Not enough commentary has focused on the extraordinary diversity of China’s international posture these days. Within the same fortnight, Xi Jinping has announced at the World Health Organization a USD 2 billion contribution towards recovery from Covid-19, targeted at developing countries, and a host of medical initiatives in Africa. Liu He, the chief Chinese trade negotiator, held a call with his American counterparts where he reiterated his commitment to implementing the Phase One trade deal for 2020. Wang Yi, China’s Foreign affairs Minister, talks about the need to avoid a Cold War with the United States. Liu has separately committed to holding talks in earnest with the EU, in order to arrive at a long-sought Bilateral Investment Agreement.
Meanwhile, China’s spring session of the National People’s Congress (NPC) is setting a 6,6% increase in the defense budget, at a moment when other central budget expenditures are set to decrease. The rise in military spending is set to exceed, possibly by far, the country’s economic growth in 2020, for which no target is published this year. Even more tellingly, the NPC is to immediately write a national security law for Hong Kong, where the official goal is now "long-term peace and stability", terms previously used for Tibet and Xinjiang. The adjective "peaceful" is dropped from the mention of Taiwan’s reunification with the mainland.
The new Chinese posture alternates hardline decisions and expressions – think "wolf warrior diplomacy" for the latter – with tailored initiatives, and consensual but vague commitments on some issues. Is this merely obfuscation, or is there a logic at work in this sharply divided international posture? Certainly, the new brand of public diplomacy under Xi Jinping has made ample use of lies. The most egregious case used to be Xi’s assurance to Barack Obama in 2015 that China would not "militarize" the South China Sea. It will now have to be replaced by the coming endgame in Hong Kong, where in a series of well-choreographed moves, China has done away with the commitment to uphold "One country, two systems" until 2047. Officially nesting China’s security organs inside Hong Kong, affirming the precedence of its Central Liaison Office over the Basic Law, and leaving the Special Administrative Region’s (SAR) "government" the mere task of transposing the future law into the region’s legal system ends the existence of Hong Kong as an autonomous entity. In the 1930s, an expression took hold: treaties were not worth more than the paper that they were written on. This is now the fate of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration.
In a less dramatic fashion, the renewed commitment to increase China’s purchases from the United States by USD 200 billion is also a white lie. The target seemed very problematic even before the Covid-19 crisis struck. It seems even more out of reach today, even if China shifts purchases (notably agricultural products) from the EU or Argentina to the United States. But in this case the lie is a bow to Donald Trump’s earlier campaign strategy: China has expected that by granting him the appearance of a trade victory, it will obtain a much softer attitude on more fundamental demands of change.
Xi’s regime has this propensity to lie in common with other dictatorial regimes (and also many authoritarian or populist leaders). But this should not distract us from observing other defining features of China’s foreign posture. First is a distinction between what used to be called the "near-abroad" in the case of the Soviet Union, and partners farther away, where China’s long political and military arm does not – yet – reach.