By Li Xiaokun in Beijing, Fu Jing in Brussels, Zhang Chunyan in London and Chen Jia in San Francisco
BEIJING, Jan. 2 (Xinhuanet) -- China's diplomacy in 2014 will focus on neighboring countries, as its new leadership aims to forge the nation into a stronger regional power, observers from various countries said.
A stable relationship with its neighbors, particularly where the interests of Beijing and Washington overlap, will also help prevent major clashes between the two giants, they said.
"It does not mean we do not attach importance to big nations or developing countries, but neighbors will be the focus at the moment," said Jin Canrong, deputy dean of the School of International Studies under Renmin University of China.
The Peripheral Diplomacy Work Conference, held in Beijing in October, signifies this trend, Jin said. The event was the first of its kind since the People's Republic of China was established in 1949.
All seven members of the Standing Committee of the CPC Central Committee's Political Bureau attended the conference, which set the direction for work in this field for the coming five to 10 years.
President Xi Jinping said at the meeting that the neighboring region is strategically important, and that in diplomacy, one must understand the trends of the time, devise an appropriate strategy and plan carefully.
He said sound relations with neighbors will benefit both China and the region, adding that the basic tenet of diplomacy with neighboring countries is to treat them as friends and partners, make them feel safe and help them develop.
Jin said the priority in China's regional diplomacy in 2014 is to "ease tensions while adhering to China's basic stance", referring to China's territorial disputes with some nations.
He added that there are two major external problems facing Chinese diplomacy: the United States' distrust of China, and China's conflicts with some neighbors.
"It seems that so far, the US does not have the will nor the energy to directly confront China. Instead, it chose to take advantage of China's neighboring nations" to create confrontations, Jin said. "So if China can maintain stable relations with its neighbors, it can ease the two problems at the same time."
Washington has many cards to play in China, such as issues related to Japan, the Philippines and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Jin said, adding that Beijing has to remain alert.
Bob Berring, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and a noted scholar, said that China will continue to assert itself as a great power in the Pacific.
"The age in which the United States exercised virtual control of the Pacific region is passing. Diplomacy may make this easy, but bad judgment on either side could make it hard."
However, Berring added, "The United States is easily distracted and has no coherent foreign policy toward China. This, and a looming election in the United States, will make the job more difficult."
He said "the Chinese leadership puts the good of the Chinese people before any dogmatic ideas", and he expects the coming years to see "a flexible but strong stance on international affairs".
"Regaining control of all territory that is rightfully part of China will remain the highest priority," Berring said.
Historian Odd Arne Westad, speaking to the Asia Society of New York on Dec 18, said, "There's no one that I know of currently in China, at the top level of Chinese politics, who sees China as a successful global power anytime soon.
"Today and for the next decade, possibly the next two decades, China will first and foremost be a regional power."
Japan and ASEAN nations
Duncan Freeman, senior research fellow of Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies, said Beijing should be "very careful" in its relations with its neighbors.
"It's not in China's interests to get neighbors nervous about the peaceful-rise strategy," said Steve Tsang, professor of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham in England.
On Sino-Japanese ties, arguably the rockiest of China's diplomatic relationships, Jin from Renmin University said that in 2014, the two countries should ease their confrontation over the Diaoyu Islands, which hurts both sides.
Ian Taylor, professor of international relations at University of St Andrews in the UK, said, "What China, Japan and others should do is to make themselves heard without making others feel nervous. It's a difficult balance because making yourself heard can also be interpreted by others as being aggressive … particularly in that part of Asia. There are a lot of historical memories and tensions."
But Su Hao, a professor of Asia-Pacific studies at China Foreign Affairs University, said that Japan is committed to enhancing its ability to confront China in the "rivalry of peers".
He said China should strengthen legal enforcement and patrols in the East China Sea, including waters around the Diaoyu Islands and increase air forces in the region to "gradually win a strategic advantage".
"Tensions in the East China Sea are also a concern of the US. China should make concerted efforts with the US to contain the rising right-wing and militarist forces in Japan."
In Southeast Asia, Su said, Beijing wants to maintain stability, which was boosted in 2013 by China's breakthrough agreements with Brunei and Vietnam on joint development in disputed areas in the South China Sea.
Therefore, one priority will be implementation of the deals, he said.
Su said that Beijing also will seek "an upgrade in quality" in its economic relationship with ASEAN.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in December that China will seek early results in the building of the "maritime Silk Road" in 2014.
Beijing will also push for "tangible achievements" in upgrading the Sino-ASEAN free trade area and negotiations on the Regional Economic Comprehensive Partnership, he said.
"The will is important, the proposals are also eye-catching, but the key lies in implementation," Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs Liu Zhenmin said when talking about China's 2014 diplomacy plan in Asia in an interview released on Wednesday.
Still, Su said, the Philippines will remain a spot of potential conflicts with China as Manila seeks international arbitration on the South China Sea instead of peacefully negotiating with Beijing.
DPRK and Afghanistan
Qu Xing, president of the China Institute of International Studies, said the "unstable and somehow unpredictable" situation in the DPRK might bring new turbulence and pose a challenge to China, which has all along tried to quench fires on the peninsula.
Beijing will also have to be alert for the potential security, political and economic impact of the withdrawal of troops of the US and NATO from Afghanistan and the presidential election in Afghanistan in 2014, he said.
The Chinese have increasing investments in their war-torn neighbor, which also plays a significant role in China's fight against terrorism, which is rampant in its western areas such as the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.
China will host an international foreign ministers' meeting on the Afghanistan issue in 2014.
(Source: China Daily)