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3 Key Points for Understanding China’s Foreign Policy

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3 Key Points for Understanding China’s Foreign Policy

Does China want to change the status quo in the Asia-Pacific? Is China using Europe as a bargaining chip with the United States? How did “wolf warrior” diplomacy come about?

3 Key Points for Understanding China’s Foreign Policy
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When I talk with foreign friends in Beijing, some of them mention that they are increasingly confused about China’s foreign policy. Does China want to change the status quo in the Asia-Pacific? Is China using Europe as a bargaining chip with the United States? How did “wolf warrior” diplomacy come about?

Their questions are interesting and universal. However, it is difficult to get introductions from experts in China because some are reluctant to talk to foreign media.

As a relatively independent journalist, I think it is necessary to make a brief summary of my observations of China’s foreign policy over the past 10 years. I do not speak for the Chinese government, and so my view is certainly not 100 percent correct, but I hope it will be helpful for foreign analysts to understand China’s diplomacy.

Global South Diplomacy

It is a diplomatic tradition for China to maintain good relations with small countries, poor countries, and what is now called the Global South. For instance, the Chinese foreign minister must go to Africa on his inaugural trip of every year. Why? It is not only an means of emphasizing that China is a member of the developing world, but also China’s diplomatic preparation for the present and future. 

In addition to Africa, strengthening ties with the Muslim world is another manifestation of China’s Global South diplomacy. For decades, in multilateral forums, China has taken care not to contradict the collective stance of Muslim countries. Nowhere is this attitude more evident than in the current Gaza war. Muslim countries have not condemned Hamas, so China will not do so in the United Nations and other international conferences. If the Muslim world changes their stance one day, China will change with them accordingly.

Africa and Muslim countries are the two largest voting blocs in the United Nations, with more than 50 votes from Africa and more than 40 from the Muslim world, accounting for almost half of the U.N. membership. China must rely on their support on many issues in order to better safeguard its interests.

Whenever issues like Taiwan, the South China Sea, Xinjiang, human rights, and others are brought up by Western countries for discussion in the U.N., China’s relations with African and Muslim countries will be effective. That no Muslim country in the world today supports the Western stance on Xinjiang is a triumph of this diplomatic tradition. For similar reasons, Yemen-based Houthi rebels have declared that they would not attack Chinese vessels.

Therefore, China’s foreign policy highlights Global South diplomacy, which is why China is always very polite to small countries.

China’s foreign policy in Africa or its outreach to Muslim countries is not just symbolic nor is it motivated only by economic interests. Actually China has a long-term plan.

Great Powers Diplomacy

Foreign policy starts at home, which involves not only politics but also economics. Foreign policy should provide a sound external environment for economic development, which is an important aspect of understanding China’s diplomacy.

Thanks to the reform and opening policy that began in the late 1970s, China has been keeping sustained economic development. This policy is an opening to the West, not to the Global South. Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, it had opened to Asia, Africa, and Latin America, but China has not gained enough economic benefits to promote development, and the Chinese people remained very poor. Since opening to the West, China implemented a market economy and attracted foreign investment, the whole economy has transformed in an astonishingly short time.

Therefore, in developing relations between China and Western powers such as the United States, Europe and Japan, one of China’s priorities is to maintain an open economic environment, which is the key to ensuring sustainable development. For example, China is seeking to sign a Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) with Europe and a Science and Technology Agreement (STA) with the United States.

I am very much in favor of this kind of “Great Powers Diplomacy,” because these powers can have a direct impact on China’s economy. Even if there are political problems between China and the West, China will try its best to maintain steady economic relations.

By contrast, China’s relations with Russia are more about political support for each other. Of course, there is economic and energy cooperation, but China is pursuing this mostly in preparation for the future. If there is a war in the Taiwan Strait, the diplomatic and economic relations between China and Western countries will change dramatically, and China can hardly bear the consequences alone. Russia’s energy and agriculture products will be a reliable backstop for China.

Some Western analysts have posited that China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran are forming a new axis. I always respond China is different from the other countries, which are really anti-Western; it is a core part of the survival strategies of Russia, North Korea, and Iran. China is a different story. It must maintain an open policy with Western powers to ensure the livelihoods of 1.4 billion people and social development.

China’s diplomacy with the United States, Japan, and the EU is not politically expedient, but government behavior is guided by the needs of the ordinary people. 

China will never turn into North Korea, and the Chinese people will never support foreign policy that severs relations with the West. No matter how anti-American a Chinese person seems to be, he would not want to live in North Korea. 

New Style Diplomacy

At present, some Western countries are most worried that China will unilaterally change the status quo, including in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait.

This is really a problem because both sides think they are right and there is a lack of consensus.

The Chinese government believes that some Western countries have encircled China by interfering in regional territorial disputes, which is a violation of the United Nations-led international order. In Beijing’s eyes, China’s territorial claims are meant to safeguard its own sovereignty and territorial integrity, not to occupy any land of others.

However, the West also believes that China’s stance violates the international order led by the United Nations and changes the status quo. In their view, China seeks to occupy territory that does not belong to it. Viewed in that light, the Western countries’ presence in the region is about keeping international order and peace.

With this background, the so-called wolf warrior diplomacy appeared on the international stage.

I don’t like this style, personally, but I understand the reason for it. It stems from the fact that China’s diplomacy is under great pressure from the West. Think of it through an individual metaphor: a person who often loses their temper must be anxious and nervous on the inside.

The reason behind China’s worry is obvious: It has territorial or maritime disputes with at least seven neighbors, and in each one the West is increasingly involved – and always on the side of China’s rival. This certainly deepen China’s sense of insecurity vis-a-vis the outside world.

China is hedging against the risk in two ways: preparing for military struggle and seeking a breakthrough on diplomacy. Wolf warrior diplomacy is reflection of the latter; you can call it “new style diplomacy,” which is about competing with the West for the right to speak internationally. 

Another aspect of this strategy – one that has received less attention – is for China to provide the global community with more international public goods. In this way, Beijing hopes that more countries can realize that China’s friendly intentions and dismiss the “China threat” theory.

For instance, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) proposed in 2013 is an example of China’s “new style diplomacy.” It is China’s attempt to provide an international public good, similar to Japan’s Official Development Assistance (ODA). In addition, China is also making efforts in Middle East diplomacy, such as mediating the relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and preparing for a Middle East peace conference. In recent years, China has also proposed the concept of a Community with a Shared Future for Mankind; these have not departed from the international order led by the U.N. Charter.

The West may not be comfortable with China’s “new style diplomacy,” which is understandable; the main goal is to counter the West’s narratives about China. Meanwhile China’s military growth is fueling their tension and hostility.

I really don’t know how to defuse these tensions and deal with the territorial disputes, but I think it always makes sense to maintain diplomatic engagement for deep understanding.