By Zhiqun Zhu

As the Year of the Ox rang in, China launched a new wave of top-level diplomacy. In the short span of two weeks, Chinese leaders became globe-trotters, with their footprints left in Europe, Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa and the Middle East. The frequency, intensity and magnitude of China's latest diplomatic moves are unprecedented in contemporary international relations.

This new wave of high-level diplomacy started with Premier Wen Jiabao's attendance at the Davos World Economic Forum in Switzerland on Jan. 28 and his subsequent visits to European Union headquarters in Brussels as well as Germany, Spain and Britain.

Shortly after Premier Wen returned to Beijing, both President Hu Jintao and Vice President Xi Jinping traveled abroad at roughly the same time. Hu made a stop in Saudi Arabia on Feb. 10 before heading to Mali, Senegal, Tanzania and Mauritius, his sixth visit to Africa in 10 years, underlining the importance of the region in China's geopolitical strategy. Vice President Xi Jinping started his visits to Latin America and the Caribbean in Mexico on Feb. 8 before going on to Jamaica, Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil. He also visited Malta at the end of this trip. It is the first time both the president and the vice president of China travelled abroad at the same time.

In a unique, double-pronged diplomatic offensive towards Latin America and the Caribbean, Hui Liangyu, the vice premier in charge of agricultural and economic affairs, toured Argentina, Ecuador, Barbados and the Bahamas between Feb. 7 and 19 while Xi was in the neighborhood. That two of China's top leaders were in the region at almost the same time highlights Beijing's ongoing efforts to strengthen ties and enhance its influence in Latin America and the Caribbean.

One is dazzled and probably puzzled by this intensive and extensive high-level Chinese diplomacy. What are the purposes of these visits? What messages does China want to convey to the international community?

Before China's top leaders embarked on these visits, Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi began 2009 by visiting Uganda, Rwanda, Malawi and South Africa in early January. In the past 20 years, it has been a New Year ritual for the Chinese foreign minister to start his annual overseas trips in Africa. Yang's visits, together with the latest highest-level travels, are all part and parcel of China's new diplomacy, which is characterized by its consistency, maturity, breadth and depth. It reveals how China is presenting its image and asserting its position in the international political economy today.

A responsible, cooperative power
Wen labeled his Europe trip as a "journey of confidence". In Davos, London, Berlin, Brussels and elsewhere, Wen assured European and world leaders that China will help stabilize the global economy by promoting continued growth domestically - a welcoming message as Europe and the rest of the world are struggling to recover from the financial crisis.

The current financial crisis has hit China hard. By mid-2008, nearly 70,000 small to medium-sized export-oriented businesses in China were forced to close. Over 20 million migrant rural workers have lost their jobs so far and Chinese leaders have warned of labor strife. These and other domestic challenges are staggering. However, with the largest foreign exchange reserves in the world, China is in better shape than many economies to deal with the current economic challenges.

With all eyes on China for the salvation of the global economy, Beijing has acted responsibly. During Wen's Europe tour, China helped to stimulate European economies by signing business deals to purchase goods and services worth 15 billion yuan (US$2.1 billion). Some in the West have unwisely pressured China to let the yuan appreciate further to help reduce trade deficits with China.

Despite the domestic call for the government to weaken the currency in order to help Chinese exports, China has maintained a stable currency in the past three years after a rise of over 20 percent, helping to stabilize the global economy - a fact not very much appreciated in the West. A floating yuan now may lead to the fall of the US dollar and create inflationary pressure in the United States and elsewhere. China's recent announcement of spending $123 billion to establish universal health care by 2011 for the country's 1.3 billion people is another effort to stimulate domestic consumption. With their health taken care of, the Chinese may decide to save less and spend more. Though Wen remarked modestly that China could only save itself, not the world, it is clear that the country is ready to weather this financial storm together with the rest of the international community.

A friend in need
China and other developing countries have helped each other in times of need. Before he traveled to Africa, President Hu paid an official visit to Saudi Arabia. Besides the fact that Saudi Arabia is the largest supplier of crude oil to China, a special purpose for Hu's visit, according to Chinese media, was to thank the Saudi government for providing the largest donation to China after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

Partially in response to charges that China is only interested in resources in Africa, Hu visited several relatively resource-poor nations this time. His trip is designed to reassure Africa and other developing regions that China's interests extend beyond oil and mining.

To ward off criticism that Beijing exploits the world's poorest continent, China has reaffirmed that it would not cut financial aid and loans to African countries during hard economic times. During his visit to Mali, Hu laid the first brick of a "Friendship Bridge" in its capital. The 2.6km, $74.9 million "Sino-Malian Friendship Bridge" over the Niger River in Bamako will be the largest project carried out in West Africa as a Chinese donation. China's investments and loans have benefited other developing regions. In January 2009, China became a member of the Inter-American Development Bank, pouring $350 million into the bank's coffers for infrastructure spending in the region.

Africa, like other developing regions, is welcoming Beijing's new diplomatic moves not just because of its rich resources but also because of its strong support for China in international affairs. The U.N. Human Rights Council reviewed China's human rights record in early February 2009. Some Western countries criticized China on issues such as Tibet as well as civil and political rights in China, while developing countries generally praised China for its economic development and efforts to eliminate poverty.

With strong support from developing countries, the U.N. Human Rights Council concluded that China's human rights record was "on track". Differences between developed and developing nations over the human rights issue will remain. China will continue to rely on support from the developing world as a counter force to Western pressure on human rights.

Less dependent on the U.S., Europe
In the Chinese language, the word "crisis" consists of two characters wei (danger) and ji (opportunity). China is attempting to convert the global financial crisis into an opportunity to improve its long-term economic advantage and energy security. China's exports to Europe and North America have shrunk substantially as a result of declining demand in these markets. China is desperate to open up and maintain new markets in Africa, Latin America and elsewhere. China's trade with Africa and Latin America has both soared to over $100 billion in 2008.

Some worry that China may sell U.S. Treasury bonds as a way to consolidate its own economy. The fact is, selling a large part of U.S. holdings will be counter-productive because it would probably cause bond prices and the dollar to fall sharply, which will immediately reduce China's own foreign exchange reserves.

The Chinese government has indicated that it will continue to purchase U.S. Treasury bonds, but obviously it will no longer put all of its eggs in one basket. Its active diplomacy around the world is part of its strategy to diversify investment risks. Recent Chinese investments and purchases have taken place in Africa, Latin America, Central Asia, Russia, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, among others.

An episode during Wen's visit to London is revealing of Chinese leaders' confidence and maturity. While speaking to students and faculty at Cambridge University, a student from the audience threw a shoe at Wen, mimicking the now famous Iraqi journalist's act during a press conference between former president George W. Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in December 2008. “This despicable behavior cannot stand in the way of friendship between China and the U.K.,” a very calm and collected Wen said to loud applause before continuing with his speech.

Chinese leaders never forget to promote China's "soft power" abroad these days. During his visit to Jamaica, Vice President Xi found time to attend the opening ceremony of the Confucius Institute on the Mona Campus of Jamaica's prestigious University of the West Indies, in Kingston. So far, China has set up over 300 Confucius Institutes worldwide, promoting Chinese language and traditional culture.

As a growing power China will continue to pursue active diplomacy and play a bigger role in international affairs. China's expanding trade, aid and investments around the world are evidence of its strength in today's troubled global economy. As Chinese leaders have suggested, maintaining the stability of the Chinese economy is a great contribution to the recovery of the global economy.

China's new diplomacy undoubtedly serves its own national interests first, but it is also conducive to global development. During her maiden trip to Beijing as America's top diplomat, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remarked that the United States and China must cooperate and lead the global recovery. China has become an indispensable player in world affairs.

The world will enter a new "Chimerica" era, as Harvard history professor Niall Ferguson has suggested. One should welcome China's full participation in the international political economy and encourage its transition to a more transparent and democratic system. One hopes that China's development will continue to be stable, peaceful and beneficial to the rest of the world. 
 
Contact: Division of Communications

Posted Feb. 24, 2009

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