At its first-ever work forum on diplomacy to China’s periphery, the Xi administration outlined strategic guidance to strengthen PRC leadership of the region as part of its overall strategy to realize the nation’s rejuvenation. While it stressed the need for economic integration and building friendly relations with neighboring countries, it also validated recent efforts to challenge Japan’s and the Philippines’ control of disputed maritime sovereignty claims. This suggests a China that is in coming years more selective about confrontation with fellow claims disputants, but no less determined. The work forum guidance also suggests that the U.S.-China relationship will grow more complicated. An increasingly confident Beijing appears poised to step up a competition for influence even as it increases efforts to improve cooperative, stable relations with the United States.
On 24–25 October, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Central Committee held a work forum on diplomacy to the periphery (zhoubian), i.e., the land and maritime regions adjacent to China. Central authorities last held a similar event in 2006, when then-CCP General Secretary Hu Jintao presided over a diplomacy work meeting. In the taxonomy of CCP official gatherings, work forums (zuotan) differ from work meetings (huiyi) in that the former tend to be smaller in attendance, shorter in duration, less structured events focused on a more specialized topic. This forum followed a number of important Politburo study sessions aimed at refining China’s diplomatic strategy. In January, the Politburo held a study session on China’s overall diplomacy (Xinhua, January 29). In July, the Politburo held a study session on maritime strategy topics (Xinhua, July 31).
PRC recognition of key long-term changes in the global economy and the international security environment, as well as of the region’s growing strategic importance, underpin the rationale for holding the work forum. As many analysts have noted, Asia is expected to expand its share of global GDP for years to come. Many economists predict that China’s economy will become the world’s largest in coming decades. Asia’s intraregional trade is also expected to continue to grow at a relatively high rate. Reflecting these developments, China and ASEAN recently announced that both hope to double this year’s trade volume to US $1 trillion by 2020 (Xinhua, October 9). At the periphery diplomacy forum, Xi hinted at such “great changes” when describing regional trends. He also cited geographic proximity, natural environment, political relations, and robust economic and trade as reasons for the “extreme strategic importance” of China’s periphery.
PRC leaders have explained that consolidation of China’s influence throughout Asia is essential for the country’s rise as a great power. Xi noted that the “strategic objective” of diplomatic ties to the periphery is intended to “serve and support” the CCP desired end state of “national rejuvenation” by mid-century. This requires developing “comprehensive relations” with regional powers and “consolidating friendly relations.” This guidance builds on the 18th Party Congress Work Report, which similarly called for efforts to “consolidate” (gongu) relations with the periphery (See China Brief, Vol. 12, Issue 23). As a consequence, Beijing appears to have elevated the importance of diplomatic relations with the region. Foreign Minister Wang Yi explained that relations with countries on China’s periphery had become the “priority direction” (youxian fangxiang) for foreign policy (People’s Daily, September 10).
The periphery diplomacy forum illustrates that the Xi administration has adopted a more detailed approach to strategic planning than was the case of the previous administration. PRC officials and commentators point out that this is the first diplomatic work meeting to feature the concept of “top level design” (dingceng sheji). Top level design is a concept borrowed from systems engineering, which first appeared in an authoritative document in the 12th Five Year Program. The idea focuses on planning policies and reforms in a “scientific,” top-down, comprehensive manner, informed by an understanding of the broader strategic picture. Closely associated with the “scientific development concept” pioneered by Hu Jintao, the concept featured prominently in the 18th Party Congress Work Report and has commonly appeared in many high level strategy and policy documents and speeches under Xi. The concept of top level design can be seen in the closer alignment of diplomatic work with broader strategic objectives, in efforts to incrementally enforce sovereignty claims, and in the focus on a more active approach to shaping the regional order.
Aligning diplomacy with strategic objectives
Compared with its predecessor, the Xi administration has shown a stronger focus on ensuring that diplomatic activities closely support longstanding PRC strategic objectives. Xinhua reported that the work forum aimed to establish the “strategic objectives, basic principles, and overall setup of the diplomatic work to the periphery in the next five to ten years” and to define the “line of thinking on work and the implementation plans for resolving major issues facing diplomacy to the periphery” (Xinhua, October 26). The focus on timelines, strategic objectives, and implementation plans stands in sharp contrast to the traditional focus on broad principles and guidance seen at the previous conference under the Hu administration (Xinhua, August 24, 2006).
Xi is the first General Secretary to publicly hint at foreign policy benchmarks to support broader strategic objectives set for 2021 (centenary of the Chinese Communist Party’s founding), and 2049 (centenary of the founding of the PRC), although Xinhua reported that the forum focused primarily on planning for the next five to ten years. Xinhua reporting did not provide details on the timeline policy benchmarks, but writings by high level experts potentially offer some insight. Chen Xiangyang, a top expert at the Ministry of State Security-run China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), outlined a three stage approach in keeping with the timelines mentioned by Xi. Chen described short term objectives, leading up to 2016, as focused on creating an “overall quiet and beneficial Asia Pacific environment for the smooth implementation of China’s 12th Five Year Program, preventing loss of control in Asia Pacific regional flashpoints, and strengthening crisis management and flashpoint control capabilities.” This suggests that in the near term, China will focus on simply managing, and not solving, its various claims disputes, as it maintains its focus on building national power.
Concurrently, Chen outlined mid-term objectives over the next ten years through 2021. In this period, he noted guidance to extend the “period of major strategic opportunity” by deepening economic ties with Asia. This period, stated Chen, should offer more promising conditions to “appropriately solve territorial disputes with neighboring countries.” This suggests that Beijing could be looking to resolve at least some of its disputes five to ten years from now after it has gained sufficient leverage.
For the long term (2020–2050), Chen noted guidance to create a beneficial environment for “realizing the mighty resurgence of the Chinese people,” the “complete unification of the country,” the “complete rise of China,” and to “become a defender of a Harmonious Asia-Pacific.”  This suggests PRC leaders view Taiwan unification and leadership in Asia as long term goals.
Guidance announced by Xi at the event supports this interpretation. Xi discussed strategic objectives which may be grouped in three broad categories: First, Xi discussed objectives that pointed to the creation of a stable and beneficial environment to enable China’s rise. Xi called for “comprehensively developing relations with countries on the periphery; consolidating good neighborly relations; deepening mutually beneficial cooperation; and maintaining and using well the important period of strategic opportunity for our country’s development.” Second, Xi emphasized the consolidation of control over China’s core interests. Xi called this “safeguarding the nation’s sovereignty, security, and developmental interests. Third, Xi provided guidance on strengthening China’s leadership role in Asia. Xi outlined objectives to “make the political relations between China and countries on the periphery even better, the economic links with our country even more solid, the security cooperation even deeper, and the people-to-people ties even closer.”
To realize these objectives, Xi provided policy guidance that spanned all elements of national power. These consisted of guidance to: 1) enhance political good will; 2) deepen regional economic integration; 3) increase China’s cultural influence; and 4) improve regional security cooperation. The guidance adds impetus to many policies already under execution:
At the forum, Xi called for policies that increase China’s influence in the region by cultivating good will. He outlined guidance to do more things that “warm the hearts of others so that neighboring countries will become even friendlier.” In so doing, Xi expressed a hope that the region would “identify more with us” and “render more support.” An example may perhaps be seen in Xi Jinping’s trip to Thailand in October 2013. During the trip, Xi pledged to buy 1 million tons of rice and 200,000 tons of rubber annually, a major increase which Thailand Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra praised as an “act of goodwill” (Xinhua, October 14; see also China Brief, Vol. 13, Issue 21).
Xi also called for policies which provide material aid and also deepen the region’s integration with China’s economy. He called for “rendering mutual aid and assistance” and “weaving an even closer network of common interests.” Xi outlined a vision in which Chinese money, technology, and resources lead the integration of the region. Xi identified a need for China and the region to “accelerate the pace of infrastructure and connectivity construction,” and build the “Silk Road Economic Belt” in Central Asia and the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” in Southeast Asia. Xi also called for accelerating the pace of implementing the “free trade zone strategy, expanding trade and investment cooperation, and establishing a new setup for regional economic integration.” Trends in intra-regional trade provide a foundation for such policies. Chinese officials predict that PRC trade with ASEAN will surpass PRC trade with the United States within five years. 
Xi also charged the culture apparatus with enhancing publicity work to “expand the social and popular foundation for long term development of our country’s relations with peripheral regions.” The key, noted Xi, lay in the “popular will” of populations. He called for promoting “tourism, science and education, regional cooperation, and other areas in order to make friends with as many people as possible, and build up extensive ties.” The CCP’s Sixth Plenum directed major investments in cultural products to increase China’s regional and international influence (Xinhua, October 18, 2011).
Xi called on the region to adopt a new approach to security along the lines of Chinese norms and ideals. He highlighted in particular the “new security concept” of “mutual trust, benefit, equality and cooperation” and called for China to “voluntarily take part in regional and sub-regional security cooperation” to “deepen strategic mutual trust.” China’s advocacy of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and acceptance of an invitation to take part in the US led Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise may be seen as examples of this approach (Xinhua, June 9).
Enforcement of sovereignty claims
While many of the objectives cited to enhance PRC influence, Xi also directed efforts to socialize the region to accept China’s view of its “core interests” and validated efforts to enforce PRC sovereignty and territorial claims against rival disputants. According to PRC theorists, China’s core interests are those collective national material and spiritual demands which are most vital to the nation’s development and survival and typically fall under three broad categories of sovereignty, security, and developmental interests.
Since taking office, Xi has stressed the importance of core interests. In a January Politburo study session, Xi emphasized that China will “stick to the road of peaceful development,” but that that it will “never sacrifice our national core interests” (Xinhua, January 29). The idea that China has set regional acceptance of PRC core interests as a condition for peace and stability forms the essence of the “principled bottom line” (yuance dixian) concept raised by Xi and other senior leaders in various venues. In the words of one People’s Daily article, China’s peaceful development “has a clear bottom line: it will not give up striving for its proper rights and interests, and still less will it sacrifice its core interests” (February 1).
The principled bottom line concept validates recent PRC efforts to enforce its sovereignty claims against rival claimants. PRC leaders appear to regard as successful efforts to apply whole of government pressure against neighboring powers who challenge PRC core interests, while controlling the risks of military escalation. One foreign ministry policy advisor praised China’s management of the Senkaku Islands dispute as an example, stating that “strong countermeasures” “broke” Japan’s actual control over the Senkakus while “not causing the entire situation to go out of control.” The official also praised China’s management of the Scarborough Reef dispute, concluding that China had “ended the history of the Philippines’ illegal harassment, inspections, and impounding of Chinese fishermen’s boats” while avoiding military conflict. 
Guidance to actively shape regional order
PRC leaders recognize the challenge of persuading the region of China’s peaceful intentions while simultaneously demanding the region accommodate an expanding definition of PRC national interests. To resolve this contradiction, Xi has directed a more active approach to shaping regional relations. At the forum, he highlighted an incentive based approach to enhance China’s moral authority and the appeal of cooperative relations. China’s leaders have also validated approaches to incrementally enforce PRC sovereignty and territorial claims against rival claimants in a manner that controls the risk of escalation.
Xi and his colleagues have proposed a “righteousness and profit concept” (liyi guan) to bolster Chinese moral credibility and attractiveness as a regional leader. Xi explained that this concept advocates “friendship,” emphasizes “justice,” and advocates assistance to developing countries. Xi also advocated values of “inclusiveness,” “common development,” and “regional cooperation.” He called on China to put these ideas into practice so that they become “common ideals” and “codes of conduct” for the countries in the region to “follow and abide by.”
State Councilor Yang Jiechi has similarly advocated the balancing of “justice” and “interests” as a way to encourage countries to support the exercise of PRC power. Yang explained that this includes both political and economic measures. Politically, the concept upholds “justice and fairness” and places “morals above all else.” Economically, it upholds “mutual benefit” and “common development.” Yang added that China will accommodate the interests of neighboring and developing countries that have been “long-term friends of China” (Qiushi, August 16).
Chinese scholars point out the concept includes a “disincentive” aspect not mentioned by the senior leaders. One prominent expert explained that the new policy guidance requires China to be “kind to friendly neighbors” but to also be “hard on bad neighbors,” a view commonly observed in such commentaries. 
Implications for the United States
The elevation of periphery diplomacy in priority carries important implications for the United States. The PRC’s clearer articulation of its vision, values, and principles by which it hopes to eventually lead Asia in some ways presents a clearer PRC agenda with which US authorities can engage. However, the same development suggests that PRC officials are growing increasingly confident in their views, and that they may be less amenable to change. The “principled bottom line” concept is an illustration of how China is setting a new baseline of acceptable options in its foreign policy approach.
The strategic guidance outlined at the work forum also shows why PRC relations with the United States will likely grow even more complicated. Both countries support many of the basic features of the current order and both acknowledge many points of convergence, among the most important of which is the necessity of stable ties to ensure the smooth operation of the global economy. Yet even as China steps up cooperation with the United States, it is positioning itself to compete more effectively for influence throughout the Asia Pacific region and the world. Xi’s exploitation of US domestic political difficulties to enhance China’s standing in Southeast Asia could be the first look at what will likely be an intensifying contest. As the struggle for influence grants as its prize the power to shape the evolution of the regional and global order, US-PRC competition will become increasingly inseparable from cooperation.
- Chen Xiangyang, “Hurry and Draw up Plans for China’s Asia-Pacific Strategy,” Liaowang, January 7, 2013.
- “ASEAN to Overtake US as Trade Partner,” Business Times, September 23, 2013.
- Qu Xing, “The Top Level Design and Bottom Line Thinking of Chinese Diplomacy,” Guoji Xianqu Daobao, September 16, 2013.
- Chen. See also Ye Hailin, “Establish a New Coordinate System in China’s Periphery,” Guoji Xianqu Daobao, November 18, 2011.