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China should reconsider its 'nonalignment' strategy

Editor's note: Recently, the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies, a branch of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, held a seminar on "the strategy of China's rise: theory and history." Participating scholars and experts discussed issues such as foreign policy, regional cooperation and RMB internationalization. Yan Xuetong, director of the Institute of International Studies at Tsinghua University, suggests China reconsider its "nonalignment" strategy. The following are his main points of view.

The world order is transforming from a unipolar to a bipolar structure. First, in terms of national strength, America's lead on the other countries in the world is widening for all except China. Secondly, with China's rapid growth, its overall strength has increased tremendously. China’s advantage over other nations is also increasing. Third, the difference in comprehensive strength between the U.S. and China is narrowing rather than widening. These three points indicate that the world pattern is moving towards a bipolar framework, not multipolarity.

But national strength alone cannot determine world structure. We should also look at the relationships among the major powers. The United States is still the country with the most friendly international relationships in the world, both in terms of quantity and quality. Compared with the U.S., Russia, Britain, France, India, Japan and other major powers, China’s friendly international relationships are both few and of low quality.

China needs to increase both the quality and quantity of its partnerships with other countries. First, China should change its thinking. A successful strategy needs timely adjustment rather than fixed principles. China should recognize the need to adjust the national strategy before making changes. Second, instead of making economic development its top priority, China should shift its focus to building a society with justice, fairness and harmony. Third, China should enhance its national strength and shift its development focus from the economy to something more comprehensive. Fourth, China should consider changing its policy of diplomatic nonalignment to an all-weather strategic partnership with other countries. This requires China to establish close ties with more countries and enhance the quality of their friendship.

The military alliance is an old concept which most people are unwilling to accept. So we may adopt the concept of all-weather strategic partnership. The relationship between China and Pakistan, which is the best of our friendly relations, belongs to such a category.

As Guan Zhong wrote in his ancient treatise on statecraft the Book of Master Guan, "When there are more powerful lords, the one to take first move will be in danger, and those who follow will benefit. When there are fewer powerful lords, the one to take first move will become king and the others will be defeated." Moving first can either mean to launch a military strike or to compete for diplomatic relations. China's foreign relations pale in comparison to the United States. If China takes China-Pakistan relations as a model and builds more friendly relationships, that means China has taken the first move in competing for diplomatic relations with the United States.

The question comes down to China's current diplomatic principles. China no longer has to conceal its strength. It's time for China to act responsibly. Particularly with regard to international security issues, if China doesn't provide security for its neighboring countries, these countries may seek security from the United States, which will in return increase China's pressure to maintain strategic security.

If we can establish relations with neighboring countries like what we are doing with members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), we will also succeed in moving first. The establishment of SCO in the 1990s was widely recognized as one of China's most successful diplomatic moves. The purpose of establishing the SCO is to challenge the American’s strategic intention of extending its military reach to Central Asia. It destroyed America’s intention of making Central Asia its sphere of military influence. With the SCO, China’s relations with countries in the region have been greatly improved.

In order to establish SCO-style relations with surrounding countries, China must provide protection to its neighboring countries and establish all-weather strategic partnerships with them. Or it will be impossible for China to have more and better friendly international relationships than the America.

The author is director of the Institute of International Studies at Tsinghua University.

(This article was first published in Chinese and translated by Li Huiru.)

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