In 2002, the report to the 16th National Congress of the CPC proposed, “for our country, the first two decades of the 21st century is a period of important strategic opportunity for development, which we must seize tightly and which offers bright prospects.” This is the overall and fundamental strategic judgment of our party on the basis of comprehensive and in-depth analysis of the internal and external situation. In 2012, the report to the 18th National Congress of the CPC pointed out, “an examination of both the current international and domestic environments shows that China remains in an important period of strategic opportunities for its development, a period in which much can be achieved.”
Since the party and government made the strategic judgment of the “period of important strategic opportunity for development”, China’s security environment has undergone many profound changes. Particularly, after taking office in 2008, the Obama administration of the US had been active in promoting its “Asia-Pacific rebalancing” strategy, trying to shift the US strategic focus eastward, which had imposed certain strategic pressure on China and made the security environment in China’s neighborhood more complicated. Currently, there are some debates on the “period of important strategic opportunity for development” in China. Some analysts believed it is no good to use the term of “period of strategic opportunity for development”, since “period” may come to a close. The “20-year period of strategic opportunity for development” proposed at the beginning of this century is coming to an end with only 3 years left. There are still other analysts insisting that China cannot remain in a low profile any more, but dares to “show its muscles” instead, since the US has “returned to East Asia” in a high profile and “shifted its strategic focus” in recent years, taking an aim at China, while the Trump administration continues with a strategy of offshore balancing on China, which has made the contradiction between China and the US as a rising power and an established power more pronounced and in reality put an end to the period of strategic opportunity for development.
These views are more or less reasonable, but there are shortcomings with them, as they reflected a supposition that the period of strategic opportunity for development had derived from the US efforts to fight against terrorism that kept the US too busy to care about the eastern part of the world, which enabled China to “become wealthy without getting too much attention”; while in recent years, the US has “shifted its strategic focus”, which has ended the period of strategic opportunity for China. This may be a view too simplified to be true. This author has deemed that the period of strategic opportunity for development still exists in the new era, which is based on the following judgments:
A. The historic background against which the period of strategic opportunity for development came into being has not changed. The trend of globalization has evolved since the end of the Cold War, which has increased the interdependence of nations in the world. Although the regional hotspots have never stopped from cropping up, the international order has entered a period of vibrant adjustment and new uncertainties are on the rise, the historic trend of global multi-polarity and economic globalization has not been changed, with peace and development remaining the theme of the world today and the deep-rooted driving factors that boost the development of globalization continuing to exist in the foreseeable future. These factors include: the design of global communication infrastructure related to information revolution has kept transforming; the global market of goods and services closely related with the world information flow has continued to develop; the new global division of labor promoted by the transnational corporations; the end of the Cold War and the diffusion of democracy and consumer values on a global scale; and immigration and population movement in the world connected with the changing of the economic demand model and demographic structure as well as the worsening of the environment. The structural process composed of these factors has created a compact mode of global interconnectivity. As a result, the political communities as represented by nation-states have been incorporated into complex structures composed of overlapping forces, relationships and networks. As Chinese President Xi Jinping pointed out in his key-note speech delivered at the Davos World Economic Forum in January of 2017, the trend of economic globalization has not changed, as “economic globalization is the natural demand of the development of social productivity and the inevitable outcome of the advance of science and technology rather than artificially created by someone or some nations.”
B. The rapid rise of China over the past decade or so has greatly raised China’s national strength and international influence. In the foreseeable 20 years, the Chinese economy is expected to maintain the momentum of stable growth through deepening reforms and opening up, transforming the mode of economic development and giving a full play to the economic growth potentials of China’s western regions. The continuous and significant rise of China’s national strength and international influence will lay a solid foundation and make it possible for China to maintain and extend the period of strategic opportunity for a long time to come.
C. The American factors. It should be said that the US “Asia-Pacific rebalancing” strategy is a return to the US strategic traditions of “offshore balancing” pursued in the wake of the Second World War. Generally speaking, since the end of the Cold War, confronted with the uncertainties brought about by China’s rise, the US has pursued a hedging strategy mixed with such tactics as engagement, guarding against, containment, checks and balances toward China or a strategy of hedging against China. But hedging is not containment, as it has mainly aimed at reducing the potential risks brought up by China’s rising, shaping China’s preferences and conducts, and incorporating China into the international system dominated by the United States. On the whole, the US is willing to embrace China and encourage China to play more leading roles. Of course, the US cognition of China threat has risen since 2009 as it believed China had became “assertive” on issues concerned with maritime territorial disputes, resulting in the increase of the coercive factors like deterrence and checks and balances in American hedging strategy toward China. Since Trump coming to power, although the orientation of his internal and external policies has tilted “inwards”, his Asia-Pacific policy is expected to be focused on rebalancing without the label of rebalancing. In another word, the overall US hedging strategy mixed with tactics of guarding against, containment and checks and balances will not change fundamentally.
Therefore, the abovementioned factors have indicated that from the perspective of China’s historic position as well as the domestic and international situation China is facing, a judgment can be made that China is still in a period of important strategic opportunity for development in the new era, during which China can make great achievements. Nevertheless, the definition and connotation of the period of strategic opportunity for development have to be re-interpreted, as the formation and extension of the period of strategic opportunity for development not only depend on the internal and external objective factors, but also could be shaped forwardly. Moreover, when a nation is rising, its ability to shape the period of strategic opportunity for development will grow correspondingly. From a broader space-time coordinate, not only China is presently facing a period of strategic opportunity for development, but other rising powers in the history had also been confronted with the issue of how to take hold of the period of strategic opportunity for development, with some nations having taken the opportunity and others failing to do so, such as Germany in the post-Bismark era and America in the second half of the 19 century.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has attached great importance to the issue of period of strategic opportunity for development. In recent years, he pointed out several times that the period of strategic opportunity for development still exists, reiterating that we should preserve, make best use of and prolong the period of strategic opportunity for development. President Xi Jinping stressed at the Central Economic Work Conference in 2014, “although our economic development has entered new normal, it has not changed our judgment that China is still in the period of important strategic opportunity for development during which we can make great achievements, but rather changed the connotation and conditions of the period of important strategic opportunity for development”, making it clear that China should find, seek for and make best use of the period of opportunity for development under new internal and external circumstances. In November of the same year, President Xi Jinping pointed out when addressing the Central Foreign Affairs Work Conference, “China is still in the period of important strategic opportunity for development during which we can make great achievements. Our biggest opportunity is we are growing and becoming stronger, meanwhile laying store by risks and challenges of various kinds, and being good at turning risks into opportunities and getting out of harm’s way”, stressing once again on the importance of being adept at finding and creating opportunities. In February of 2017, President Xi Jinping demanded at the National Security Work Conference that national security work should “be schemed against the general background of the period of important strategic opportunity for our development”. It can be said that the important elaborations made by President Xi Jinping over the past few years on the “period of strategic opportunity for development” have composed an important element of his diplomatic thoughts for a new era.
President Xi Jinping pointed out that it is our greatest dream in China’s modern history to realize the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. In this sense, the period of strategic opportunity for development should serve the China dream and the goal of China’s peaceful development and great rejuvenation. Over the past 30 years since China began reforms and opening up, China’s national strength has been greatly enhanced, and China’s international status and influence have no longer been what they used to be, but the growth of national strength itself does not naturally ensure the extension of the period of strategic opportunity for development. After China’s national strength has been boosted, what foreign strategy or policy it should pursue will to a large extent influence the response of the world to China, which will determine whether the period of strategic opportunity for China could be prolonged. In another word, as the period of strategic opportunity for development is an integral part of China’s overall external strategy, our reflection on the period of strategic opportunity for development should be in line with this grand premise.
To take hold of the period of strategic opportunity for development in the new era, we should first of all do our things well and secondly manage well the relations between a rising China and the World, particularly the relations with neighboring countries, which could be summed up as “two adheres and two mores”, namely firmly adhere to reforms and opening up and firmly adhere to the strategy of peaceful development and win-win cooperation; meanwhile, the more we develop and the stronger we become, the more we should remain modest and prudent. So long as China sticks to the path of peaceful development, the period of strategic opportunity for development will be maintained and prolonged.
To be specific, first, well manage the relations with the US that dominates the existing international systems, and keep the security dilemma between China and the US from further deepening so as to get away from the Thucydides trap. Stable and cooperative relationship between China and the US is an important foundation for China to develop peacefully in 20 to 30 years or more to come in the future, which has called us to analyze with a spirit of seeking truth from facts the US strategic intentions and actions, correctly understand the intents and objectives of the US on the issues of the South and East China Seas, and resolutely safeguard China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, while balancing well the relations among sovereignty, security and development to avoid simplistic judgment and reaction. We should also respond properly to the strategic trend of the US in the Asia-Pacific region, and expand the convergence of interests between China and the US through strengthening cooperation with the US on regional and international affairs as well as on security agendas, so as to enhance mutual trust and avoid strategic hostility between China and the US as well as lower the mentality of the countries within the region to take advantage from the contradictions between China and the United States.
Second, manage well China’s relations with its neighbors. Neighboring diplomacy is an important component of China’s major power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics, which has been committed to the idea of neighboring diplomacy of amity, sincerity, mutual benefit and inclusiveness, intended to build a community with a shared future with the neighboring countries, upheld the principle of forging friendship and partnership with the neighbors, persisted in bringing harmony, security and prosperity to the neighbors, and intended to deepen win-win cooperation and interconnectivity with neighboring countries. While resolutely preserving our national sovereignty, security and development interests, we should also make efforts to promote political relations with the neighboring countries, strengthen economic ties, deepen security cooperation, engage in closer cultural communication, and consolidate the awareness of the neighboring countries on the community with a shared future to make China’s neighboring region a strategic basis for its peaceful development.
Third, against the background that the international landscape and order are currently undergoing profound adjustment, division and transformation, we should take the global governance and the Belt and Road Initiative as the breakthrough point and grip, actively propose China’s solutions, raise China’s discourse power and influence in global governance, uplift China’s ability to shape international rules and order, and increase the recognition of the international community over China’s influence and leadership.
All in all, in the light of the new international situation, how to rationally and soberly analyze the international situation as well as the opportunities and challenges presented by the global situation, manage well the relationship between domestic and international situation, turn the unfavorable conditions into favorable ones, meet the various kinds of challenges emerging in the course of China further rising to become a power of global leadership and turn them into favorable opportunities for China’s development, and positively shape the future “period of strategic opportunity for development” for China are all what China’s diplomatic work in the new era has called for.