Source: Global Times Published: 2019-01-16
If there is any problem with China's foreign affairs in 2018, that would be its ties with the US, but this is just one part of China's diplomatic ties with major powers, and due to US unilateralism and protectionism to some extent, China's relationship with other major powers has improved.
Through China's ambitious diplomacy, Latin America, some 10,000 or more kilometers from China, is no longer a mere geographical concept to Chinese people. In early December, after having attended the G20 Summit in Argentina, Chinese President Xi Jinping went to Panama, a Latin American country which established diplomatic ties with China only in June 2017.
The Panama Canal connecting the Pacific and the Atlantic means this Latin American country has a crucial geographic position in the so-called backyard of the US.
The country's ambitious National Logistics Strategy of Panama 2030 (ELNP) seeks to make the country into a world-class logistics center and shares a similar outlook as the China-proposed Belt and Road initiative.
China and Latin American ties have been developing fast. In 2018, the value of trade was no less than $200 billion and more than 2,000 Chinese firms were doing business in Latin America and invested more than $200 billion in creating more than 1.8 million local jobs.
Airplanes from Brazil, oil from Venezuela, iron mines in Peru and beef from Argentina, more and more products Latin America are sold on the Chinese market.
More and more Latin American countries, including Panama, have also cut their so-called diplomatic ties with the island of Taiwan, and backed the one-China principle.
Not only in faraway Latin America, but relations with China's neighboring regions improved last year, especially after the US launched a trade war and embraced unilateralism and isolationism.
Many countries that used to have disputes or differences with China have adjusted their approach in recent years.
Great improvement in diplomatic ties with neighboring countries is the most shining diplomatic goal that China has achieved in 2018, said Li Haidong, a professor at the China Foreign Affairs University in Beijing.
"This has stabilized the general external situation and reduced pressure from neighbors on China, so that China could focus on handling pressure from the US," Li said.
China and India stood at the brink of military conflict in the second half of 2017. But in April 2018, leaders of the two countries had a historic meeting in Wuhan, capital of Central China's Hubei Province, moving the relationship on from increasingly intense toward one more about mutual trust.
China and India held their first joint military exercises in December 2018 in Chengdu, capital city of Southwest China's Sichuan Province, since the 2017 border standoff in the Doklam region, the Xinhua News Agency reported.
The two-week Hand-in-Hand 2018 military drills aimed to strengthen the counter-terrorism capabilities of the two armies. Hand-in-hand is an annual event that started in 2007, but due to tensions resulting from the Doklam incident, the drill was suspended in 2017.
There are multiple factors leading the dramatic change in the China-India relationship, Hu Zhiyong, a research fellow at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences' Institute of International Relations, told the Global Times.
"In short term, India has a general election in 2019, and India wants more investments from China, so it needs to fix its relationship with China," Hu said.
"The US also brought trade pressure on India, which meant China and India shared a common problem. This also objectively improved China-India ties."
The most fundamental reason is that Indian elites have come to realize that China and India share certain economic and security concerns, analysts noted, and that conflict between the world's two biggest rising economies benefits only those forces that don't want to be challenged by developing countries.
Japan is another country which used to have friction and disputes with China over sovereignty, historical and maritime fields, but with Shinzo Abe's visit to China in October, the China-Japan relationship also improved.
Observers noted that the US pressured both China and Japan in trade. Disappointment with US behavior helped China and Japan settle their problems.
Sovereignty disputes with Southeast Asian neighbors in the South China Sea have been tough problems for China since 2016.
However, in the past two years, China has successfully turned the problem or crisis into a channel heading to solution: negotiations on the South China Sea Code of Conduct.
China has already started cooperation with its neighbors, such as the Philippines and Brunei, in disputed areas of the South China Sea to set up oil and gas development.
"The COC is a stabilizer and we hope it can ensure peace and stability in the region, but it's not made for solving all disputes," said Xu Liping, a senior research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' National Institute of International Strategy.
"China and ASEAN members who have claims in the South China Sea still have some differences."
Xu said questions include: Is the COC legally binding? If it is, who is responsible for law enforcement?
"These questions need to be answered after the negotiations," Xu said. "But at least, the COC negotiations excludes countries outside the region, which means it could prevent interruptions from the US and its allies."
Xu noted the countries have already realized that the US just wanted to use their disputes with China to serve its own hegemonic purpose in the West Pacific.
"They will suffer from the tensions with China and the US won't pay for it," Xu said.
That's why countries like the Philippines decided to embrace a pragmatic approach, namely to set the disputes aside and start cooperation and negotiations. China has already started cooperation with its neighbors, such as the Philippines and Brunei, in disputed areas of the South China Sea to set up oil and gas development.
Although the US and its allies still send warships to the South China Sea and promote the militarization of the region, they cannot break the increasing calm created by China and other regional countries, said analysts.
"China's behavior is not overthrowing the existing order but reforming it without conflicts, which is much more pragmatic and welcomed by the regional countries than the US approaches," Xu said.
Due to nuclear and missile tests by North Korea and the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense deployment issue with South Korea, China's relations with the two countries on the Korean Peninsula intensified in 2017, a rarity in history.
But in 2018, China's relations with the two Koreas were fixed successfully. Top North Korean leader Kim Jong-un visited China and met Xi three times in 2018.
In January 2019, Kim visited China again and met Xi. Observers said visiting China before a meeting with Trump seemed like a new tradition in the China-North Korea relationship.
China proposed to the UN Security Council on September 27 that North Korea be rewarded for the steps it had taken toward denuclearization, but the US continued to demand that sanctions against the country be enforced "without fail."
When the plan for the first summit between Kim and Trump wan announced in March 2018, ties between Pyongyang and Washington are easing. Some scholars, such as Zheng Yongnian, director of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore, warned that China's role on the peninsula might weaken.
But now reality has proven that China's role is impossible to weaken and it's getting more essential.
The development of North Korea-US ties and a solution to the nuclear issue have been bogged down by the stubborn US stance on denuclearization. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's visit to Seoul is also being disputed in South Korea.
"So at this moment, North Korea needs to hear China's advice to find new breakthroughs," Lü Chao, director of the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences' Research Institute for the Borderland, told the Global Times.
The relationship between Beijing and Seoul has also healed. South Korean President Moon Jae-in's efforts on boosting ties with North Korea have been firmly supported by China while the US responded reluctantly.
"We have made clear to the Republic of Korea [South Korea] that we do want to make sure that peace on the peninsula and the denuclearization of North Korea aren't lagging behind the increase in the amount of interrelationship between the two Koreas," US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters at the US State Department on November 20.
On the same issue, Xi said while meeting with North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho in Beijing in December that "China will, as always, support the amelioration of inter-Korean relations and facilitate reconciliation and cooperation between the two sides."
On December 11, at the opening of symposium on China's foreign relations State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi said, "the world in the outgoing 2018 has been marked by uncertainty, a defining feature of the international landscape."
Wang said that Xi "made this key judgment about the current international situation: Our world is experiencing profound changes unseen in a century."
China's diplomacy is no longer low profile but actively participating in global governance and trying to contribute to the reform of the international order and make globalization fairer and more sustainable.
This change actually helps China to boost its ties with other members of the international community, said Jin Canrong, associate dean of Renmin University of China's School of International Studies. "But from the perspective of the US, it looks more aggressive than the past."
However, US protectionism and unilateralism in the past two years have made many countries realize the risk of dealing with the US, he said.
"This has created opportunities for China to improve its external environment," Li said.
With a series of diplomatic achievements, China will stay active in foreign affairs, but at the same time it will be more cautious when dealing with the US and its allies.
The arrest of Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou and a series of offensives targeting the Chinese IT giant at the end of 2018 have disrupted ties between China and the West.
Not surprisingly, the West is not united and prosperous any more in 2018. The US has squabbles with its European partners on free trade, WTO reforms, globalization, multilateralism and climate change, and the EU is also suffering from multiple problems including an immigrant crisis across the continent, the Yellow Vest movement in France and the continuous challenges brought about by Brexit.
The 90-day trade truce that Xi and Trump reached at the G20 summit is covering Christmas and Chinese Lunar New Year, the two most important festivals of Western and Eastern civilizations. Unfortunately, the US stock market crashed on Christmas Day.
Chinese observers said they hope this plunge might remind the US to be aware of its own situation and the world economy.
It is time to take responsibility for a global economic recovery, they said, and if China can convince the US to change, that would be a remarkable achievement not only for China's diplomacy but also the whole international community.
Jin Canrong is associate dean of School of International Studies at Renmin University of China.