimes around the world and argues that “it is a tall order for China to assume a moral leadership in international affairs when China itself has serious corruption, human rights and environmental problems…” (p.201). As China’s global engagement further increases, it will be faced with many more of these questions. Therefore, the present dilemmas in its policy are self evident.

How the new diplomacy relates to and influences the old diplomacy is not discussed in much detail by the author. However, that part might just be unfolding with the proclamations like ‘core interest’ that the confident and aggressive China is manifesting towards its traditional foreign policy partners. How a powerful China presents itself to the world will have to be watched carefully since its new identity as a “peaceful, responsible and caring great power” (p. 215) will go a long way in influencing the world order. To the extent that it does reach that goal, the world will look up to China for inspiration. Professor Zhiqun Zhu’s book is a good addition to the literature on the contradictory and conflictual trajectory of a growing China and the terms of its engagement with the developing world.