China is actively promoting the concept of a ‘Community of Common Destiny’ in its diplomacy. A key challenge will be to get past the ambiguity of the expression, writes Denghua Zhang.
The concept of ‘Community of Common Destiny’ (CCD, or 命运共同体) has become a mainstay of China’s diplomacy in recent years.
In his recent address at the 13th National People’s Congress, President Xi Jinping vowed to “let the sunshine of a community with a shared future for humanity illuminate the world”.
However, the CCD concept is vague in meaning and loosely used by the Chinese government. So far, the most detailed explanation has come from Xi’s speech at the 70th UN General Assembly in September 2015:
“We should build partnerships in which countries treat each other as equals, engage in mutual consultation and show mutual understanding… We should create a security architecture featuring fairness, justice, joint contribution and shared benefits… We should promote open, innovative and inclusive development that benefits all…We should increase inter-civilization exchanges to promote harmony, inclusiveness and respect for differences… We should build an ecosystem that puts Mother Nature and green development first.”
These principles are abstract and the question of how to translate them into practice remains to be answered. Another outstanding question is how to tailor implementation plans to different partner countries and sectors.
China is seemingly aiming its CCD concept primarily at developing countries. For instance, Xi has frequently called for the establishment of a CCD between China and developing countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
By contrast, he has seldom used the CCD to label China’s relations with developed nations. Being aware of the deep-rooted political and strategic mistrust between China and the West, Beijing has chosen to emphasise their common economic interests and describe this partnership as a “community of common interests” (利益共同体).
China’s differentiated approach to the CCD is emblematic of its long-held diplomatic practice, which is to side with developing countries as default political partners while fostering ties with developed countries as economic partners.
The immediate trigger for the CCD concept was the escalating territorial disputes between China and ASEAN states in the South China Sea, which make it urgent for Beijing to mend ties with these countries.
This impasse has obstructed China’s neighbourhood diplomacy, which aims to maintain regional peace and stability to facilitate China’s own development. China has therefore defined its diplomatic objective of maintaining good partnerships with neighbouring countries as a priority task (周边是首要).
Against this backdrop, all seven members of China’s Politburo Standing Committee attended a domestic workshop on China’s diplomacy with neighbouring nations in October 2013. President Xi stated that “a good neighbourhood diplomacy is needed for achieving the ‘two centenary goals’ and the China dream of rejuvenating the Chinese nation”.
However, whether China can mitigate regional tensions by pursuing the CCD will be tested in the future.
A closer observation of China’s foreign policy reveals a deep-rooted motive for Beijing’s CCD concept. In short, it is likely a continuation of China’s strategy to ease the concern of other countries about China’s rise. This aims to maintain a favourable international environment for China’s economic development to rejuvenate the country.
As early as November 2002, then-President Jiang Zemin stated at the 16th Party Congress that “the first two decades of the 21st century are a period of important strategic opportunities, which we must seize tightly and which offers bright prospects”.
Since then, sustaining this ‘period of strategic opportunities’ (战略机遇期) has been a primary objective of the Chinese government. President Xi reiterated the concept at China’s Central Conference on Work Relating to Foreign Affairs in November 2014: “China is still in an important period of strategic opportunity for its development endeavor in which much can be accomplished”.
Some senior Chinese scholars argue that this period of strategic opportunities could even be extended to the first three decades of the 21st century.
The CCD’s future as a mainstay of Chinese diplomacy depends on whether it will be accepted by China’s partner countries. The main challenge is the ambiguity of the concept, which will make it difficult for China to promote its acceptance by developing countries, let alone by developed ones.
Today, it might be easier for China to forge closer economic relations with partner countries, but providing them with the political and strategic assurance to create a real Community of Common Destiny remains an enormous challenge.
This paper is based on the author’s article ‘The Concept of “Community of Common Destiny” in China’s Diplomacy – Meaning, Motives and Implications’, which is published in Asia & the Pacific Policy Studies in April 2018.