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China’s ‘New Era’ of International Relations

After US President Donald Trump visited China in November 2017 and met with Chinese President Xi Jinping, both leaders traveled to Da Nang, Vietnam to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting. There, both delivered speeches and offered their visions for the region’s future.

By NewsChina Updated Jan.1

After US President Donald Trump visited China in November 2017 and met with Chinese President Xi Jinping, both leaders traveled to Da Nang, Vietnam to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting. There, both delivered speeches and offered their visions for the region’s future.
Trump reasserted that he would “put America first,” and that he expected all other leaders to put their own people first too. Xi, on the other hand, reiterated his defense of globalization and multilateralism. 
“We should uphold multilateralism, pursue shared growth through consultation and collaboration, forge closer partnerships, and build a community and a shared future for mankind,” Xi told the forum. “This, I believe, is what we should do in conducting global economic governance in a new era.”
Xi’s APEC speech echoed the blueprint he laid out for Chinese foreign policy at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in Beijing in October, in which he declared that China had entered a “new era.” 
There, he outlined China’s fundamental approach to foreign policy and raised the concept of a “community of common destiny” or “community of mankind’s shared future,” to use a different translation. This, he said, was to be the center of Chinese diplomacy. 
But so far, the concept has not drawn significant attention from Western analysts, who have largely brushed it off as meaningless jargon. They should not be so hasty. The phrase was written into the Party constitution as a major component of “Xi Jinping Thought,” to become the defining concept of China’s approach to its relationship with the rest of the world. Understanding the context and connotations of the concept have become essential to comprehend China’s future foreign policy. 

Origin and Development

The concept of a “community of common destiny” first surfaced in China’s official documents years ago. 
While the exact origin of the term is unknown, some Western analysts trace it to Ernest Renan’s 1882 essay “Qu’est-ce qu’une nation?” (“What is a Nation?”), in which Renan argued nations are not held together by ethnicity, culture, religion or geographic boundaries, but by a “desire to continue a common life.”
China’s first application of the concept was in 2007 when discussing the status of Taiwan. Then Chinese President Hu Jintao said at the 17th CPC National Congress in 2007 that the people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait shared a “common destiny.” Up to now, the Chinese government has continued to officially use “building a community of common destiny” across the Taiwan Strait as shorthand for reunification. 

In 2011 China began to apply the concept in the realm of foreign policy. That year, a white paper titled “China’s Peaceful Development” proposed that the world should explore “common interests” and “common values” and become a “community of common destiny.”
But it was after Xi took the helm in 2013 that the phrase became a buzzword in Chinese diplomacy circles, and emerged as a pivotal concept in its foreign policy.  
Xi first used the phrase in early 2013 in discussing China’s relationship with Africa. But in 2013 and 2014, the concept was mostly used regarding Chinese relations with neighboring countries, for so-called “peripheral diplomacy.”
For example, the Chinese leadership frequently described the “China-ASEAN community of common destiny” in speeches. Soon the concept was expanded to encompass China’s global diplomacy.
At a keynote foreign affairs meeting held in 2014, Xi explicitly stated that China’s ultimate foreign policy goal was to build a “community of common destiny,” and that China would foster a “new model of international relations.” 
According to Professor Qin Yaqing of China Foreign Affairs University, the meeting officially locked in the “common destiny” concept as a core value of China’s foreign policy, and effectively formulated China’s fundamental strategy. “It marked a new era for China’s global diplomacy,” Qin told NewsChina. 
Throughout 2015, Xi repeatedly used the concept on the world stage, including in his keynote speeches at the Boao Forum and the United Nations. 
But it wasn’t until the UK’s Brexit referendum and the election of Trump, which raised the specter of protectionism in the West, that Xi’s speeches started to receive attention. 
China’s president talked once again of the “shared future for mankind” at the G20 summit hosted by China in September 2016. The following year, Xi was a keynote speaker at the World Economic Forum in Davos, where he vowed China would vehemently defend globalization and free trade. Both would serve China’s goal of “building a community and a shared future for mankind,” Xi said.  

How Significant?

Western analysts often describe Xi’s support for globalization as opportunistic, aiming to take advantage of regional concern over Trump’s “America First” policy. Few have given the common destiny concept serious consideration. 

Indeed, many of the concepts proposed by China in recent years, such as a community of common destiny, “win-win cooperation,” and inclusive development, are seen internationally as empty jargon meant to paper over China’s increasingly assertive foreign policy, especially regarding the South China Sea. 

Such a perspective tends to underestimate the motivation behind the widespread reform of Chinese foreign policy conducted under Xi’s leadership. The significance of the common destiny concept is perhaps best understood in the context of what the Party calls its “historical mission” to bring about China’s “national rejuvenation.” 
To China’s leaders, this “national rejuvenation” means much more than just an assertive foreign policy and a prosperous economy. It includes promoting China’s standing in the world, and promoting pride and self-esteem regarding the country’s past, culture and path of development.
According to Alexander Lomanov, chief researcher at the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, China has adopted a policy of “increasing confidence in one’s own way, theory and system.” 
Lomanov, who is a member of the scientific advisory council of the journal Russia in Global Politics, says this is a way to combat the once prevalent idea that “Chinese values” were “the cause of its ‘seclusiveness’ and ‘backwardness’ of ‘Oriental despotism.’”
“The authorities want to make the Chinese people certain they have their own values, which are in no way inferior to the Western ones,” argued Lomanov in his 2015 article “A Nation’s Common Denominator – Chinese Values to Challenge Western Ones.” With concepts such as “community of common destiny,” he added, “China lays claim to having a say in world affairs on equitable terms with the West.” 
Indeed, since assuming the leadership in 2013, Xi has made frequent allusions to classical Confucianism in his speeches. Chinese scholars claim that despite the likely Western origins of the common destiny concept, its “spirit” can also be traced back to Chinese traditional culture. 

In September 2017, a seminar entitled “Confucianism and the Community of Mankind’s Shared Destiny” was held in Qufu, the birthplace of Confucius, attracting 250 scholars. The consensus appeared to be that the common destiny concept was in line with Chinese traditional values of “harmony and coexistence” and that the world needs to be “re-enlightened” by this thought to address the various modern problems faced by mankind. 
During his speech at the 19th CPC National Congress, Xi declared that the Chinese model “expanded the path toward modernization” and offered a “brand new option” for countries that “want to develop economically while preserving their independence.” China, he said, can now offer “Chinese wisdom” and the “Chinese approach” to address the problems facing humanity.  

‘New Model’

Xi also declared that along with building this community of common destiny, another major goal of China’s foreign policy was to build a “new model” of international relations, based on principles of “mutual cooperation, fairness and justice, and win-win cooperation.” 
In explaining the policy, Wang Yi, China’s Foreign Minister, explicitly told media that the new model is meant to replace the “old” model of international relations, which Wang said was built on the “law of the jungle” and “power politics.” 
While Wang did not get into specifics, in the official language of the Chinese leadership, the “old model” of international relations is always associated with the US or the West in general, and is characterized as a zero-sum thinking, or as a Cold War mentality.
“The mainstream view in the West is that the world is essentially competitive, confrontational, and Machiavellian, and that international politics is a zero-sum game where every country should adopt a ‘my interests come first’ mentality,” Professor Qin Yaqing said. 
Qin believes China now offers an alternative vision for international relations. “Building a new model of international relations is the means to achieve it.” 
In contrast to the Western perception that the concept of a “community of common destiny” being merely political jargon, Chinese diplomats and experts argue that it has been playing a pivotal role in Chinese foreign policy. 
For example, the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s ambitious project to link China with Asia, Europe and Africa through a vast infrastructure investment program, and the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), have been launched under the “common destiny” concept. 
Moreover, Chinese diplomats say they have been applying the spirit of the concept in their work. Wang Yusheng, a former senior Chinese diplomat, told NewsChina that China had adopted its principles in promoting negotiation within APEC.
“APEC recognizes the diversity of its different members, emphasizes the importance of the principles of choice and consensus, allows flexibility and incrementalism in meeting targets, and allows member economies to set up their own goals,” said Wang.
Since hosting the APEC meeting in Beijing in 2014, China pushed to establish a trade pact involving all of APEC’s 21 member nations known as the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP). 
The plan is still under negotiation. Wang made no direct reference to the US, but Chinese officials have long drawn comparisons between its own “inclusive” approach and that of the US. For example, the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), once described as a “high-standard” trade deal, was seen as taking an “exclusive” approach. 

Under the Trump administration, the US has scrapped the TPP, and its “America First” policy has prompted widespread concern around the world over its implications for both global trade and world peace. 
Many Chinese officials and experts think the situation provides a rare opportunity for China to advocate and advance its own vision for a new model of international relations, which may be able to head off the so-called “Thucydides trap.”
However, with global affairs still dominated by realpolitik, the West may become even more sensitive as China openly challenges its dominance of the world order, regardless of how benevolent its “common destiny” concept sounds. 
To most Western analysts, the prevalent view is that China has now forsaken its reform-era foreign policy of “keeping a low profile,” and launched a more assertive foreign policy under Xi’s leadership. 
But according to China-watcher Professor Zheng Yongnian, director of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore, it’s important to remember that no other major power in history has adopted a “keep a low profile” policy in the way China has. 
Zheng told NewsChina that historically, most rising powers have only focused on how to expand themselves and control the world, which is what has ultimately provoked conflict and war. 
“The fact that China is now exploring and strategizing how to rise peacefully is good news for the world,” Zheng said.