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China Trends #6 - Overstretch? China’s Foreign Policy Gamble

China Trends #6 - Overstretch? China’s Foreign Policy Gamble
 François Godement
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - U.S. and Asia

The packaging and selling of China’s foreign policy and diplomacy has become a hard task, even for China-based experts who try not to depart too much from the Party-state’s scripts.

The examples glimpsed for the three articles in this issue of China Trends cover only a few of the issues and conflicts that Xi Jinping’s "new era" has brought to the fore. Discourse management – an issue that is often divorced from reality -, the explanations now used for the South China Sea, and the reasons for the deviation from normal diplomatic behavior by several envoys in the past year – are considered here. But other issues could be added: China’s stepped up naval and air actions around Taiwan (which of course is NOT considered an act of foreign policy for China), ever more persistent action in the area of the Senkaku islands, and a violent border confrontation with India around irredentist Chinese claims.

In a broader view of things, China’s rising military strength has so far so far not led to out of the region confrontations. China has even restrained its "showing the flag" actions around Europe since the 2017 circumnavigation of our continent, and it concentrates on commercial penetration, technology acquisition and…discourse management. Yet even there a grey zone has appeared, with more and more high-profile cyber actions, manipulation of information through social media, including bots. International organizations would seem to be an ideal ground for increased influence from China, since the Trump temptation to withdraw dismays its partners. Our Chinese experts in fact cite this opportunity. But one should never try to second guess what China’s leaders – currently, Xi Jinping – consider to be their own interest. The reality is that China has not made any openings to reforms in these international organizations, even when increased inefficiency or irrelevance threaten their future. Europeans would have liked nothing more than an updated WTO, or a WHO with more enforcement capacity of its (in principle) mandatory guidance. They would also have liked nothing better than progress in emissions and climate mitigation agreements.

International organizations would seem to be an ideal ground for increased influence from China, since the Trump temptation to withdraw dismays its partners.

Instead, China moved on Hong Kong: nobody should have been surprised, since China’s behavior in autonomous regions such as Tibet, and especially Xinjiang, has been far worse than any action so far regarding Hong Kong. But the status of Hong Kong until 2047 is governed by an international treaty signed with the UK in 1984: breaching it openly, as is the case with the 2020 National Security Law, is an international act that puts into question China’s respect for its own legal commitments.

It is with this background in mind that the following three articles should be read. They show a defensive trend among China’s experts. Some of the best-known speakers on the Beijing international relations circuit do warn, in fact, about an overstretch: angering many partners at the same time, weaponizing mask diplomacy, and more importantly underestimating America’s real strategic capacity in the Western Pacific are mentioned.

But there is also much rationalization of China’s new diplomatic behavior, and also a shift to focus almost exclusively on the United States as the cause of all ills. In the first category, although the term wolf warrior is denied1, it is acknowledged that wolves exist in the world, and China needs to put up a response to the many attacks it suffers from the West. The second aspect represents a recent shift in China’s diplomatic discourse. Although there have been very hostile expressions since the start of the China-US trade conflict in 2017, 2020 marks an intensification and a personalization of polemics with the United States. Chinese ambassadors abroad have shifted (in France, Poland and Sweden) from general aggressive tactics to a narrower focus on denouncing the United States. Beijing had remained very careful of personality attacks. It has now repeatedly attacked US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and a recent speech by China’s Foreign affairs Wang Yi on US-China relations mentions American "whims", likely a veiled reference to the US president. At the height of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations and as troops were deployed around the White House, China’s official media abandoned all remaining restraint and began ridiculing Washington.

This new focus finds more consensus among experts, who follow the indictment of the US but suggest moderate lines of response. In the case of the South China Sea, this means an accent on economic diplomacy, rescue at sea, and a disproportionate optimism regarding the current round of negotiations of the Code of Conduct with ASEAN. The essential issue – China’s refusal to acknowledge international arbitration, its take-over and expansion of atolls and their militarization, is conveniently tucked away. It is US freedom of navigation exercises which are the destabilizing factor to the status quo: never mind that this status quo was established by force in the last decade...

Is this all-out focus on the United States a strategic shift, or just a convenient waiting exercise in a US election year, when the Trump administration has also made some high profile moves on China? It is hard to discern at present. What is clear is that the older generation of Chinese experts is actually more comfortable with traditional Cold War rhetoric than with the Cultural Revolution echo of wolf warrior diplomacy.




1 It is actually derived from the 2004 Wolf Totem novel (狼图腾 or Lang Tuteng), a struggle for life tale set in Inner Mongolia which argues that the Chinese behave too much like sheep in front of wolves.



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