Courtesy Reuters

China's New Diplomacy


This summer, as the nuclear crisis in North Korea intensified, most eyes were focused on the adversaries in Washington and Pyongyang. Less noticed, but no less important, was the role of a third player: Beijing. China, long reticent on matters of foreign policy, had boldly stepped into the fray, suspending crucial oil shipments to North Korea, sending high-level envoys to Pyongyang, and shifting troops around the Sino-Korean border. It was China that arranged the tripartite talks held in Beijing in April. And China has not let up the pressure since. This summer, China detained a North Korean ship over a "business" dispute, and Vice Foreign Minister Dai Bingguo has shuttled between Pyongyang and Washington to ensure a second round of discussions.

Collectively, these initiatives represented a stark departure from more than a decade of Chinese passivity and buck-passing on the Korean nuclear question. And they signal a larger, although still largely unrecognized, transformation: China's emergence as an active player in the international arena. In recent years, China has begun to take a less confrontational, more sophisticated, more confident, and, at times, more constructive approach toward regional and global affairs. In contrast to a decade ago, the world's most populous country now largely works within the international system. It has embraced much of the current constellation of international institutions, rules, and norms as a means to promote its national interests. And it has even sought to shape the evolution of that system in limited ways.

Evidence of the change abounds. Since the mid-1990s, China has expanded the number and depth of its bilateral relationships, joined various trade and security accords, deepened its participation in key multilateral organizations, and helped address global security issues. Foreign policy decision-making has become less personalized and more institutionalized, and Chinese diplomats have become more sophisticated in their articulation of the country's goals. More broadly, the Chinese foreign policy establishment has come to see the country as an emerging great power with varied interests

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