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International relations

China warms up to neighbors for Pacific power play

In shift, Xi says China, US and other nations can share the region

A Chinese coast guard vessel seen from a Philippine fishing boat at the disputed Scarborough Shoal. China looks to tone down tensions with its neighbors to win allies in a long-term Pacific power struggle with the U.S.   © Reuters

BEIJING -- China appears set to take a softer hand with its neighbors as tensions with the U.S. escalate, seeking friends that will take its side in a long-term battle with Washington for influence in the Asia-Pacific region.

The Pacific Ocean is vast enough to accommodate China and the United States, as well as other countries, Chinese President Xi Jinping told visiting U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis in late June, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.

Dividing control over the Pacific with Washington has been Beijing's official goal since 2007, when Chinese military commanders proposed such an arrangement to American counterparts. On a 2012 a visit to the U.S. as vice president, Xi told then-President Barack Obama that the Pacific had enough room to accommodate their two countries.

But "other countries" have never before entered the picture.

This sudden shift apparently originated in late June's Central Conference on Work Relating to Foreign Affairs -- the most important foreign policy meeting on the Chinese calendar, last held in 2014, and in 2006 before that. There, Xi divided China's foreign policy into three broad strategies tailored to major powers, neighboring countries and developing nations.

With the first group, China targets a framework for stable, well-balanced relations. With neighbors, it looks to advance diplomacy, aiming to create an Asia-Pacific region favorable to its interests. Lastly, Beijing sees developing countries as natural allies and seeks cooperation and unity.

In essence, Xi's goal was to instill in the party, the government, the military and even the private sector his sense of China's place in the world, according to a person who received an insider explanation of the president's remarks. To understand the path of history, China must not only observe the current international situation, but also review the past, summarize historical laws, and look forward to the future, Xi said, according to Xinhua. Sources close to the matter say the president wrote this language himself, making it especially significant.

The insider described the president's view like this: Throughout history, great powers have risen and fallen. The U.S. will eventually enter a decline, giving rise to China's day. But as long as America remains more powerful, China should pursue alliances with neighbors and emerging nations, waiting until the time is right to claim supremacy.

This strategy accords with a phrase that has recently made a resurgence in China's foreign policy sphere: tao guang yang hui, meaning "to keep a low profile and bide one's time." A favorite of decades-ago leader Deng Xiaoping, the idiom is now gaining traction as a way to describe how China should interact with foreign diplomats -- namely, to hide its military strength and ambitions while its power builds.

Of course, China's capabilities have grown too large to hide completely. Beijing has proved willing to take a hard line on issues it defines as central, such as the status of Taiwan and territorial control of the South China Sea.

"Xi's government has fallen into reactive foreign policy as it emphasizes ties to the U.S. and responds to its actions," an expert in international politics here said. Beijing's recent overtures to Pyongyang came in response to warming ties between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump. In trade, China has only retaliated against new American tariffs.

If the U.S. holds its hard line on China, military tensions are inevitable. By softening Beijing's own foreign policy, Xi looks to keep its forces from overreacting to possible developments. Placing this strategy in the context of history, as Xi did in June, and spreading his foreign policy view throughout the Communist Party will help ensure that a change in direction at the top is felt and respected at the bottom of the chain of command.

Based on this assessment, Asian nations, including U.S. ally Japan, can expect more friendly overtures from Beijing. While China continues to build up its military presence in the South China Sea, it will likely take special care around the Scarborough Shoal, the disputed area most watched by the American military. All the while, Beijing will continue to pursue rapprochement with North Korea. China wants to retain leverage in negotiations with the U.S. while preventing chaos on the Korean Peninsula.

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