China’s New Neighbourhood Strategy: 'Community of Common Destiny'

05 Apr, 2014    ·   4372

Dr. Geeta Kochhar explores Beijing's new approach towards its neighbours

“Community with common destiny” (Mingyun gongtongti) seems to be the new slogan in China’s neighbourhood diplomacy. This needs to be explored; what common destiny is China envisaging or is it planning to engage in serious confrontations with some neighbouring countries? What is China’s position vis-à-vis the neighbouring states? Will the newly acquired international status of China reshape the regional matrix favouring China? In particular, what will be the decisive factor for China in building strategic ties with neighbouring states?
In February 2014, Prof. Yan Xuetong, Dean of the Institute of Modern International Relations from Tsinghua University, in his lecture at the JNU also emphasized on this notion. While his talk focused on whether China can peacefully rise or not – a much debated subject matter with concerns mainly from neighbouring countries, Prof. Yan was quite assertive in his stand on the probability of war with Japan. In the post-cold war period, Deng Xiaoping had laid greater emphasis on a “low profile” policy (Taoguang yanghui) in international relations in order to hide its capabilities, focus on building national strength, and bide its time to become a major power. 
Though state security, sovereignty, and territorial integrity remained as fundamental interests, but the focus shifted on developing the economy. China thus adopted a “Good-neighborly and partnership” policy (Yu ling we shan, yi ling wei ban). Its approach was driven by catering to its development needs; rather than strategic repositioning where US dominance was apparent. Hence, whether we see from the development perspective or from a security lens, neighbours figured as “strategic reliance belt” (Zhanlüe yituodai) for China. It is not to imply that China’s great power aspiration was in any way tamed down, but the strategic vision was clearly inclined to prioritize economic prosperity that will lead to the rejuvenation of the Chinese state. 
In the 21st century, China has gained an edge over other states in relation to its comprehensive national strength, in particular economic strength. This is also underlined by the fact that the dream of reunification with Hong Kong and Macau in the 20th century was smooth along with no major political turmoil within the country over leadership transitions for decades. With relation to the neighbourhood policy, China has along compartmentalized friends with distant neighbours (Jin er bu qin), India surely fell in the distant neighbor category though having the closest border.
Therefore, though border disputes continued with certain neighbouring states, a move was made to seek common interests in economic development based on the win-win policy. Whether there was true win-win for both sides is another long debate, but serious confrontations and/or conflicts were avoided. 
This approach now seems to be redesigned with the internal debates over the new direction of China’s foreign policy under the changing internal as well as external atmosphere. In particular, China’s concern over sea and water disputes along with heightened trans-border terrorist support has given rise to new formulations and approaches. Few years back, debates within China hovered around: whether to abandon the “low-profile” policy or to continue; whether to play active role in international relations keeping China’s core interests in mind or to continue passive role; and whether to take leadership positions or not? However, these debates have evolved into a new direction, especially with China repositioning its regional power status. 
In 2007, the then President Hu Jintao first used the phrase “Community with common destiny” at the 17th National Party Congress Report in reference to cross-Strait relations. The phrase is now often used by President Xi Jinping at various forums to build strategic ties with neighbouring states. Although, critics view it as a newly founded assertive position of China whereby it wants to play a decisive role in regional affairs; Chinese official discourse defines it as a parameter to judge neighbouring states and to build a peaceful as well as stable surrounding environment. Prof. Yan posits that the countries which will play a constructive role in China’s rise will reap the actual benefit from China for its own development; while hostile nations will face sanctions and isolation.  
China’s direction of advancement in neighbourhood policy manifests the desire of the Chinese to make allies that can support, compliment, and assist in larger areas than mere economic linkages. This also entails convergence of interests with neighbouring states that will forge new strategic alliances to counter power relations that harm China’s core interests. The definition of core interests, though expanding over the years, is also deep-rooted in its vision to revive the Chinese Nation as a strong global power. The possibility of which lies in its regaining of the claimed territories (both land and sea) as well as being recognized as a regional leader, which is still a challenged position.