China: The policy of rapprochement with the West continues

“The development of China-US relations will remain an important mission of mine in my new post,” diplomat Qin Gang wrote in an article in the Washington Post the other day, shortly after he was appointed China’s foreign minister.

After just 17 months as his country’s ambassador to the United States, the trusted aide to President Xi Jinping took up his new duties at a time of heightened challenges to Beijing’s leadership. Outside the borders, geopolitical tensions in Sino-American and regional relations are escalating – from trade to Taiwan – amid the new Cold War landscape that is being shaped around the war in Ukraine.

Inside the sprawling country, meanwhile, problems are piling up, running the gamut from the economy to the ravages of COVID-19. And the latter’s manipulations trigger a new wave of sanitary countermeasures and questioning of Beijing’s credibility.

In this overall context, many believe that in the coming months – of course depending on the developments in the international field – the Chinese leadership will seek a quasi-appeasement of external tensions, in order to focus on its open internal fronts (which includes the issue of Taiwan).

An ongoing reorganization of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with the replacement of the most extreme nationalist voices in the foreground, also points in this direction.

Decade-long and previously foreign minister Wang Yi was promoted to the CCP Politburo as director of the Foreign Affairs Office of the Central Committee. The ministry’s high-profile spokesman, Zhao Lian, disappeared.

A key representative for three years of what many call “warrior wolf diplomacy” – with a combative approach and sharp rhetoric towards Beijing’s critics and opponents – was transferred from last Monday to the position of deputy director of the Border and Ocean Affairs Department of the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

Domino of changes

In a parallel “choreography” of cautious moves, Beijing appears to be methodically advancing a policy of gradual de-escalation in foreign relations for the near term, while maintaining the long-term goal of global supremacy.

The main aim at the present stage is believed to be not to be trapped in a Western isolationism, similar to that of Russia, with which the ties of cooperation remain conditionally strong. In this case, however, as China defines them. Against this background, its leadership has taken out of the “ice” relations with important trading partners, such as Australia, and is expanding its openings in Europe.

Shortly after the historic 20th National Congress of the CCP, Xi Jinping welcomed German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and European Council President Charles Michel to Beijing. He has also extended an invitation to French President Emmanuel Macron and Italy’s new Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni.

The Blinken visit

More pivotal, however, is expected to be the visit of the American Minister of Foreign Affairs, Anthony Blinken, probably in February.

In a chance for the US to set the agenda, the State Department chief is expected to meet with Chinese President Xi, his former counterpart and China’s top diplomat Wang Yi, as well as newly appointed Foreign Minister Qin Gang.

The broader context of a pragmatic understanding was already explored in the first live meeting between US and Chinese presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping last November at the G20 summit in Indonesia. During its duration, a perspective of stabilization, but not of normalization of the difficult bilateral relations, had become apparent – among most of the existing tensions.

Meanwhile, Xi Jinping’s long-awaited visit to the US next November for the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) summit in Orlando is on the horizon.

Fine balances

Obviously, the goal is not the convergence of the two main – medium-term and long-term – strategic rivals, but the limitation of the diplomatic rift and the avoidance of the risk of a major crisis or even conflict.

At least for the foreseeable future and in the face of a long, polarizing election season in both the US and Taiwan, which both head to the polls for presidential elections in 2024.

In any case, the tensions in Sino-American relations will continue to be manifested in strategically important areas and mainly in Europe and throughout Asia, as China will seek to strengthen ties and through them its economic recovery.

It seems, moreover, that it will be in this light that its relations with Moscow (depending on the developments of the war in Ukraine) or with “satellite” states, such as North Korea, will be dealt with from now on.

In solving common challenges, Beijing’s diplomacy will offer “Chinese wisdom, Chinese initiatives and Chinese strength,” said the 56-year-old Chin in his first statement as foreign minister – one of the youngest in the history of the People’s Republic of China.

More or less renouncing the role of “wolf warrior” – which he acquired as deputy general director of the Intelligence Department of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs between 2005 and 2010 – he himself prefers, at least at this stage, low tones.

“China-US relations should not be a zero-sum game, in which one side prevails over the other or one nation prospers at the expense of the other,” he wrote in his op-ed at the end of his term as ambassador to Washington.

“The future of both our peoples—indeed, the future of the entire planet—depends on a healthy and stable Sino-American relationship,” he noted.

“The world is wide enough” for the two countries to “grow and prosper”…

Skepticism and a wait-and-see attitude

China’s intended return to the international diplomatic arena is viewed by many with skepticism about its short-term intentions. Europe in particular seems to be trying to navigate “Allies”.

In the midst of a war on its territory and an energy crisis, it is annoyed by US protectionism and is now clearly unwilling to follow Washington in limiting trade relations with Beijing, particularly in the technology sector.

China’s position on the war in Ukraine, on the other hand, remains “unclear.” He is openly opposed to the use of nuclear weapons and in favor of peace talks. However, it has not condemned the Russian invasion and aligns itself with Moscow in the UN resolutions.

On the other side of the Atlantic, meanwhile, it is widely believed that the new course President Xi appears to be charting is not corrective, but a maneuver to buy time and friendships ahead of the inevitable strategic showdown with the US.

The most skeptical even refer to the history and strategy of Mao Zedong’s “da da, tan tan” (fight fight, talk talk) in the 1940s.

It dictates that you keep the dialogue channel open with the opponent, counting them out, while gaining ground in battle.

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