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Communication key to Beijing's relations

BEIJING • To Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, the key reason behind China's strained ties with the United States and Japan, and the mistrust over some of its actions, was misperception.

That was why the key goal of Mr Wang's press conference on Tuesday was to urge other countries to adopt the right perspectives of China's strategic intent and role.

On Sino-US ties, he said the source of friction is how some Americans "cherish strategic suspicions about China" and worry that it will supersede the US one day, and warned against judging China with the American mindset.

On Sino-Japanese ties, he accused Japanese politicians of "double dealing" - saying nice things while making trouble - and added that the key lies in whether Japan wants to view China as a friend or foe, a partner or an adversary.

On China's construction activities and military deployment in the contested South China Sea, he urged others to view its actions as within the country's right of self-preservation and self-defence, and not as part of militarisation.

On China's "One Belt, One Road" strategy of reviving two ancient Silk Road trading routes, he said it should not be seen as an effort of Chinese expansionism, but as an exercise in China's opening up.

On top of trying to prove that it will act differently from other rising major powers, China will also need to communicate differently.

Mr Wang was right that correct perspectives matter and his performance might have helped allay some concerns.

However, he omitted to say how China's assertive actions and deficient communication were also partly to blame.

For instance, China remained mum for over a month although a law passed by Hainan province on Nov 29, 2012 had sparked worries, especially among the other South China Sea claimant-states.

The fear was that the law, which empowered the police to board, seize and expel foreign ships illegally entering the province's waters, would cover the entire sea. Beijing clarified later that it was applicable only within a narrow coastal zone off Hainan.

Also, it cannot blame others' misgivings over China's rise, as history shows that conflict is inevitable in the ascent of a new power. So, on top of trying to prove that it will act differently from other rising major powers, China will also need to communicate differently.

Of course, there are cases of the so-called misperception that might be justified. For instance, some strongly suspect that China's activities in the South China Sea are aimed at declaring an air defence identification zone - like it did in the East China Sea in 2013.

On the other hand, there are factors limiting China's ability to adopt a more open and responsive communication policy.

They include difficulties in dealing with local or government agencies, although these have diminished, with President Xi Jinping's growing power. But the stakes are too high for China not to consider a new approach.

The best-case scenario arising from inaction is a lacklustre response to China's initiatives, which would have benefited itself, regional stability and the global economy.

The worst-case scenario is armed conflict, which may disrupt the regional peace and stability that China needs for its development.

Even the state-run China Daily believes Beijing "has its own homework to do" in explaining itself and its strategic intent.

In an editorial yesterday, it said China's past failure to articulate its strategic intent is partly to blame for misperception about its behaviour and "left room for manipulation by parties with malicious intentions". This has given rise to misinterpretation which, in turn, has led to "over-interpretation of and overreaction to Beijing's strategic purposes".

The editorial admitted that it will not be easy for Beijing to talk Tokyo and Washington into believing that it wants to become a different type of major power.

However, it added: "But that is no excuse to give up. Instead, besides acting differently from previous world powers, Beijing should redouble its efforts to explain itself and communicate its intentions."

Mr Wang's explanation might be a good start. One can only hope that China will keep at or improve on it.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 10, 2016, with the headline 'Communication key to Beijing's relations'. Print Edition | Subscribe