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China's Foreign Policy: It's Time for a Return to Low Profile

China's Foreign Policy: It's Time for a Return to Low Profile
 François Godement
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - U.S. and Asia

As Xi Jinping sets on his first international trip since January 2020, the destination is telling. It is not a UN or G20 event, nor is it Washington, Tokyo or a European capital, but Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan for a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and a face-to-face meeting with Putin, the third reported conversation since Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The shift away from the West is made clear, as both leaders reach out to the rest of the world. Underestimated by most analysts, the SCO actually has a large regional membership. In 2023 it is India, a swing state on the Russia-Ukraine issue, that will chair its annual summit. 

For a decade, China's foreign policy has been moving away from the old era postulates set by Deng Xiaoping. Postponing solutions to delicate international issues, keeping a low profile and "hiding one's talent", prioritizing development and therefore continued global integration, courting neighbors to avoid isolation and a possible strategic encirclement: these have all gone overboard under Xi Jinping's "new normal".

Changes can be slow and sometimes surreptitious, or sudden and loud. Irredentist issues that had been prudently consigned to future generations have come to the fore: from the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands to the South China Sea to sovereignty contests (beyond mere border disputes) with India. Taiwan, of course, has been the embodiment of such changes. Whoever served as Taiwan's elected President, whether Ma Ying-jeou with his broader approach to relations with Beijing, or Tsai Ing-wen, who has tactically shied away from any confrontation or provocation, the pressure from Beijing has only increased relative to Xi's predecessors.

The change was evident in rhetoric and public propaganda. What was before 2009 a factional "New Left" nationalism mixing with popular jingoism has been systematized under Xi Jinping. The rise of the so-called "wolf warriors" inside China's diplomatic corps and public commentariat has lasted too long to be an accident or a fringe development. Under Xi Jinping, hawkish international postures are linked to the huge revival of ideology in domestic governance, including propaganda and education. Foreign policy becomes a component of domestic ideological indoctrination, a development that occurred in the most radical phase of the Cultural Revolution. Lu Shaye, China's Ambassador to France, gave the clearest motivation for wolf warrior diplomacy in a June 2021 interview: "we evaluate our work not by what foreigners think of us, but by what the people at home think of us, by whether it is in the interests of our country and our people, by whether our people are satisfied with us, by whether our people agree with us".

China's attention and eventual compromises towards Europe and Japan have withered away. 

Along with this turn to hard-line postures, China's attention and eventual compromises towards Europe and Japan have withered away. Under Deng Xiaoping, this was referred to as an "intermediate zone" - e.g. countries that were neither one of the two superpowers of the time, nor part of the Third World. 

The reassuring diplomacy that China launched then has now withered away. Surviving words - for example, the praise of European integration - are unmatched by deeds. Strikingly, in terms of public opinion, China has "lost" Japan, and largely Europe too, including Eastern Europe nations to which it had paid special attention to since the late 1970s. This is no coincidence or the result of incompetence. Rather it has come from other priorities, starting with an absolute emphasis on hard power and geopolitics. 

This does not prevent China from claiming, as it used to in Mao's days, that "it has friends all over the world". But China's large international initiatives, from One Belt One Road (2013) now Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to the recent Global Security Initiative (2022), target implicitly - if not explicitly - countries outside of the West and its close allies. Commentators refer to this region as the Global South, a term as misleading as was the “Third World" designation, lumping together many different states, or the more recent BRICS grouping. Routinely, Chinese commentators explain that the rest of the world holds China into better consideration. Considering China's globally-recognized experts, their pattern of international travel shifted away from the West towards Africa, the Middle East, or Latin America several years ago (before Covid). Since 2020, the interruption of most think tank exchanges, in-person conferences and one-on-one meetings, have all further contributed to a hardening of positions.

Even more significant has been the turn in relations with the United States. Who recalls Xi Jinping’s 2013 statement to Barack Obama at the Sunnylands Summit stating that "the vast Pacific Ocean has enough space for the two large countries of China and the United States"? That statement was already an implicit disregard of all nations regarded as secondary powers.

Even more significant has been the turn in relations with the United States. 

But what followed was a steady focus on competition with the United States and a direct challenge to their international role. In what has become a systematic practice, action is always described as a reaction. This feature is also evident in Russia’s Ukraine propaganda. In truth, the two cannot always be distinguished, as the aggressiveness of China’s messages has indeed produced opinion shifts abroad and contributed to a new consensus regarding trends in China, if not always on specific policies towards China.

But 2022 represents a new stage on this road. It was kicked off with the Beijing-Moscow "no limits" strategic partnership on the eve of Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine. Using the Eurasian landmass and Russia as a bulwark against the West is hardly a new idea. It was the basis of the 1950s alliance, and it was resurrected after 1989 by Yang Shangkun, Deng’s main executor of the Tiananmen repression. Xi has taken it several steps further. Even if the scale of Russia’s aggression may not have been anticipated in Beijing, the general direction had been clear for some months. 

For some time after the invasion, China emitted mixed messages. Most were Russia-friendly. The underlying discourse on the war blamed solely the United States, the expansion of NATO, and Europe's submission for the conflict. But some reservations were also sounded, including in the context of the United Nations. "Territorial integrity", although never specified, was recalled. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi spoke to his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba on March 1. The official Chinese readout on this call indicates that the "focus" was on the safety of Chinese citizens. It also seemed that China would not jump at all opportunities offered in Russia by Western (including Australia, Japan and South Korea) sanctions. 

On its own territorial issues, China was not particularly assertive in the first half of the year. 

In April, it sent several envoys to Eastern Europe, culminating on April 30 with a frank interview of Kuleba that was published in Chinese by Xinhua, therefore made available to domestic audiences. On its own territorial issues, China was not particularly assertive in the first half of the year. Regarding Taiwan, the bulk of public comments refused any analogy between the Ukrainian conflict and the Taiwan issue.

In retrospect, this was the high point of China's positioning as neutral. It remains unclear whether this stance was a choice of ambiguity and conflict avoidance at the top or a result of some genuine debate and hesitation on its future path. It may well be that before the CCP's 20th National Congress that is thought to renew his lease on power, Xi Jinping preferred to have no surprise in China’s external environment - even as his entire geopolitical stance is predicated on the possibility of these surprises.

It is interesting to note in this pre-Congress context, that there have been expressions of at least some muted debate among experts and technocrats in the first half of the year on three fronts - Russia-Ukraine, Zero-Covid policy and credit easing to help a flagging domestic economy. Prime Minister Li Keqiang alluded to the debate on the economy in his leaked videoconference of May 22, even if his own conclusions sided with the prevailing orthodoxy.

Whether these wavelets are a sign of deeper rifts under the surface is beyond the remit of this note. Instead, we tend to believe that Xi, like Mao, knows how to push difficult responsibilities on subordinates. Whatever the case, trends regarding Russia and, more generally, relations with the United States changed in May. Le Yucheng, a hands-on Vice-Minister at China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (who was considered as a potential successor to Wang Yi) was moved out to a propaganda assignment in June, leaving a space for a more radical appointment. Imports, largely energy ones, accelerated again on a YoY basis in that month, and ruble-yuan trading on the Moscow exchange shot up. China's exports to Russia have often been described as weak since February. But on a YoY basis, they have always been on the increase: for the January-August 2022 period, they were up by 9.4% YoY in renminbi terms. The pace has quickened in July and August. Especially noticeable is a rise in semiconductor sales to Russia, with a 241% YoY increase in value from January to July. Three facts can be outlined: 

  1. Russia has become China’s first oil supplier from May onwards; 
  2. Prices for LNG - paid in a mix of rubles and yuan - are said to be half of recent world contract prices; 
  3. And since China"s energy intake has tilted towards coal and was dampened by slow domestic growth, much of China"s LNG imports from Russia have been immediately resold, including to Europe - with markup at prevailing global prices. 

There are also signs that Chinese companies, largely advised in the first few months of the conflict to avoid risks of secondary sanctions, are now moving into Russia. China is said to steer away from new infrastructure commitments, and there has been so far no allegation that it is engaging in weapon sales to Russia.  It can also shield itself with the example of India, which has vastly increased its energy imports from Russia, or Turkey, whose exports to Russia have risen most, while it also delivers useful dual use drones to Ukraine.

There are also signs that Chinese companies, largely advised in the first few months of the conflict to avoid risks of secondary sanctions, are now moving into Russia.

The mixture of opportunism and cautiousness is a recognizable trait of China's behavior around sanctions, which it condemns in principle. More obvious is the intensified public discourse targeting the United States. US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's Taiwan visit is the lightning rod that China claims as a game-changer - and many Westerners ignorant of the pattern in foreign visits to Taiwan may be ready to believe this. Briefly leaked in early April, the visit was immediately postponed after Mrs. Pelosi tested positive for Covid. On May 23, President Biden repeated in Tokyo what he had already said on October 21, 2021- that the US would "defend Taiwan'' and that the use of force against Taiwan was not "appropriate". This was immediately balanced by a White House statement stressing that US policy on Taiwan remained unchanged. But Biden’s utterances signal a departure from the American unofficial strategy of declarative ambiguity that has been the rule in the past.

Nancy Pelosi's visit finally took place in early August. The practical developments in China-Russia relations - a rise in trade and the use of mixed currency - were already underway. What follows is a series of visits by top Chinese leaders. First, the number three, Li Zhanshu, generally considered a close follower of Xi. He went to Russia's Eastern Economic Summit in Vladivostok and onwards to Moscow. Then follows Xi’s trip to Central Asia and meeting with Putin in Samarkand. Meanwhile, a trip planned in September to the European Union by Foreign Minister Wang Yi has been canceled. Xi's phone call of July 28 with PresidentBiden, reportedly including a warning by Xi not to "play with fire" over Taiwan, will only be followed by a meeting at the G20 summit on November 15 - after the CCP Congress (October 16) and after the midterm elections (November 8) in the United States.

It is tempting to see in the above trends a further shift: leveraging support for Russia to gain ground on the Taiwan issue, further hardening the ideological edge of foreign policy in advance of the Party meeting. The Kremlin is now trying hard to bolster that interpretation and is not short of vocal support on the Taiwan issue. It is an implicit plea for China to go even further in its own support of Russia in Ukraine.

Yet, as a British Prime Minister reputedly said, "events, dear boy, events" can blow governments off course. China never seemed to be ahead of the curve on Russia’s "special military operations" since they began. Putin was gloating over his strategic cooperation with China and hyping Russia’s turn eastwards and away from Europe on September 7.  China's third-highest leader Li Zhanshu's meeting with Duma leaders on September 9 included a show of support for Russia over Ukraine, as the Kremlin has claimed: a video recording is available. But Russia's military position in Ukraine had begun to unravel: the unexpected Kharkiv offensive began meeting with success on September 5-7. The short Chinese account of Li's meeting with Putin does not repeat the effusion of the Xi-Putin joint statement of February 4. It mentions Taiwan, but not Ukraine. It reaffirms that China is ready to continue to "work with Russia to provide firm support to each other on issues related to each other's core interests" and to "strengthen the exchange of legislative experience in governance and in fighting against external interference, sanctions and long-arm jurisdiction". From China's vantage point, these are defensive issues.

Much has been invested by Xi in China in the restoration of Leninism and a worldwide struggle against American hegemony, implying mutual support with Putin's Russia. 

China has had extensive relations with Ukraine in the past - so much so that President Zelensky has not stopped appealing to Beijing. These relations included deals with Ukraine's legacy weapons industry from the Soviet era. Beijing has been surprised by Putin in the past - when Russia invaded Georgia on the eve of the 2008 Olympic Games. China and Central Asian states then refused at an SCO summit to condone the separatist republics created in Ossetia and Abkhazia. In addition, China"s diplomacy is traditionally opportunisticand does not stay long with losing parties.

This was before Xi's time. In the "new normal" much has been invested by Xi in China in the restoration of Leninism and a worldwide struggle against American hegemony, implying mutual support with Putin’s Russia. Although the "personal" ties between the two leaders have never been proven, it is true that Xi has shown his contempt for Putin’s predecessors. On the eve of the 20th CCP National Congress, a humiliation of its strategic partner, whatever the scale of events, is particularly embarrassing to Xi and his hardline supporters. It reveals a failure in diagnosing the decline of democracies and America"s pullback from international engagement. It flags dangerous weaknesses in Russia's military arsenal, some of which are bound to reflect on China"s military establishment. It also means that sanctions, on which there is so much skepticism in our societies, are effective when they are shared by a sufficient number of nations. Xi and Beijing’s propaganda will certainly point the finger at the United States in any case. Yet their perception of relative strengths has to adjust.

Unexpectedly, this suggests in the very short term a return of China's diplomacy to a lower profile - in fact, to the very "lying low" position attributed to Deng Xiaoping. Beijing knows its claimed convergence with the so-called Global South is only marginally due to anti-Western sentiment and much more to the refusal to pay in any way for developments deemed to be only regional and European-based. As was the case with the hype over BRICS a decade ago, the Global South's stand with China is a made-up event that occasionally serves to refuse Western policies but cannot be transformed into positive developments.

More than ever, Xi will now have to rely on China’s strength’s alone, whether it is its economic heft, its capacity to cajole and coerce, or its own military developments.

Strategically, China must fear being stranded alone if (and only if) Russia is further militarily weakened. More than ever, Xi will now have to rely on China’s strength’s alone, whether it is its economic heft, its capacity to cajole and coerce, or its own military developments. The "no limits" partnership that was conceived as a strategic hedge to erode America’s will in the Indo-Pacific is becoming a burden for Beijing.


Copyright: Dmitry LOVETSKY / POOL / AFP

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