THE year 2018 was a good year for China’s neighborhood diplomacy, with a succession of breakthroughs being made. Most notable of these was China’s improved relations with two of its major neighbors, India and Japan. The China-India relationship warmed up in the year after the Doklam stand-off in June 2017. The China-Japan relationship has also gradually thawed after the disputes around the Diaoyu Islands in 2012. In addition, Kim Jong Un, chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) and chairman of the State Affairs Commission of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), visited China three times during the year, attaching great importance to China-DPRK relations. Kim Jong Un’s meeting with the U.S. President Donald Trump in Singapore also eased tensions in the Korean Peninsula, shifting the focus of Northeast Asia towards economic cooperation.
During the year China played an active and positive role in advancing settlement of regional hotspot issues and promoting regional cooperation and peace.
Improving Strategic Environment
In 2018, China brought the amelioration of its relations with India and Japan a step further with major breakthroughs made.
On October 26, 2018, Chinese President Xi Jinping meets with visiting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Beijing.
First, its relationship with India was renewed after the Doklam stand-off. During the 2017 Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Astana in June, Prime Minister Narendra Modi proposed to have an informal meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Three months later at the BRICS Summit held in Xiamen, President Xi actively responded to Modi’s proposal. Then the two sides prepared for the informal meeting with their foreign ministers and special representatives for border issues exchanging visits. Issues related to Indians’ pilgrimage to Tibet’s holy mountains and lakes and those about cross-border rivers were solved. It’s noteworthy that on the very day when China’s annual “two sessions” (the annual meetings of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference) concluded, Modi sent a message of congratulations to President Xi. All these served as a good precursor for the following informal meeting between Xi and Modi.
On April 27-28, 2018, leaders of the two countries had their informal meeting in Wuhan, capital of central China’s Hubei Province. In an amicable atmosphere, the two leaders exchanged views on international governance, bilateral issues of strategic importance, their respective national development visions, as well as their domestic and foreign policies. They reached consensus on a wide range of issues. The informal meeting set the course for the healthy development of bilateral relations. The two leaders then went on to meet on several other occasions to have strategic communication, including the Qingdao SCO Summit in June, the Johannesburg BRICS Summit in July, and the G20 Summit held in Argentina in November.
Meanwhile, China-Japan relations have improved dramatically, leading to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s official visit to China in late October. As early as 2017, Japan indicated positive signals about its policies regarding China, evidenced by Japan’s participation in the first Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation. China also actively responded to Japan’s friendly gestures. From May 8 to 11, 2018, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang paid an official visit to Japan and attended the seventh China-Japan-South Korea leaders’ meeting. It was the first visit to Japan by a Chinese premier in eight years, and also marked an important turn for bilateral relations since Japan’s “purchase” of Diaoyu Islands in 2012. Moreover, the two countries have also agreed to set up a consultation mechanism on the Belt and Road Initiative to promote bilateral cooperation in a third-party country. In the security field, the two countries made a decision to launch a maritime and air liaison mechanism.
On September 17, 2018, the UN Security Council holds a public meeting to discuss the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula at the UN Headquarters in New York.
On October 25 to 27, 2018, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe paid an official visit to China, the first visit by a Japanese prime minister in seven years, ushering in a new era of bilateral relations featuring cooperation and coordination. During the visit, the two sides restarted their currency swap agreement of RMB 200 billion, reached widespread consensus on jointly building the Belt and Road, and also took bilateral monetary and financial cooperation and the third-party market cooperation to a new level.
In short, while the Trump administration ignores the international rules and sticks to its unilateralist approach, the amelioration of China’s relations with its major neighbors not only contributes to regional development, but is of strategic significance globally.
Promoter of Regional Peace
In 2018, China also played an important role in defusing hotspot issues and de-escalating disputes among its neighboring countries.
China’s most salient role in this regard is manifested on the Korean Peninsula issue. Dramatic breakthroughs and headways have been made in this respect. From March 25 to 28, 2018, Kim Jong Un paid an informal visit to China for the first time. The following three months saw the DPRK leader pay two more visits to China. On June 12, Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump met in Singapore, where Trump promised to provide security guarantees to North Korea, and Kim Jong Un reiterated his commitment to total denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. In 2018, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong Un also met three times. During their meeting in Pyongyang in September, the two sides formally published the Pyongyang Joint Declaration of September. China has played an active role in effecting the positive change in the Northeast Asia situation by supporting DPRK-U.S. dialogue and contributing to denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and easing its situation. Although the possibility is still open for the Korean Peninsula situation to change, it’s undeniable that China has played a positive role in its improvement.
During the year, disputes over the South China Sea de-escalated. In 2018, the U.S. intensified its intervention in affairs around the South China Sea. Its increasingly frequent “free voyages” in the waters almost led to a collision of warships from the two countries on September 30. China de-escalated the situation by speeding up its negotiation on the South China Sea Code of Conduct with the concerned parties. On August 2, 2018, Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the China-ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting indicated that China and the ASEAN countries had reached consensus on the draft of the South China Sea Code of Conduct for consultation, which was seen as a major breakthrough.
At the ASEAN-China summit held on November 14, leaders of China and the ASEAN nations agreed to complete the first round of review of the Code draft. At the meeting, Premier Li Keqiang proposed to complete the negotiation about the Code in three years, fully showing China’s sincerity and determination to jointly safeguard peace and stability in the South China Sea with the ASEAN countries. On October 22, ASEAN-China Maritime Exercise 2018 was conducted in Zhanjiang, southeast China’s Guangdong Province, the first of its kind between ASEAN countries and the bloc’s dialogue partners, evidence of the two sides’ willingness and resolve to jointly safeguard regional peace, maintain stability, and enhance their mutual trust in strategic security.
China has also played an increasingly important role in other hotspot issues, as proved by its active participation in defusing the Rohingya crisis between Myanmar and Bangladesh, mediation between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the push for the extension of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to Afghanistan, promoting the connectivity among the concerned parties and their win-win cooperation.
Bellwether for Regional Cooperation
As drastic changes occurred in the global economic and trade environment, China has attached more importance to regional economic cooperation, and played an active role in advancing economic and trade cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region, evidenced by the resumption of China-Japan-South Korea summit after three years, instilling impetus for the trilateral cooperation. Meanwhile, China has also extended its support to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RECP). On November 14, 2018, Premier Li Keqiang attended the second RECP leaders’ meeting, which also gathered leaders of the ASEAN countries, South Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and India. They unanimously agreed that the RECP negotiation has achieved substantial progress, and reached the final stage. The concerned parties have all shown their strong intention to seal the agreement, realizing the win-win cooperation. Negotiations are expected to be completed in 2019.
At the ASEAN-China summit held on November 14 in Singapore, Premier Li declared that China and the ASEAN countries have finally finished all required domestic procedures to upgrade their free trade agreement, which will lift the economic and trade relations between China and ASEAN countries to a new level. This is a positive signal to the international community by the countries concerned to safeguard multilateralism and free trade.
Meanwhile, new changes in Northeast Asia’s political security situation have revitalized the region’s economic cooperation. From September 11 to 12, 2018, Chinese President Xi Jinping attended the fourth Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Russia. The two sides signed the 2018-2024 plan for economic and trade development and investment in the Far East area as well as the related memorandum of understanding.
Globally, China has been an adamant supporter of globalization. President Xi reiterated China’s firm support for the world multilateral trading system both in his keynote speech at the opening of the first China International Import Expo (CIIE) and his speech titled “Jointly Charting a Course Towards a Brighter Future” at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) CEO Summit in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, on November 17, 2018.
The same call for supporting free trade was also made at the Qingdao SCO Summit in June and the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in September 2018. The 10th BRICS Summit Johannesburg Declaration released in July 2018 also sent out a clear signal of maintaining multilateralism and opposing protectionism, started the partnership of BRICS countries in the fourth industrial revolution, and agreed to deepen cooperation among BRICS countries in economy, trade, finance, political security, and people-to-people exchanges, to name a few.
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has played an important role in advancing China’s cooperation with its neighbors. Under the BRI framework, a slew of cooperation projects have been completed. On August 30, 2018, the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge opened to traffic. Under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor framework, there are 22 cooperation projects with nine completed and 13 under construction. In June 2018, during Nepal’s Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli’s state visit to China, the two sides agreed to strengthen their cooperation under the BRI framework, improve their connectivity in terms of ports, roads, railways, aviation, and telecommunication. More importantly, China and Nepal signed a transportation agreement in Katmandu on September 7, 2018, allowing Nepal to use four Chinese seaports and three Chinese land ports in trading with other countries.
Despite political changes in some countries along the Belt and Road, the cooperation under the BRI framework has not been negatively influenced. Following the outcome of the general election, on August 18, Pakistani cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice) became Prime Minister of Pakistan. On November 2 to 5, 2018, Imran Khan paid his first official visit to China, and delivered a keynote speech at the opening ceremony of the first CIIE. During his visit, China and Pakistan released the Joint Statement between the People’s Republic of China and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan on Strengthening China-Pakistan All-Weather Strategic Cooperative Partnership and Building Closer China-Pakistan Community of Shared Future in the New Era. The visit dispelled international suspicion about the uncertainty of China-Pakistan relations. The two sides reached new consensus on building the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
In short, China’s neighborhood diplomacy in 2018 has not only greatly improved China’s relations with its major neighbors, but shaped China into an even more important figure in stabilizing and promoting regional development.
Looking at 2019, it can be expected that China’s neighborhood diplomacy will progress along the way of building a community of a shared future with its neighbors. The second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation will be held in 2019, which will further put China in an increasingly important position in promoting regional development. The disputes around the South China Sea between China and the ASEAN countries will be effectively controlled, and China’s cooperation with Japan and India under the BRI framework is expected to make headway.
LIN MINWANG is a research fellow with the Institute of International Studies, Fudan University.