(N.B. This translation needs to be improved to bring out the thrust of the article better. Anyone in a position to assist will be gratefully acknowledged.)
The upcoming year 2020 has witnessed the strength and effectiveness of China’s diplomacy in its periphery. In addition to maintaining stable and positive development of many bilateral relationships, China has also actively promoted the process of regional cooperation with the help of the ASEAN series of Summits, APEC Summits and SCO Summits, and reached tangible results such as the “Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement”, (RCEPA). The latter has elevated regional cooperation to a new level.
In fact, in the process of promoting integration of the periphery, a basic aspect requires our special attention, which is the border area where China is connected to its neighboring countries by mountains and water. Our country has a land border of more than 22,000 kilometers and a coastline of more than 18,000 kilometers. This results in many of our provinces being (located) adjacent to neighboring countries on land or sea. These border areas affect national sovereignty and security and border stability and prosperity, and their peaceful development is closely related to that aspect. In our foreign relations, we emphasize that “the periphery is primary”, and the border areas adjacent to neighboring countries are in the vanguard of diplomacy, being the most grassroots and direct arena of action for diplomatic activities.
There are several concepts that need to be clarified in connection with conduct of neighborhood diplomacy. The first is the boundary between neighboring countries that divides their jurisdiction. The second is the narrow and long area adjoining the border, which is generally a county area with a border with the neighbouring country. The third is the frontier. It consists of a larger area, referring to the provinces bordering neighboring countries. The fourth is cross-border areas, that is, places that cross the borders of adjacent countries. These places are closely related to China’s national sovereignty and security, involving territorial division, border security, and some non-traditional security issues such as all sorts of cross-border crimes, challenges from ethnic separatist forces, natural disasters and the spread of epidemics. From a diplomatic perspective, it involves in-depth cooperation and integration with neighboring countries.
The issue of territorial demarcation with a few neighboring countries is a negative factor in China’s neighboring diplomacy. Moreover, there is an “arc of instability” around China. From Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia to South Asia, Central Asia and even the Middle East in West Asia, there are different degrees of ethnic strife, territorial disputes and even confrontation and conflicts between countries. In addition, in the process of China’s national development, there are also the so-called “old, young, marginal and poor” areas, which are often located in the border areas, and some of which are also the key areas requiring poverty alleviation. In short, in China’s neighboring regions, traditional security and non-traditional security are intertwined, and poverty reduction and development issues coexist. These issues are more or less related to borders, and frontiers. China needs to focus on grassroots border places and handle them with great wisdom while dealing with neighboring countries.
Based on the real needs of national border security, border construction and border development, I propose the concept of “rim diplomacy”. In other words, China needs to set a gold standard on its long land frontier and long coastline and its adjacent areas off the sea, so that our frontier and sea frontier can be stabilized and developed faster, and the border can further play the role of “bonding” and tightly linking China’s cross-border places with neighboring countries. In this sense, “rim diplomacy” is a kind of adhesive.
The development of “border diplomacy” is determined by the natural geographic endowment and human geography between China and its neighboring countries. In the border areas, China and its neighbors are naturally connected by mountains, rivers, ethnic groups and populations, and their fields and villages are inseparable from each other. For a long time, we have been using the concept of “border defense” to define the relationship between frontier provinces and their neighbors, i.e., the border and frontier as a defensive zone whose function is to protect national security from foreign invasion, both for the sake of the world’s prevailing philosophy and for practical security needs.
This is certainly necessary. However, as peace and development have become the theme of neighborhood diplomacy, we should also consider a proper change of concept today, taking into account the “border defense” of “guarding the border and strengthening it” while shifting to a greater extent to the “cross-border” of “promoting the border and enriching the people “across the border”. Development of border areas, and then cross-border cooperation with neighboring countries across the border, this more outward-looking active cooperation is conducive to deepening China’s connections with neighboring countries, and (forge) more common interests. This requires “rim diplomacy”.
In the implementation of “rim diplomacy”, border areas should be used as platforms and bridges for cooperation between China and neighboring countries. At present, there is already a good infrastructure support in China’s border areas. We have National Highway 331 and National Highway 219 from Liaoning to Xinjiang, and then through Tibet and Yunnan to Guangxi, and basically built National Highway 228 along the entire coastline. Cross-border road and railway construction, cross-border oil and gas pipeline access, cross-border grid connection, cross-border e-commerce application, and cross-border industry establishment can promote close connections between China and the other countries all along the border. China adopts a foreign policy of “good neighborliness, prosperity and security for neighbors” based on the diplomatic policy of “being good neighbors and regarding neighbors as partners”, and (seeks to) realize the strategic docking and interconnection between countries under the “Belt and Road” initiative. The policy and institutional foundation for “border diplomacy” has been laid.
The actors in the realm of “border diplomacy” are many. The first is the state. That is, through top-level design and guidance, consensus and even agreement, can be reached at the national diplomatic level. Second, local governments directly promote implementation. These (local) governments can be provincial governments, but the concrete implementation needs to be at the grassroots level in counties and even in villages and towns. Again, corporate companies can participate on their own. Enterprises of all kinds can become the main body of implementation, directly carry out economic development and trade cooperation and realize cross-border links through market behavior. Finally, it can be promoted through civil diplomacy. For example, if China and its neighbors have ethnic groups living across the border, it is important to encourage various types of civil contacts between them to promote economic and social cooperation.
“Border diplomacy” can be carried out in multiple fields. It should promote cross-border connectivity in the economic sphere, cross-border cooperation and law enforcement in the security sphere, mutual assistance and synergy in the livelihood sphere and civilian exchanges and integration in the humanitarian sphere. In the 14th Five-Year Plan, “promoting the border and prospering/enriching the people” has become one of the core tasks of national development, which can become the internal driving force for implementing “border diplomacy”. The recently signed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (RCEPA) provides the external institutional framework for “border diplomacy”. We should invest more in cross-border economic and trade, security, cultural and even academic exchanges and cooperation to further improve the “cohesion” of cross-border places, further promote deeper cooperation and integration between China and neighboring countries, and promote the establishment of a community of destiny in China’s neighboring region.
(The author is the Director of the Center for Strategic and Peace Studies at the Foreign Affairs Institute)