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Interpreting China’s Diplomatic Shifts

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China Power | Diplomacy | East Asia

Interpreting China’s Diplomatic Shifts

While Beijing is jettisoning some of the most pugnacious elements in its prior diplomacy, it has not undertaken a fundamental pivot.

Interpreting China’s Diplomatic Shifts
Credit: Depositphotos

The past three months have seen tentative signs of a seeming diplomatic reorientation emerging from China. From the summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden in November, which laid the foundations for an uneasy peace between the two powers; to the subtle yet noticeable shift away from more bellicose rhetoric employed by Chinese diplomats to characterize Beijing’s relationships with Washington, Tokyo, Canberra, and other countries with which the country has shared recently volatile bilateral relations, it does appear that Beijing’s approach to diplomacy – at least on face value – has exhibited noticeable changes since the 20th Party Congress.

While Chinese diplomacy has certainly shifted in tone, rhetoric, and even in stances on matters deemed to be of secondary, non-substantive importance, such shifts should not be construed as a fundamental pivot. Beijing has certainly opened itself to more rapprochement, engagement, and constructive collaboration across economic and strategic matters (spanning climate change, public health, and civil society exchanges) with an increased number of allies – yet such transitions should not be misinterpreted as a sign of its abandoning long-standing commitments and what Beijing dubs as “baselines” (dixian).

In short, whilst China is jettisoning some of the most pugnacious elements in its prior policy, it has not performed a radical U-turn on this front – unlike, perhaps, its COVID-19 policy. Much of this is consistent with what I termed China’s “two-pronged diplomacy” – both charm offensive and wolf warrior diplomacy are tactically deployed by the country’s diplomats.

A Conspicuous Tonal and Secondary-Issue Shift 

In the eyes of key decision-makers in Beijing, the precipitous reopening of the country at breakneck speed was itself a gesture with significant signaling value. There were at least three motivations: first, to mollify domestic discontent over the restrictive measures and the deleterious state of the economy; second, to signal to external investors that China is bent on returning to a more organic, pro-growth trajectory (also see the many other stimulus measures introduced to halt the downward spiral); and third, to convey to foreign governments that China is once again seeking to re-engage the world through resuming commercial and private visits and exchanges between its citizens and the international community.

Such changes are echoed by three additional dimensions of diplomatic shifts. First, China has proactively sought to court and rekindle bilateral and multilateral collaborations with a wide range of partners. Pronounced and long-standing partners – such as Russia (former President Dmitry Medvedev paid a visit to Beijing late last month) and Pakistan (Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif went to Beijing in early November) – were duly rewarded with warm welcomes.

Yet what stole the show as Xi began his third term was the flurry of diplomatic rapprochement and re-engagement between China and European partners. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s visit secured a number of ambiguous concessions from China on commercial issues and the war in Ukraine. European Council President Charles Michel’s visit was aimed at stabilizing Sino-European ties, though drew the ire of hard-liners within Brussels. In addition to hosting European leaders, Xi and French President Emmanuel Macron met on the sidelines of the G-20 in Bali.

Xi also made an in-person return to the G-20 and APEC summit, with Biden notably absent from the latter. All signs here point to a desire, or at least communicated intention, on Beijing’s part to reset relations with countries with which it either shares significant border conflicts or historically embedded animosities (e.g. Japan and Vietnam), as well as countries that Beijing perceives to wield hefty geopolitical influence – and the potential to inhibit China’s continued economic growth.

Second, Chinese diplomats have adopted more conciliatory language and frames in describing their relationships with and outlooks on a number of countries. At the 18th Beijing-Tokyo Forum in early December, then-Foreign Minister Wang Yi affirmed that “China and Japan should engage each other with trust and remain firm in political commitments… and adhere to win-win cooperation.” Contrast this with Wang’s stern warning in May over Japan’s prospective alignment with the United States.

Given that the Quad had, since mid-2022, considerably dialed up talk of greater cooperation in face of China’s rising military might, the tonal change suggests that Beijing is willing to soften its discursive framing of important bilateral relations to de-emphasize adversarial divergence and emphasize areas of purported convergence. Chinese Ambassador to Australia Xiao Qian similarly sought to assuage concerns over China’s presence in the Indo-Pacific, through affirming that there is “no reason” for the U.S., U.K., and Australia to “stand together” to be “targeting China”, given “China’s not seeking to be [an] enemy of the United States […], the United Kingdom, nor […] Australia.”

Third, some suggest that some of Beijing’s recent moves have been made in attempt to prevent a diplomatic fracas, which would come at an inopportune time as the country seeks to “reset [its] economy and win back friends.” The recalling of the Manchester-based Chinese consul general could be interpreted as a preemptive move against prospective acrimony between China and the United Kingdom.

Likewise, the recent visit by President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines to Beijing saw China affirm the value in boosting Sino-Filipino ties through offering a potential oil exploration deal to Manila. Xi noted that China intended to resolve disputes through consultation – though did not specify that such consultation would apply to the South China Sea. China appears to have toned down some of its more confrontational and blunt foreign policy demands, in exchange for active and often substantively backed indications of openness to negotiations and consolidation of collaboration from regional players.

Making Sense of These Subtle Shifts 

The strategic diversifying – with partial softening, partial refocusing, and partial shifts in mere cosmetic and tonal terms – can be attributed to a series of domestic political and economic factors. They have less to do with international opprobrium – with one noticeable dimension to be discussed shortly – and more to do with internal concerns over the country’s growth trajectory and ability to cultivate technological and commercial self-sufficiency.

The starting-point of any account must take into account that upon the conclusion of the 20th Party Congress in October 2022, the upper echelons of the Chinese leadership felt that they were in a considerably stronger position to make concessions and moves that would potentially upset hard-liners – motivated by ideology or factional politics – who are reluctant to accept any form of perceived “capitulation” toward foreign pressures. With the Party Congress now over, the new Politburo Standing Committee was in an extremely consolidated position to shift toward gradual, temporary, and exploratory rapprochement with the international community. That dynamic undergirded Xi’s outreach to Biden at the Bali summit; the summit, in turn, was indicative of the enduring influence of third parties – chiefly Brussels – in moderating substantial skepticism between Beijing and Washington.

Moreover, there was an incredibly powerful economic case to be made for China’s re-engaging the world. The aftermath of the war in Ukraine saw talk of “reshoring,” “near-shoring,” and “friend-shoring” rise to the forefront of discussions on supply chains and trade. The prospects of surging financial balkanization has similarly piqued China’s concerns that it would be cut off from the vast volumes of capital and liquidity in the global financial markets, should it be further targeted with punitive sanctions and more robust containment measures. Finally, sluggish growth rates and worrying unemployment figures within the country have precipitated a structural rethink over whether the country is truly capable of maintaining a tenacious “internal circulation” without a highly effective and sustainable “external circulation.”

The case for appearing strong and defiant in face of an increasingly hostile international environment would only be plausible to the domestic audience insofar as China can preserve macroeconomic structural stability. By the end of the third quarter of 2022, it became starkly clear to the Chinese leadership that a recalibration to its foreign policy was needed in order to restore a degree of trust and openness to engage from all parties.

Finally, there are pull factors – such as the European Union’s increasingly apparent disagreements with the United States over core issues such as the latter’s protectionism and America-first investment and trade policies, as well as the resentment sowed by the hefty toll of the ongoing war in Ukraine. Senior Chinese leaders have either come to grasp that there is a growing rift between Washington and Brussels, or developed the view that more proactive outreach efforts to Europe would aid with restoring a degree of “healthy” distance and between Europe and America. The extent to which this vision would in fact materialize remains to be seen.

Softening Should Not Be Conflated With a Pivot

I have repeatedly noted that while Chinese diplomacy certainly has not “stayed the course,” it has also not undertaken a fundamental pivot. At its core, Beijing’s international worldview has not changed – many senior academics, advisers, and think-tank intellectuals remain convinced that Washington is fundamentally resolved that the United States and China must inevitably be engaged in a showdown, whether it be protracted or blitzkrieg-style, that yields a decisive result.

The hypothesized Thucydides’ Trap – the somewhat dubious assumption, that war between China and the United States is inevitable unless drastic, radical measures are undertake – is morphing into reality as all parties subscribe to and propagate their fair share of what former Morgan Stanley Chief Economist Stephen Roach terms as “false narratives.” The CHIPS and Science Act, signed into effect in August, denoted the United States’ clear intentions to constrain Chinese technological innovation and developments. Talk of great power rivalry and confrontation has not subsided in Chinese intellectual spaces, even while official party rhetoric resumes a degree of normalcy and amiability in relation to Washington.

For any changes to foreign policy to classify as a pivot, there must be a clear sense that something fundamental has shifted, yielded, or been altered rather seismically. Yet Beijing’s baselines remain unchanged – on Taiwan, for instance, Beijing’s conception of national reunification dominates discussions concerning territorial sovereignty and domestic security. While as of this writing new U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has shown no concrete sign yet of traveling to Taiwan, any prospective move of that nature is likely to provoke a stiff response from Beijing comparable to the one seen surrounding former Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit in August – though one would hope that further escalation would be unlikely.

Furthermore, the ongoing spats between Beijing and Seoul over visas and travel restrictions reflect the fact that the tendency toward defensiveness and bellicosity has yet to be – if indeed it ever will be– removed from the repertoire adopted by Chinese diplomats. On matters concerning pride and international standing of the Chinese people, the country’s spokespersons have not – and are unlikely to – back down considerably. Indeed, to play it soft would incur the wrath of millions of Chinese citizens (and netizens), who would likely view concessions as signs of weakness.

Finally, much ink has been spilled on the alleged implications and significance of a string of personnel shifts – the replacement of former Director of Office of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission Yang Jiechi with former Foreign Minister Wang Yi, with former Chinese Ambassador to the U.S. Qin Gang taking over Wang’s post as foreign minister, as well as the reshuffling of former Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian to a post concerning oceans and borders. These moves have all been cited variably as signs of changes to Chinese foreign policy.

As much as studying personnel shuffles and movements could be of great interest to most China watchers, it behooves us to recognize that most foreign policy decisions and policies are not made at the ministerial level; instead, such decisions fall under the remit of the Politburo, especially trusted members whom Xi designates internally as advisors and counsel on foreign affairs. Most of the above shifts, furthermore, were the results of natural retirement and succession planning. At best, one could argue that Qin’s appointment, which places an America hand now in charge of foreign affairs once again (Wang is a seasoned expert on Japan), is indicative of the emphasis placed by Beijing on Sino-American relations. Yet that fact alone is hardly surprising.

In short, as of early 2023, Chinese diplomacy is neither staying the course nor pivoting fundamentally.