The effective diplomacy of reassurance
2017-10-30, Eduardo Araral

Napoleon Bonaparte once said: “China is a sleeping giant. Let her sleep, for when she wakes she will move the world.” 

China has woken up and shaken the world, but not the way Napoleon or many others feared. Instead, it has injected vital energy into the world economy, staunchly defended globalization and helped improve infrastructure in cooperation with other countries.

China has woken up to defend free trade and stand by the Paris climate agreement and UNESCO. It has also woken up to give thousands of scholarships to students from developing countries while welcoming students from the West.

Through actions and policies, at a time when the West is retreating from the global stage and cooperation, China aims to reassure the world of its continued cooperation. And that is precisely what General Secretary Xi Jinping focused on at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China on Oct 18.

Reassuring the world that China will adhere to peace regardless of how powerful it becomes, Xi has built on the foundations of friendship and sincerity, mutual respect for core interests and major concerns, dialogue and non-confrontation, and a win-win approach. 

I call this the principle of reassurance, which is at the core of China’s new model of diplomacy for both big and small countries and in total contrast to theories used to frame US-China relations, such as hegemony and the Cold War mentality of confrontation, proxy wars and containment.

Some examples illustrate the principle of reassurance. 

First, on the issue of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s nuclear program, Washington has been raising the rhetoric and firing salvos. 

On the other hand, Beijing strongly calls for de-escalation and reasonable sanctions without closing the door to dialogue while fully supporting UN Security Council sanctions against Pyongyang.

Second, smaller countries, especially those in China’s neighborhood, seek assurance from China that it will help maintain peace even as it becomes more powerful. The Philippines is a test case. 

The Philippines and China had, until recently, serious maritime boundary disputes. We now see a non-confrontational bilateral relationship that is marked by more dialogue and the understanding of each other’s interests. 

Third, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) wants assurance from China that the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea will be honored, which is also what China wants. 

The more China and ASEAN reassure each other, the more progress can be made in terms of the code’s framework and operation. 

And fourth, ASEAN wants assurance from both China and the United States that the bloc will not be used for their proxy rivalry.

In conclusion, the inherent uncertainties, suspicions and competition between the US and China reinforce the need for credible reassurance. It is good that the US and China have institutionalized their strategic dialogues and that US President Donald Trump will visit China in November.

Given that China’s rise is likely to raise suspicions, Beijing is right to adopt the principle of reassurance. If successful, China’s new model of diplomacy will belie Graham Allison’s Thucydides trap as a figment of a Western scholar’s imagination. It will also be regarded as one of the big contributions of Xi to the world.


The author is vice-dean and associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. The views expressed here are personal.

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