Changing Chinese Diplomatic Approaches – From ‘ABC’ to ‘Indo-Pacific’

K. Yhome is a Research Fellow with the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This article is based on interactions with Chinese government officials and think-tankers during a visit to China as part of a delegation organized by the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi from 21-29 April 2016. 

An interesting abbreviation that tells a lot about the concerns of the strategic community of China today is the so-called ‘ABC approach’. An official in the China’s ministry of foreign affairs (MOFA) opined that Beijing would stand against any regional or global move that adopts what he called the ‘All-But China’ or ABC approach.

Until now, China was against the Indo-Pacific concept because it viewed the concept as a design to ensure the United States’ role and presence in the most dynamic region of the world and also strengthen Washington’s ties with its allies and partners in the region to ‘contain’ China. Further, the concept was viewed as a direct challenge to what Chinese strategists were trying to do – to keep the US out of the region.

Beijing seems to be reconsidering its stance towards this approach. A Chinese scholar at the China Institute of International Studies (CIIS), Beijing contended that China ‘now accepts’ the Indo-Pacific concept. The question is why?

For the past few years, several scholars have argued that the growing overlapping and interlinking geopolitical and geo-economic interests of major powers is creating a new ‘single strategic space’ linking the Pacific and Indian oceans. Beijing seems to be coming to terms to this reality.

Second, apart from China’s assertive actions in the South and East China seas that have been pushing its neighbours towards the US to hedge against China’s rise, America’s ‘re-balance strategy’ is seen as part of efforts by the US and its allies to keep China out through initiatives such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or as a case of the ABC approach

Beijing’s calculation is that for its long-term strategic interests it will be beneficial to be part of the Indo-Pacific region, rather than staying out and losing potential profits from its ‘One Belt, One Road’(OBOR) initiative. This initiative will, in fact, depend heavily on the support and cooperation of the Indo-Pacific littorals.

As a counter to what it perceives as a strategy to isolate it, China’s diplomacy is defined by its desire to build a narrative that strengthens its ties with all countries minus the US. Chinese diplomatic efforts have been therefore geared towards inventing new concepts such as the ‘Asian security concept’, ‘Asia for Asians’ and emphasise concepts such as South-South cooperation and developed versus developing countries paradigms, aimed at keeping the US out of these new concepts.  For instance, a high-ranking official at the Party School in Beijing said that developing countries should adopt the ‘China model’ to confront the global economic slowdown.

While China is trying to sell these ideas through what it terms as ‘win-win’ approaches such as the OBOR, it is hard to see if regional countries will respond positively if Beijing does not match its words with actions, particularly in the South China Sea.

Explaining Xi Jinping’s foreign policy, another Chinese scholar at CIIS argued that China has adopted a more ‘pro-active’ stance in regional and global affairs. This shift in foreign policy is attributed to change ‘from free rider to taking responsibility’, ‘the need to ensure a favourable environment’ and ‘rising global expectations’ from China. Even as China talks about ‘inclusiveness’ or ‘common security concept in Asia’, it is unclear where China sees the role of other major powers of Asia.

For instance, commenting on the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building in Asia (CICA), a Chinese analyst pointed out that ‘outside of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), CICA is the second most important platform for international cooperation that does not include the United States and its important Asian ally, Japan, as members.’

CICA had its fifth foreign ministers’ meeting in Beijing on 28-29 April – China currently holds the rotating presidency. Addressing the meeting, Xi Jinping stated that countries outside the region are ‘welcome to make a positive contribution to peace and stability’  in the South China Sea disputes. This clearly suggests that what China sees as ‘interference’ by external players is unwelcome.

Another puzzling issue is that while Beijing stresses the need for greater cooperation among regional countries and the need to guard against external players from ‘destabilising’ the region, China also talks about forming ‘a new type of great power relations’ with the US. Naturally, such idea makes other regional powers wonder if China also wants to establish a G2-led global order.

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