China Is Locked Into Xi Jinping’s Aggressive Diplomacy

Foreign Policy, 02.12.2022
Kathy Huang, investigadora (programa Asia Studies del Council on Foreign Relations)
“Xiplomacy” is a political inevitability.

In recent years, China has pursued an increasingly aggressive foreign-policy posture known as “wolf warrior” diplomacy, one that has forcefully staked China’s positions across issues and regions.

But evidence is mounting that this strategy is backfiring. International opinion polls, such as the latest Pew Research Center survey, show that negative views of China is peaking around the world while China’s diplomatic initiatives, such as in Central and Eastern Europe, are failing.

Yet in the wake of the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, China has defended its aggressive foreign policy and hinted at its intensification. At first glance, it would seem that China is simply unaware that its diplomacy is malfunctioning. But a closer look reveals that China’s choice has its own logic. Why is China so committed to this style of diplomacy despite the dangers that come with it?

Chinese media refers to this style as “Xiplomacy,” a coined term frequently used in Xinhua News headlines since 2019, short for “Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy.” It stands for China’s foreign-policy framework under Chinese President Xi Jinping’s leadership and is one of the five key elements of “Xi Jinping Thought,” the other four involving the economy, ecology, military, and rule of law.

At heart, Xi’s diplomacy calls for a more active role for China as a great power on the world stage, including reforming the Western-dominated international order and creating what China calls “true multilateralism.”

Compared to the other key elements, however, Xiplomacy has seen a lackluster performer in Chinese state media. According to the China Media Project, which tracks the number of times each element has been mentioned in the People’s Daily since the beginning of 2022, Xiplomacy appeared less than five times most months, whereas others averaged around 15 times.

The underplaying of Xiplomacy in state media indicates China is aware of its disappointing diplomatic performance. The one other banner phrase that also saw low usage through this year is “Xi Jinping Economic Thought,” which corresponds with China’s weak economic performance. Although China’s diplomatic travails are harder to quantify than slowing growth, the term’s relative absence from state media tells us that the party is not completely blind to the reality.

So why does the party show no intention of reorienting its foreign policy despite being aware of its underwhelming performance? The answer is that Xiplomacy is more about Xi than anything else.

Yang Jiechi, director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission and the highest foreign-policy official in the party, spoke on the study and implementation of Xiplomacy this May, the transcript of which was published in the People’s Daily. The speech was all about Xi. Yang vowed to “take a coordinated approach to the domestic and international imperatives” and “resolutely follow through on General Secretary Xi Jinping’s important instructions on external work and the decisions and plans of the CPC Central Committee.”

This highlight a key characteristic of China’s foreign policy: It is valued only as an extension of its domestic agenda, with the priority to demonstrate loyalty to Xi and his agenda. Beijing’s overreactions to inquiries into COVID-19’s origin, aggressions in the South China Sea, obsessions over border disputes, or military demonstrations in the Taiwan Strait are more motivated by internal politics and what Xi identifies as China’s priorities than effective diplomacy aimed at managing foreign relations.

At its core, Xi’s foreign policy is about boosting citizen confidence in the state by flaunting national strength. The primary audience of China’s foreign policy is domestic, not international.

Xi’s diplomatic philosophy points back to the narrative of the “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”—a concept that echoes domestic patriotic sentiment. As China analyst Elizabeth Economy explains, the rejuvenation narrative “evokes memories of the country as the Middle Kingdom demanding tribute from the rest of the world; China as a source of innovation, creating paper, gunpowder, printing, and the compass; and China as an expansive, outward-facing power.” It appeals more to a domestic audience nostalgic for China’s glorious past than for an international audience, some of which might still be traumatized by China’s history as an expansionist power.

Support on social media showcases the popularity of Chinese-style diplomacy at home. The Chinese internet’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, for example, was largely pro-Russia and pro-Russian President Vladimir Putin, much of which mimicked the aggressive tone of Chinese diplomats. Although sentiments on social media could be biased due to censorship, a survey conducted by the Carter Center shows that 75 percent of respondents agree that supporting Russia in its invasion of Ukraine is in China’s national interest, and more surprisingly, support for Russia is correlated with higher education.

Although soft power was embraced by former Chinese leader Hu Jintao, it has somewhat lost its appeal under Xi. This shift is evident in Xi’s speech during the recently concluded 20th Party Congress. According to Reuters, Xi used hard-power terms, such as “security” or “safety,” 89 times in the full work report—up from 55 times in 2017. China does care about its global image, not so much about its appeal to other countries through non-coercive means—soft power—but rather in its ability to influence other countries’ diplomatic decisions through the power it has, such as economic coercion.

As the National Endowment for Democracy’s Christopher Walker explained in Foreign Policy, “the dynamics of soft power—which arise principally from a country’s culture, its political values, and its policies—are misaligned with the incentives of systems based on pervasive state control and repression.” As China grows increasingly authoritarian under Xi, the sources of soft power—civil society, individuals, and the private sector—inevitably suffers.

After failed attempts of growing China’s soft power abroad, Xi has turned to a so-called harder version of soft power: international influence. This is about using power resources—a state’s material and ideational assets—to influence other states’ behaviors. Xi proudly announced in his 20th Party Congress speech that “China’s international influence, appeal, and shaping power have been significantly improved.”

China’s flagship foreign-policy project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), showcases China’s intent to expand its international influence using economic coercion. One salient example is Lithuania, which joined the BRI in 2017.

After Lithuania announced it would open a Taiwanese representative office in Vilnius in November 2021, Beijing retaliated by destroying their bilateral trade relationship, causing economic losses worth some $320 million for Lithuanian companies in 2021. Through Lithuania, Beijing hoped to exemplify the harsh consequences facing other BRI countries if they ever misalign with Beijing’s political agenda. In reality, China’s extreme measure was a failed public relations campaign: Not only did it fray China’s relations with other Eastern European countries, but it also further damaged China-European Union relations, with the latter calling for a World Trade Organization case against Beijing’s arbitrary trade restrictions.

China’s pursuit of international influence is also reflected in its diplomatic priorities. In September, Xi visited Central Asia for his first trip overseas since the pandemic began. The choice was deliberate: China has achieved relative success with the BRI in Central Asia. Instead of choosing another BRI region, such as Eastern Europe, which has grown increasingly distant from China due to failed infrastructure promises and China’s support of Russia, China turned to Central Asia, where many in the region view connectivity as a matter of survival, especially facing the economic disruptions of Russia’s war in Ukraine. This economic direness propels Central Asian countries to support China’s political agenda, such as regarding China’s territorial claims to Taiwan, in return for infrastructure investments.

Domestically, the trip was displayed as a successful venture at asserting China’s international influence. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs frames it as “fully show[ing] the strong confidence and influence of President Xi Jinping, and the growing international standing and influence of China.”

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was announced as a new Politburo member at the 20th Party Congress, implying that he is set to replace Yang as director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission, the highest ranked official for China’s foreign policy.

As a fervent advocate of “wolf warrior” diplomacy, Wang being promoted affirms the continuation, if not the intensification, of China’s aggressive diplomacy style. But more so, it reinforces the notion that the foreign minister’s primary job is to show off their loyalty to Xi.

To please the central leader, officials are keeping critical feedback and advice from reaching Xi. As journalist Dake Kang explained recently, even China’s once powerful internal system of internal reports, known as Neican, has become dangerously censored under Xi. The broken feedback loop could lead to poor decision-making, a common phenomenon with autocrats, as recently witnessed in Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine.

Facing pressing domestic issues, Xi-centered diplomacy could suffer from tunnel vision and lose its true purpose: managing relationships abroad. Instead of spreading himself too thin, Xi should allocate responsibilities to trained diplomats and informed experts to design and implement a foreign policy that focuses China’s energy outward. But that’s an unlikely possibility in a system that increasingly turns around the whims of a single man.

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