Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang visited Germany, France and Norway from May 8 to 12, meeting with his counterparts in each country.
This trip came two weeks after Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, had their first contact since Russia’s invasion. Xi’s call with Zelenskyy sits at the pinnacle of Beijing’s diplomatic charm offensive to restore its strategic relations with Europe as well as Asia, Latin America, and Africa – often referred to as the Global South. Since late March, Xi has hosted heads of state and government chiefs from Brazil, Spain, Singapore, Malaysia, France, and the European Union, among others. Meanwhile, top Chinese diplomats and state officials have lined up talks with their counterparts in Central Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East.
China is keen to assert its leadership by proposing solutions to the world’s most pressing and unresolved security issues. Beijing has taken credit for restoring relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Moreover, on April 18, China’s foreign minister told his Israeli and Palestinian counterparts that Beijing is ready to help facilitate peace talks. The long-anticipated call between Xi and Zelenskyy reaffirmed Beijing’s ambition to serve as a neutral peace broker, despite receiving international skepticism on China’s ties with Russia and the practicality of its vague 12-point peace plan for solving what Chinese officials call the “Ukraine crisis.”
Beijing’s charm offense seems to posit a U-turn from its previous “wolf warrior” strategy. Since 2023, China has side-lined several hardline diplomats such as Zhao Lijian, a previous Foreign Ministry spokesperson. Recently, Beijing also made a rare official statement distancing the government from the remark of the controversial Chinese ambassador to France, Lu Shaye, on the sovereignty of former Soviet republics.
From Geopolitical and Economic Priorities to Ideational Vision
Why is Beijing putting on a friendly face? Neorealists have pointed out the obvious: Beijing seeks to counterbalance Washington’s pressure on its allies to isolate China. The U.S.-led “China-threat” rhetoric has solidified security alliances between the United States and its Asia-Pacific and European partners.
A Japan-U.S. joint statement published after the “2+2” meeting in Washington, D.C., in January stated that China’s behavior “represents the greatest strategic challenge in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond.” In April, it was confirmed that U.S. nuclear-armed submarines will resume visits to South Korea for first time in 30 years. Furthermore, U.S. intelligence agencies have cautioned European allies against falling for China’s claims of neutrality in the Ukraine war, with leaked information on China’s lethal aid to Russia, which is an accusation denied by Beijing. The strategic priority to navigate through this “anti-China” campaign is evidently a pressing factor for Beijing’s turn toward diplomatic charm.
Simultaneously, China is keen to jumpstart its economic growth following the COVID-19 pandemic. However, achieving these economic goals is challenging, as China’s major commercial partners are considering decoupling from China due to concerns over supply chain vulnerability and China-Russia ties. The strategy paper of Germany’s Economy Ministry expressed concerns over economic dependence on China and proposed finding alternative market and manufacturing hubs. Qin’s visit to Europe was specifically timed to address proposed economic sanctions by Brussels on Chinese companies accused of selling equipment to Russia. Essentially, China’s diplomatic strategy is meant to pave the way for reigniting Chinese economic growth with more international opportunities.
However, there is a grander ideational vision behind China’s diplomacy, aside from its geopolitical and economic priorities. Specifically, Beijing has positioned itself as an advocate for a multipolar world order, one that loosens the grip of the U.S.-dominated post-war system.
During his meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron in March, Xi referred to China and France as promoters of “multipolarization and democratization” in international relations.”
“China doesn’t want the United States to be the preeminent power. It wants to live alongside the United States,” as economist Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Colombia University, put it in his interview with Democracy Now.
This vision is manifested in China’s efforts to create new international institutions that include Europe and the Global South while excluding the United States. Until now, these institutions have focused on international trade and finance, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the New Development Bank. The AIIB, now the second-largest multilateral development bank, has been a prime example of China’s expanding influence.
More recently, China has ventured into the security domain by establishing the Global Security Initiative (GSI). GSI aims to address the root causes of international conflicts, improve global security governance, and encourage joint international efforts. Chinese commentators have lauded GSI’s role in brokering successful deals through Saudi-Iran peace talks and anticipate its potential in fostering future security discussions in the Middle East.
Additionally, China is leveraging other institutions like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to play a more significant role in Afghanistan and Central Asia’s security landscape. Essentially, present global conflicts provide China with “an opportunity to showcase its diplomatic prowess and ability to navigate complex geopolitical landscapes” as one major force of the emerging multipolar world.
Why the Appeal of a Multipolar World?
China appears to be gaining support for its rhetoric of a multipolar world rather than relying exclusively on its economic diplomacy. Contrary to the conventional belief that China excels in leveraging its enormous market, its economic diplomacy has yet to fully win over global investors, despite Beijing’s attempts to assure foreign capital of a safe and prosperous investment environment.
In March 2023, new Premier Li Qiang vowed that China will open wider to the outside world and establish a “broad space” for foreign companies to develop in the Asian nation. Nonetheless, foreign investors remain wary of Chinese economic prospects while selling their Chinese stock holdings.
What is striking, however, is the positive receptiveness to the notion of a multipolar world order, diverging from United States dominance. The allure of this vision resonates with emerging powers in the Global South, and surprisingly, even finds takers among U.S. allies like the United Kingdom and France.
Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has expressed a desire to collaborate with Beijing to “balance world geopolitics.”
As Dale Auf, the research and strategy director at SIGNAL (Sino-Israel Global Network & Academic Leadership), noted in a recent article for The Diplomat, the notion of a multipolar world championed by China resonates strongly in the Middle East.
At a press conference in Amsterdam alongside Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, Macron asserted that “being an ally does not mean being a vassal” and that U.S. allies have the right to think independently.
The latest Mansion House speech on the U.K.’s position on China, delivered on April 25, further confirmed Britain’s intention to pursue its own China strategy rather than aligning with the United States. U.K. Foreign Secretary James Cleverly emphasized that both the U.K. and China have agency and choices in their approaches and rejected the notion of an unavoidable “Thucydides trap,” where a rising power clashes with an established superpower. The U.K.’s stance has taken observers by surprise, given that Britain was previously viewed as a notable exception among European nations that are cautious about U.S.-led intervention.
While it may seem counterintuitive, the crux of the matter lies in the seemingly unbreakable alliance among the West on Russia-Ukraine war. Underlying frictions are emerging. Now, a growing sense of unease is taking hold in Europe as it grapples with its deepening dependency on its transatlantic partner and the strategic priorities that bind them together after the Russia-Ukraine war.
The concern stems from the unequal repercussions experienced by the United States and Western Europe due to the imposition of economic sanctions on Russia, particularly in the spheres of energy and financial security.
Amid sanctions on Russia, Western Europe’s energy security suffers greater destabilization and has increased its dependency on U.S. supplies of liquified natural gas (LNG). According to the European Council of the European Union, “between January and November 2022, LNG imports from the US accounted for over 50 bcm (billion cubic meters). This is more than twice as much as in the whole of 2021 (over 22 bcm).” Similarly, the United Kingdom and the United States have secured a deal to increase LNG cooperation in 2023.
Energy dependency is just one facet of Europe’s growing reliance on the United States, as argued in the report, “The Art of Vassalisation: How Russia’s war on Ukraine has transformed transatlantic relations,” published by the European Council on Foreign Affairs in early April. European strategists suggest that as the EU becomes relatively less powerful than the United States – economically, technologically, and militarily – it increasingly depends on the U.S. for security, despite efforts to achieve “strategic autonomy.” The report cautions that transatlantic alliances risk reverting to Cold War habits, with Americans leading and Europeans either pushing from behind or merely following.
China’s proposition of a “multipolar world” can be viewed as its attempt to leverage these strategic concerns in Europe and its quest for policy independence. At least on security issues, Beijing has signaled to Brussels that the two can and should develop their own institutional capacity in addressing the Russia-Ukraine war independently of the United States.
China is likely to continue enhancing its rhetoric on a multipolar world while raising its profile as a viable peace broker. Europe and the Global South will be the focal points of China’s diplomatic efforts, as Beijing aims to forge stronger ties in a bid to reshape the global security landscape. The potential turn of the allies of the United States to shape their own Chinese strategy will pose a significant threat to U.S. foreign policy strategy.
Aside from bilateral engagements, China will mobilize its multilateral arrangements including the SCO and GSI. This will allow Beijing to position itself as a key institutional player in shaping global security discourse and crafting potential peace plans.
However, the challenge for Beijing lies in demonstrating the viability and efficacy of its role as a peace negotiator despite its close tie with Moscow. Meanwhile, the potential for a bona fide peace agreement in the Russia-Ukraine conflict remains ambiguous. During the call with Xi, Zelenskyy stipulated the withdrawal of Russian forces from unlawfully occupied territories as a prerequisite for dialogue. Contrarily, Maria Zakharov, Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, expressed doubts regarding the stipulated peace talk conditions, viewing them as being laden with ultimatums and unrealistic demands.
Additionally, the divergent interests within China’s diplomatic landscape are a potential ticking bomb that impedes the diplomatic charm offensive of Beijing. Specifically, Chinese pragmatist technocrats who aim to “work with the international community” coexist alongside politically-driven officials who eagerly exploit the nationalistic fervor associated with the “wolf-warrior” strategy. Navigating this balance will be crucial for China as it seeks to assert itself as an effective peace broker. Failure will further erode the already fragile trust of the international community in China’s role as an unbiased mediator.