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Over the course of the novel coronavirus crisis, analysts have watched relations between the United States and China spiral to a historic nadir, with scant hope of recovery. There are many reasons for the slide, but Beijing, in a striking departure from its own diplomatic track record, has been taking a much harder line than usual on the international stage—so much so, that even the most seasoned observers are wondering whether China’s foreign policy has fundamentally changed.
China’s approach to the world was, of course, never ironclad. Many factors determine a country’s diplomatic strategy, from its history, culture, and geography to the nature of its regime and its relative global power. If a government perceives one or more of these factors to have changed, so, too, may its diplomacy. But as COVID-19 has ravaged the globe, Chinese President Xi Jinping has appeared to defy many of his country’s long-held foreign policy principles all at once. It is too early to tell with certainty, but China—imbued with crisis-stoked nationalism, confident in its continued rise, and willing to court far more risk than in the past—may well be in the middle of a foreign policy rethink that will reverberate around the world.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) started 2020 on the back foot, but it didn’t stay there for long. Accused of being insufficiently transparent about the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, Beijing rushed to defend its global image. And once it had brought the outbreak within its borders under control, it embarked on a brash campaign of “mask diplomacy,” casting itself as a new global health leader.
But Beijing did not stop there. In the months since the pandemic first engulfed the world, China’s government has engaged in an unprecedented diplomatic offensive on virtually every foreign policy front. It has tightened its grip over Hong Kong, ratcheted up tensions in the South China Sea, unleashed a diplomatic pressure campaign against Australia, used fatal force in a border dispute with India, and grown more vocal in its criticism of Western liberal democracies.
In the past, the CCP generally sought to maintain a relatively stable security environment, occasionally seizing opportunities to advance the country’s aims without provoking undue international backlash and carefully recalibrating whenever it overreached. Beijing’s recent actions, however, reveal no such conservatism or caution. China may simply be taking advantage of the chaos of the pandemic and the global power vacuum left by a no-show U.S. administration. But there is reason to believe that a deeper and more lasting shift is underway. The world may be getting a first sense of what a truly assertive Chinese foreign policy looks like.
China’s shift is partly one of language and diplomatic style. Historically, Beijing has stuck to veiled, oblique language in official diplomatic statements, especially when criticizing Washington. In 2015, at the height of an international standoff over China’s island building in the South China Sea, for example, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui urged the United States to “cherish the overall peace and stability in the South China Sea [and] treasure the hard-won momentum of positive development in China-US relations”—hardly a pointed critique. But with the pandemic has come a new, harsher tone. “If someone claims that China’s exports are toxic, then stop wearing China-made masks and protective gowns, or using China-exported ventilators,” a foreign ministry spokesperson tweeted after China was found to have delivered substandard medical supplies to several European countries. Chinese diplomats have criticized Western democracies for mishandling the crisis and demanded praise from governments receiving Chinese supplies. Such has been the backlash in Europe and Africa that a leading Chinese think tank warned Beijing in April that its aggressive style risked undermining China’s global standing.
That advice seems to have gone unheeded. If anything, Beijing appears less image conscious now than in the past. Xi has endured the reputational damage of his government’s “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy (named after a series of nationalistic action films), likely calculating that China will gain more by flexing its military and economic muscles even if it loses some of its soft power along the way.
A series of diplomatic course changes by China—unusual for a government that is typically loath to backtrack on its public positions—likewise suggest a newfound confidence. In the past, Beijing avoided such reversals for fear of “losing face.” But after initially rejecting the idea of an international investigation into the coronavirus outbreak in China, Xi said at the World Health Assembly in May that the World Health Organization (WHO) should conduct a probe once the pandemic subsides. And although China initially refused to join a G-20 pledge to grant debt relief to low-income countries in the throes of economic crisis, it later changed its mind and signed on, albeit with a number of caveats. These shifts suggest that Xi believes he can manage both thorny processes in ways that preserve China’s interests.
Beijing has not confined itself to bold rhetoric. Over the past few months, it has upped the ante in nearly all of its many territorial disputes and even provoked new ones, in another departure from past practice. The political scientist Taylor Fravel has shown that China has long prioritized among its territorial disputes, pressing ahead with some and putting others on the back burner to avoid courting too much tension at once. That restraint seems to have fallen by the wayside. Since March, China has stepped up its patrols near the Diaoyu Islands (known in Japan as the Senkaku Islands) in the East China Sea and doubled down on its maritime claims in the South China Sea, sending vessels to linger off the coasts of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam. It has conducted aerial reconnaissance near Taiwan, effectively ended Hong Kong’s semiautonomous status, ginned up a new border dispute with Bhutan, and by all appearances, provoked a deadly border clash with India in what was the People’s Liberation Army’s first use of force abroad in 30 years. Any one of these moves by Beijing might have been unsurprising on its own. Put together, however, they amount to a highly unusual full-court press.
Once content to permit diversity and different sets of norms to persist inside China’s semiautonomous territories, the CCP has also reversed course when it comes to its national periphery. In the western province of Xinjiang, a government crackdown on the Muslim Uighur minority, initiated before the pandemic hit, has since turned into a campaign of ethnic cleansing. Meanwhile, a controversial new national security law has all but stripped Hong Kong of its unique legal status. The law contains provisions that could potentially transcend national boundaries and extend Chinese jurisprudence globally, marking a shift from China’s traditionally defensive conception of sovereignty to a more offensive approach to extend Beijing’s authority. China has long resisted international efforts that it saw as endangering national sovereignty, rejecting, for example, the responsibility to protect (R2P) doctrine, which aims to prevent genocide and humanitarian crises. Now, Chinese sovereignty appears to come in only one form—the one imposed by the CCP.
China has upped the ante in nearly all of its many territorial disputes and even provoked new ones.
Even beyond its immediate neighborhood, China now seems willing to court controversy, even open hostility. Its approach to Australia is a case in point. After Canberra called for an independent investigation into the origins of the pandemic, Beijing issued a harsh rebuke and imposed trade sanctions on Australia. It also appears to have carried out a series of cyberattacks against Australian government servers and businesses. Australian public opinion is rapidly turning against China as a result, with growing support for a more hard-line foreign policy, and Canberra has announced plans to boost its defense spending. Beijing appears undeterred, perhaps because it hopes to teach other states in the region to think twice before opposing it. But it will not soon win Canberra back.
The stubbornness on display in China’s treatment of Australia—the determination to barrel through instead of recalibrating—is emblematic of a wider shift. Back in 2015, after China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea sparked outrage from other regional players, Beijing sensed it had overreached and changed tack. It temporarily scaled back its island building and began devoting more time to regional diplomacy and its Belt and Road Initiative. By contrast, there are few obvious signs that China is rethinking its approach this time around, at least so far. The world was already on already on alert when, in June, the National People’s Congress announced its sweeping new national security law for Hong Kong. But the global chorus of condemnation that followed the announcement did not keep the CCP from implementing the new law with zeal or from formally charging with espionage two Canadian citizens it had held in detention for 18 months. In this new Chinese foreign policy, there are few U-turns and no posted speed limits.
Some of the most consequential changes are taking place on the inside, at the highest echelons of Chinese policymaking. When Beijing encountered unforeseen foreign policy challenges in the past, it followed a clear process of deliberation that was comprehensible to outside observers. That has not been the case of late. Xi is rumored to be making many of the most important decisions himself, without even a trusted cohort of advisers. This may help explain why China’s foreign policy has become less risk averse: with fewer voices pitching in, an undaunted Xi may have no one to dissuade him from pressing ahead. Past Chinese leaders, notably Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin, believed in the institutionalized processes of collective leadership. Xi has disabled or neutralized many of these channels. The world may now be getting a sense of what China’s decision-making looks like when a singularly strong leader acts more or less on his own.
What all these shifts amount to in the aggregate is still a matter of some debate. Some will argue that China’s strategy hasn’t changed but simply seized the moment, as it has done many times before: Xi is taking advantage of the United States’ stunning abdication of global leadership in a moment of crisis to advance his interests on many fronts. His imperious coronavirus diplomacy is just the latest instance of China’s long-standing tradition of foreign policy opportunism and improvisation—only scaled up to fit the gaping hole left by the United States. And perhaps three years of the Trump administration’s unilateral, zero-sum diplomacy have encouraged Beijing to push for foreign policy wins wherever it can, especially while the United States is busy gearing up for a contentious presidential election in November.
But the United States has been divided and distracted before—at the height of its wars in the Middle East and during the global financial crisis of 2008, for example—without inviting so many bold advances from China. The current lack of U.S. leadership matters, no doubt, but so do Xi’s consolidation of power and his belief that China’s geopolitical moment has arrived. These are the true forces pushing Beijing toward action. The United States’ withdrawal from the world is merely giving China the space it needs to follow through.
In China’s new foreign policy, there are few U-turns and no posted speed limits.
What is clear is that Beijing’s new foreign policy has already left its mark. Relations with Australia are at a low point, and European public opinion of China could suffer for years to come. The recent deadly border clash in the Himalayas may make India a more determined counterweight to China in the region. Familiar or not, Beijing’s bristling crisis diplomacy is costing it in novel and lasting ways.
China’s diplomatic offensive is sure to preoccupy any future U.S. administration, too. Whether under former Vice President Joe Biden or Trump, the next White House will need to prepare for tough bilateral diplomacy with Beijing on many fronts at once, from Hong Kong to the South China Sea, India, and Europe, where Chinese attempts at pressure and intimidation will likely continue. American leaders should expect to face Chinese diplomats who engage in rhetorical bomb throwing even as Xi himself presents a calmer and more constructive face, as he and Foreign Minister Wang Yi have done in recent weeks. And they should expect to deal with a Chinese government that, for all the international blowback it has received, maintains the confidence, even brazenness, of a newly minted great power.
Fortunately for the next U.S. president, the contours of a better American approach to China have been evident for some time. The United States must reject the punitive unilateralism that has become the norm in recent years and that has produced no trade or national security gains whatsoever. It must rejigger its relationship with allies in Europe and Asia, who provide its only remaining chance at balancing China in the decades ahead. It must reinvest in international institutions, such as the UN, the G-7, and the WHO, which are indispensable for crisis management and which China is all too happy to lead in the United States’ absence. And it must restore its own domestic health and prosperity to remain a viable competitor on the global stage.
If there is a silver lining to the current crisis maelstrom, it may be that Beijing has pulled back its own curtain, giving the world an unsolicited preview of unconstrained Chinese might. By leaving a power vacuum in the world’s darkest hour, the United States has bequeathed China ample room to overreach—and to demonstrate that it is unqualified for a position of sole global leadership. If Washington does not return soon, however, it may not much matter how the world views China’s bumptious diplomacy—left with no alternative, strident excess will fill the void.
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