China must look to its past for future success

The Chinese should reflect on the historic foreign policy moves former leader Deng Xiaoping made in the 1970s to provide direction for the country's future relationships with both its Asian neighbours and the West.

For years after China opened its doors to the world in the late 1970s Beijing has been careful to cultivate a peaceful and friendly image, securing a stable external environment that is crucial for its economic development.

Beijing is now drumming up its economic reform credentials but policymakers also need to reflect on the strategic moves of a past leader for more inspiration.

The country is celebrating the 110th anniversary of the birth of leader Deng Xiaoping -- the man credited with bringing the country out of the shadows with a reformist legacy based on pragmatic and conciliatory foreign policy. He was instrumental in healing and developing fractured relationships with Japan and the US and credited for opening up China to the world after decades of Maoist extremism and autarky. New Chinese leader Xi Jinping wants to be seen as the inheritor of Deng’s reformist tradition.

However, in recent years Beijing seems to have become more and more assertive in its foreign policy, which has created tensions in the region. Last week, a Chinese fighter jet attempted to intercept a US surveillance aircraft near Hainan Island and it flew dangerously close to the Americans. Not to mention, China’s run-ins with Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Beijing’s increasingly tougher foreign policy stance is not only unnerving diplomats and military planners from Washington to Canberra, it is also making some of Deng’s former advisers and associates anxious about where China is heading.

Zhou Ruijin, a former senior editor at the People’s Daily, who penned a series of influential pro-reform editorials under pen name Huang Puping has warned about the risk of rising tide of nationalism in China in an opinion piece celebrating Deng’s legacy.

“Our task is to comprehensively deepen reform and we need a good external environment. I am very concerned about the rise of nationalism. Yes, we must defend our sovereignty but we need to resolve territorial disputes through political negotiation and not through creating war-like tension,” he wrote in an opinion piece for Caixin, a pro-reform publication.

Though it is common to view China’s current foreign policy in bellicose light, it is instructive to look at Deng’s foreign policy legacy. When he was coming back to power for the third time in the late 1970s, the country was isolated with few friends. Though Nixon made a historic visit to Beijing, Washington was still allied with the exiled Chinese Nationalist government in Taiwan.

Deng made a herculean effort to bring China out of isolation and laid the foundation for the country’s economic reform. The former leader needed to mend fences with two former arch-enemies: Japan and the US. The animosity towards the former was deeply rooted in history and the latter was a bitter ideological foe and strategic rival.

It took great courage for Deng to reach out to Japan. Many Chinese who were more than 40 years old in 1978 could still recall the horrors of Japanese invasion during the World War Two II. He had to convince Chinese patriots it was necessary to shelve historic grievances and embrace Japanese technology, capital and management know-how.  

Deng was the first Chinese leader to visit Japan since the end of World War II. “Deng came with a spirit of reconciliation and he brought the hope that the two people could live together in a new era of peace and goodwill,” wrote Professor Ezra Vogel, one of the most prominent Asia scholars in the US in Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China.

He downplayed the horrors of war when he was in Japan and instead focused on the shared cultural heritage of both countries. The former military commander who had fought against the Japanese Imperial Army in the 1930s and 40s also managed to defuse one of the most contentious issues between two countries: the territorial dispute of the Chinese-named Diaoyu Islands (also known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan).

Deng told Japanese reporters at a press conference that because the Chinese and Japanese held different views and used different names for the islands, the issue should be put aside so that later generations, who would be wiser than those present, could solve the problem. 

It seems that his successors are not really wiser than Deng’s generation; Diaoyu Islands have become the lightning rod for Chinese nationalists who thirst for revenge. These rocky outcrops are arguably the most dangerous flash point for the region.

China’s return to the international stage would not be possible without normalising its relationship with the US. Deng, the pragmatist also sacrificed one of his most cherished goals of reunifying Taiwan within his lifetime to secure the diplomatic recognition of Washington.

He reluctantly accepted the American demand that the US would continue to supply weapons to Taiwan after it switch its diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing. Vogel wrote that Deng knew that normalisation of relations with the US would make it far easier for China to have access to the knowledge, capital and technology that China needed in its drive for modernisation.    

Deng’s willingness to put aside most contentious issues in favour of cooperation had earned China crucial support and stable environment for economic development. Though China has emerged a great power after decades of miraculous economic growth, it is still fragile superpower with few friends. As the world’s greatest trading nation, it is in the country’s own interest to follow Deng’s example.