Illustration: Liu Rui/GT
The year 2018 marks the 40th anniversary of China's reform and opening-up. Tremendous changes have taken place in Chinese economy and society over the past 40 years. What have also changed are China's diplomatic policies. Assessing these changes plays an important role in understanding the current state of Chinese diplomacy.
Reform and opening-up brought a fundamental turn in China's diplomacy. During the era of late Chinese leader Mao Zedong, China believed that the world was at a stage when war and revolution ruled, and this led China's diplomacy to focus on struggle. But Deng Xiaoping made the judgment that "peace and development are the theme of times," which determined China's cooperation-based diplomatic philosophy.
As a large country, China will necessarily suffer setbacks while dealing with the world. It's a big challenge to balance relations between a world in flux and a rising China, and between Beijing's legitimate interests and the international responsibilities it shoulders. Such a task makes it incumbent upon China to keep updating its thoughts and exploring new avenues.
At the beginning of reform and opening-up, China was facing the Soviet Union's strategic encirclement. Moreover, newly-established diplomatic ties with the US started fraying because of Washington's arms sales to Taiwan. China was steadfast in opposing hegemony and vigilant about the unfair old international political and economic order. Nonetheless, its diplomacy was still based on cooperation at the time and eventually relations with the Soviet Union were normalized through negotiations.
The West imposed sanctions on China because of the political turmoil in Beijing in 1989. China managed to pass through hardships and eventually normalized relations with the world. After that, China realized the importance of coexistence among different political systems and ideologies. China stresses that every country should walk the path which suits its own national conditions. It promotes coexistence among different civilizations, countries and political systems with its inclusive diplomatic thinking.
In the 1990s, Deng proposed to "keep a low profile and bide our time, while also getting something accomplished," which reflected traditional Chinese culture's influence on China's diplomacy. Since then, China has followed a low profile in diplomacy.
In the wake of globalization and a multi-polar world after the Cold War, China made great efforts to integrate into the international community and play an important role on the global stage as a responsible power. After the 1997 Asian financial crisis, Beijing promised that the yuan wouldn't depreciate. In 2001, China joined the WTO after long-drawn talks, which became a milestone for China's relations with the world.
As China integrates into the world, it doesn't give up its own righteous interests. From the 1996 Taiwan Straits crisis to 1999 when US-led NATO fired five bombs at the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia, and then to the 2001 China-US aircraft collision incident, Beijing was never afraid of expressing its anger.
While facing these disputes, China thought about the best way to respond, and that's when the New Security Concept was born. Its core includes mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality and coordination. It also shuns a Cold-War mentality and power politics. The 1996 Shanghai Five group was formed in keeping with the practice of the New Security Concept.
In the wake of China's rise, some countries' strategic skepticism about China has been escalating. China urgently needs a new way of communicating with the world, and thus the thought of a harmonious world was born at the right moment. China also attaches importance to the path of peaceful development. Its voice on the North Korea nuclear issue, climate change and global economic governance has been increasingly heard.
In the era of President Xi Jinping, the world is hearing more voices from Chinese diplomacy. In the report that Xi delivered at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, he proposed to build a community with a shared future for mankind. This is not just a slogan. It shows China's confidence and the responsibilities it undertakes when facing common challenges. It also implies that China has deepened its understanding of relations with the world - all countries are connected and inseparable from one another, and only by sharing a future with other countries can China achieve common development.
China has been changing its diplomatic thinking according to the international situation, and has also been adjusting them as Beijing deepens the understanding of the world and increases its own strength. What hasn't changed is China's perseverance for peace and cooperation, and the balance between the world and itself, interests and responsibilities.
There is no doubt that China may still recalibrate its diplomatic policies on specific questions in the future, but the cooperation-based diplomatic philosophy will never change. The 40 years of diplomacy practices have witnessed the success of such philosophy. It's still the best gift for China and the world when facing an uncertain future.
The author is a research fellow at the Institute of International Relations, the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.