The change in Chinese leadership was the major event of the year 2013. With the articulation of new terms such as ‘Chinese dream’, ‘maritime silk road’, ‘new pattern of great-power relations’ the foreign policy strategy of the past three decades was revisited in 2013. As soon as Xi Jinping and Le Keqiang assumed power, they began to make state visits, such as those to Russia, South Africa, Tanzania and the Republic of Congo, US and Latin American countries. The course of their visit provides a strategic direction to understand the new foreign policy. Needless to mention, Xi Jinping is clearly aiming for global reach. Notably, the trends established in the year would be the guiding principle for the next decade.
East China and South China Seas: Deepening Tensions
The new leadership inherited the tensions in the two seas. Tension in the East China Sea (ECS) had already begun in 2012. Two related incidents; first, the detention of seven Chinese Nationals in March 2012 on Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, and second, the Japanese move to purchase and nationalise three of the five islands in September 2012 from Kunioko Kurihara who claims he is the private owner of the islands, ignited tensions. Additionally, the declaration of an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ), in November 2013 in the ECS by China heightened these tensions. The claimants increased the risk of miscalculation in the disputed territory during the year. Increasing tensions have also affected developments in the South China Sea (SCS). US Secretary of State John Kerry has already warned China about declaring an ADIZ in the SCS. Washington has committed forty million USD to strengthen its sea defence capabilities and the US and Philippines are close to the opening up of Subic Bay and the Clark Air base.
In terms of developments in the SCS, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China initiated discussion on the Code of Conduct in the SCS in mid-September which had been discontinued after 2002. However, in December, China’s first aircraft carrier, Liaoning, carried out drills in the area, parts of which are claimed by Vietnam and the Philippines. AmDiabiguity prevailed over the year in the region.
China-ASEAN: Deepening Ties
China and ASEAN share unique geographical ties linked by land and water. In October, both President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang paid official visits to Southeast Asia to upgrade their relations. Xi went to Indonesia and Malaysia and attended the APEC meeting in Bali, while Li attended the annual ASEAN summit in Brunei and visited Vietnam and Thailand. Other proposals include the advancing China-ASEAN Defense Ministers' meeting, negotiating a code of conduct in the South China Sea, building a maritime silk road and connectivity projects, and creating an Asian infrastructure investment bank. The year saw the starting of the first phase of a China-Myanmar-South Korea-India gas pipeline venture in July 2013. The pipeline is of immense importance to China as it caters to its domestic energy needs, ensures a smooth supply of gas and oil, and also a viable alternative to the Strait of Malacca. China is expecting 12 bcm of natural gas from this pipeline every year. Once fully operational, the crude oil will be shipped from the Middle East via the Indian Ocean through this route. However; its relations with the Philippines were quite strained in 2013.
LAC and the US
Xi Jinping toured through Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) where he visited Trinidad and Tobago, Costa Rica and Mexico in May-June 2013. This marks a new chapter in Chinese foreign policy. Besides meeting the leaders of Trinidad and Tobago, the Chinese president also held talks with leaders of Suriname, Barbados, Guyana, Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Grenada, the Bahamas and Jamaica. During the visit, he proposed stepping up energy cooperation between the two countries. Agreements were reached in key areas such as infrastructure development, energy and minerals, and in new areas of mutual and beneficial cooperation such as agriculture, telecommunications and new energy.
Tensions between US and China started since the Obama administration announced plans to step up military and political engagements in the Pacific. This was aggravated by Edward Snowden’s revelation about the US National Security Agency and his stay in Hong Kong, creating a ‘trust deficit’ in bilateral ties. The ties were also affected with by the declaration of the ADIZ in the ECS and developments in the Asia Pacific region. Despite the stress, Xi put forward a four-point proposal for building a ‘new type of relations’ between the two countries during his first meeting at Sunnyland, California in early June 2013. US-China relations are underpinned by interdependent economic and political ties on a range of regional and global issues. As mentioned in the fifth annual China-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) held in Washington DC in July 2013, the two nations look forward to expanding their cooperation in 2014, focusing on climate change, economic ties, cyber attacks, and maritime disputes.
Xi’s maiden visit to Russia immediately after assuming power testifies that China is emphasising ‘great power relations’. With the Western withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014 and US movement towards the Asia Pacific; Central Asia has become China‘s new destination of investment. In September, Xi Jinping toured four Central Asian nations and signed energy-related deals. Kazakhstan has become an important energy supplier for China and a new anchor in its ‘marching westwards policy’.
2013 was for India-China relations. Just after the 19.5 km incursion in the Daulat Beg Oldi sector of the Depsang Valley in Ladakh by the PLA; Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid visited Beijing. This was followed by Li Keqiang’s three-day visit to India. Although the two visits were scheduled much in advance, they drew attention as they took place soon after the border incursion. For the first time in five decades, the leaders of the two countries visited each other’s capital in the same year (the last visit was in 1954). The last decade has seen an aggregate of 72 back and forth visits by the leaders of the two countries. The visit has shown that Sino-Indian relationship has grown over time.
Overall, energy security remains the prime agenda of China’s foreign policy; the new leadership is trying to project China’s ‘peaceful development’ to every possible place on the globe. The aforementioned developments show that China does not want to be bracketed with any particular country/region. China is keen on developing relations to boost its economic ties and secure its energy resources regardless of size and geographical distances. It is trying to build momentum for its domestic development by securing a stable external environment.
China’s Liaoning aircraft battle group completed a series of exercises in the SCS and returned to PLA-N naval base in Qingdao in the first week of January 2013. Xi Jinping has greater control of the military than his predecessor and in July 2013, in a speech to a group study session of the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party, he expressed his intention to protect Chinese maritime interest as well. Thus, we can expect a more assertive China in 2014.