Shifts in diplomacy undermine China’s international standing

03 May 2021 - 13:49
Source: Chinese flag, Beijing / Wikimedia Commons

This article has previously been published by The Hague Journal of Diplomacy.

Over the past year and a half, China’s diplomacy has attracted attention from media institutions, policy makers and scholars around the globe.

New names for China’s diplomatic approaches, such as ‘Wolf Warrior Diplomacy’, ‘face mask’ or ‘vaccine diplomacy’ have become household terms. The days in which China’s diplomacy followed former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s guideline ‘to keep a low profile and bide our time’ lie far behind us. As President Xi Jinping has stated on many occasions, China feels the time has come to ‘grasp the historic opportunity’ to expand China’s influence, Chinese wisdom and China’s approach to global governance. Chinese diplomats seem to have heeded their leader’s call and are now actively promoting China’s political model and global governance concepts.

Does this mean that we are witnessing a fundamental shift in Chinese diplomacy? To answer this question, one must first examine the international and the domestic context in which Chinese diplomacy is conducted, and which constitutes this so-called ‘historic opportunity’. On the international stage, the Chinese leadership regards the US as a power in relative decline and the European Union as an entity that is unable to effectively leverage its economic power. What is more, a turbulent new geopolitical era is developing that allows for a changed status quo amongst global powers. Domestically, China’s leadership is confident that its political model has many advantages in dealing with the challenges it faces and that it is ready to lead the world towards a better future, one in which global peace and development prevails.

While the domestic and international context in which China practices diplomacy have thus altered dramatically, China’s diplomatic goals have remained the same. The primary goals of Chinese diplomacy have always been focused on serving domestic purposes: the safeguarding of absolute sovereignty, territorial integrity, and national security; and, most importantly, the contribution to domestic development. These goals were recently reaffirmed by China’s Foreign Minister, Wang Yi. Reviewing Chinese diplomacy in a March 2021 press conference, Minister Wang said that among China’s diplomatic endeavors, ‘the most resolute is our determination to defend national interests’. He added that China stood firm against ‘highhandedness and bullying’, and warned that ‘China's sovereignty is not to be infringed upon, and the dignity of the Chinese nation is not to be trifled with.’

Though the goals of diplomacy have not altered, the way in which China has lately sought to achieve them gives rise to two important shifts in the conduct of diplomacy. Firstly, China no longer limits itself when expressing its frustration and anger about the lack of respect it garners, as illustrated by the increasing use of an offensive diplomatic style, often referred to as ‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomacy. Secondly, the Chinese government increasingly forces its will on other states, rather than persuading nations to align with Chinese foreign policy goals. The use of economic and political leverage to deter or punish countries is, in itself, not new to China’s diplomatic toolbox. One example is China’s long-lasting punitive economic and political measures against Norway in 2010, in retaliation against the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo.

However, what is new is the ease with which China currently reverts to coercion and retaliation and the harshness of its measures. In the past two years China has sought to threaten and/or coerce numerous Western governments, companies, institutions and individuals, in response to behavior or statements that were not to Beijing’s liking. The number of issues and the nature of activities that may provoke harsh diplomatic actions by Beijing is continuously expanding. In the past two years they have come to include expressing support for the 2019-2020 democratic protests in Hong Kong, engaging with Taiwan, calling for an international investigation into the origins and spread of the COVID-19 virus, and publishing research on human rights abuses against the Uyghur minority in China.

Furthermore, the scope of China’s intimidation, coercion and retaliation is growing. The country’s recent declaration of sanctions against the EU is a notable example. These sanctions were far harsher than those imposed originally on China by the EU. Whereas European measures targeted one Chinese entity and four Chinese officials involved in human rights abuses against the Uyghur minority, Chinese sanctions targeted four European entities and ten European individuals, including their families, for ‘harm[ing] China's sovereignty and interests and maliciously spread[ing] lies and disinformation’. Among the people directly affected were EU diplomats, members of parliaments, and scholars of China across Europe. However, China sought to indirectly affect broader diplomatic, political and academic communities in Europe, by stating that any action or statement against China’s interests may lead to similar punitive measures.

China’s growing use of intimidating and retaliatory modes of diplomacy may satisfy the government’s urge to express its frustration at an apparent lack of respect and strengthen the position of China’s leadership domestically. It may also deliver some quick wins to China in terms of foreign entities and individuals bowing to Chinese pressure to avoid any criticism on Chinese policies. But they will likely turn out to be short-term gains that come at the expense of China’s long-term goals of building strategic international partnerships and contributing to global stability. China’s current diplomatic approach provides governments and audiences around the globe with a picture of what domination by a power that does not value liberal freedoms looks like in practice.

Indeed, it has led to a sharp increase in negative perceptions of China in Europe and other parts of the world and has reinforced policy makers’ perception of China as a ‘systemic rival’ and threat to the open international system. Whereas China previously sought to strike a balance between domestic interests and the country’s international image, the latter is currently of less concern. The long-term result will likely be a reluctance by many countries around the globe to engage with China, which will only harm China’s global strategic position.

It is too early to determine whether the two shifts in diplomacy are temporary or are emblematic of a more permanent approach to diplomacy. However, the damage they are causing China’s international standing will not be easily repaired. Foreign Minister Wang Yi emphasized at the press conference that 2021 will be ‘a year of epoch-making significance’, in which a new journey in China's diplomacy will start. One should hope that Chinese diplomacy is nimble enough to not only serve domestic needs, but also contribute to managing the turbulent international relations of the new geopolitical era.

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