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Stability the Watchword for Progress in China

Opinion by Hu Shuli

Chinese diplomacy has had a busy few months, with numerous visits abroad by leaders and a constant stream of foreign leaders coming to the country.

Amid the flurry of activity, two meetings were particularly noteworthy: the sixth U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Beijing on July 9 and 10, and the BRICS leaders' summit in Brazil on July 15 and 16. The former offers a window into China's relationship with the world's sole superpower, while the latter maps out how the major emerging economies, including China, can work together toward mutual development.

These two events capture in a nutshell the risks and opportunities for Chinese foreign policy.

The global financial crisis of 2008 has ushered in changes in China's internal and external environments. While its economy has grown to become the world's second-largest, the risks of instability have increased in tandem. At this year's Sino-U.S. dialogue, President Xi Jinping took pains to note that China, now more than ever, needed a stable and peaceful external environment. We could not agree more.

Stability is vital for a country undertaking major reforms for future development. If China is to enjoy a stable external environment, it must first foster stability at home. At the same time, it must build sound relationships with the outside world to further the peace it needs to safeguard reform and growth.

In the wake of the financial crisis, a major trend is the ever closer cooperation between the world's biggest emerging economies. Brazil, Russia, India, and China held their first summit meeting in June 2009 in Yekaterinburg, Russia, with South Africa joining in 2010. Since then, a platform for engagement has taken shape, and the grouping is making its presence felt in global financial cooperation.

It is demanding a greater voice and representation for emerging markets in international financial institutions. It is also pushing for a more diversified global currency system.

At last year's summit in Durban, South Africa, the bloc proposed setting up a development bank and a currency reserve fund—both of which were launched by leaders meeting in Brazil.

Furthermore, the grouping is also collaborating more closely on cybersecurity and the fight against terrorism.

Such efforts reflect emerging economies' frustration with a global financial order they see as unfair and exclusionary. To some international relations analysts, the BRICS bloc aims to upset the global financial order, but it is more accurate to say it seeks an adjustment.

China, especially, has no wish to upset the post-Cold War global order it has benefited so much from. Xi made this clear at last week's Sino-U.S. talks when he said: "Cooperation between China and the United States can help both countries and the rest of the world accomplish great things. Confrontation between the United States and China would be a disaster for both countries and the rest of the world."

In recent years, there has been heated debate over whether China's foreign policy is diverging from its low-profile approach of old. The focus has been whether China should, as it becomes more powerful and its rivalries with other countries more intense, take a more aggressive and direct approach in protecting its interests. This is particularly relevant in its territorial disputes with neighboring countries in the South and East China seas.

Its actions so far show Beijing has not completely abandoned the low-profile approach. To understand China, we ought not only to see what it has done, but also what it has not. Notwithstanding its military strength, China has demonstrated restraint time and again in its rows with others. This reflects a longer-term strategic consideration that is commendable.

A country's foreign policy is an extension of its domestic governance. Since the blueprint for comprehensive reforms was unveiled at a major Communist Party meeting last year, progress in several major areas of change has been halting at best, and some complicated problems remain far from being resolved. With growth slowing and the risks of a financial crash lurking, the country must unite in meeting the challenge of its development. In the end, if it wants stable and peaceful external relations, China must first stabilize its own economy and society.

Above all, China must keep its head about external challenges. If its interests were threatened, it must be sure a forceful defense is appropriate to the threat. And its bottom line is it must not again allow external factors to impede its own modernization.

As things stand, many major economies around the world are still recovering from the financial crisis, and none are in a position or frame of mind for a major confrontation. China has no lack of analysts exaggerating the foreign threat. Its policymakers must remain alert.