It is now apparent that the United States under the new Biden administration will continue to adopt a tough stance toward China. In March, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken chose Japan and South Korea as the first countries he visited after assuming office. Together with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, he held 2+2 meetings with the foreign and defense ministers of these two countries. On his way home, Blinken joined National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan in Anchorage for a meeting of top U.S.-China foreign affairs officials with Yang Jiechi, member of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and Wang Yi, state councilor and foreign minister. Following their trip to Japan and South Korea, Austin also visited India while Blinken went to Europe. In April, President Joe Biden welcomed Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga as his first official guest. Immediately after the start of the new administration, the U.S. has set out to strengthen relations with its allies and partners with China in mind.
Meanwhile, China has also been active on the diplomatic front. After the U.S.-China meeting of top diplomats in Anchorage, Wang met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Guilin, followed by a visit to six Middle East nations. He signed a 25-year agreement on economic and security cooperation with Iran. After returning home, Wang invited the foreign ministers of four Southeast Asian countries and South Korea to China for intensive talks. China has also begun to strengthen relations with friendly countries and neighbors to counter the U.S. moves.
In the past year, the Xi Jinping regime was able to drum up domestic support, having succeeded in the speedy containment of the COVID-19. On the other hand, its international image has suffered as a result of lack of transparency in its initial response to the epidemic and its aggressive diplomatic posture under its “wolf warrior diplomacy.” During this period, growing concern in the international community regarding the introduction of the National Security Law in Hong Kong and human rights issues in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region has led to a tough stance against China not only in the U.S., but also in the major European countries. China responded by providing masks and vaccines to the developing countries in a bid to strengthen cooperation with them. Additionally, China’s signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) comprised mainly of East Asian countries and the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment with the EU can also be seen as China’s attempt to use its economic power as leverage to break down the network of U.S. allies.
It must be noted that recently, China is not only engaged in a diplomatic competition, but also in an ideological competition, asserting the legitimacy of its political regime. It is now taking an even stronger position in openly challenging the current international order founded on Western Values. This article aims to examine China’s worldview in its intensifying rivalry with the U.S. and what sort of international order it envisions by looking at Wang Yi’s news conference at the National People’s Congress (NPC) in March, Yang Jiechi’s subsequent statements at the Anchorage meeting, and other recent remarks by Chinese foreign affairs officials.
2．News Conference at the NPC on Foreign Affairs
A news conference is held by the foreign minister for the Chinese and foreign media each year during the NPC, and this is a good opportunity for understanding the overall policy of the Chinese foreign affairs authorities. This year, it was held online on March 7. In recent years, it is customary for the foreign minister to answer questions from the major Chinese media outlets at the beginning to revisit China’s diplomacy in the past year in order to publicize the positive results of China’s diplomatic activities as a major power among the Chinese people. The 2018 press conference started with brazen sycophancy toward the authorities in a question from a Renmin Ribao reporter, who stated that “China has made unprecedented major achievements, and the people are signing praises.” Even the Chinese reporter seated beside her did not bother to hide her disdain, and this episode went viral. Yet, at that time, liberal intellectuals who were concerned about the pervasive triumphant atmosphere in China were still able to voice their opinion.
What was notable in this year’s news conference is that Wang Yi cited “President Xi Jinping’s leadership” much more frequently than before. In addition, he made it a point to mention the “party’s leadership” when answering prearranged questions. He stressed that, “The CCP is the backbone of the Chinese people and the anchor of China's diplomacy,” and that, “The Party's leadership is the biggest political advantage of China's diplomacy and the fundamental safeguard for continued victory in China's diplomatic endeavors.”
3． The Existing International Order and China’s UN-centrism
Answering a question on the United Nations, Wang stated: “China has firmly safeguarded the UN-centered international system, and the international order underpinned by international law.” He further argued for “upholding the purposes and principles of the UN Charter,” “preserving the central role of the UN in the international system,” and “keeping to the basic rule of equal-footed consultation at the UN.” Commenting on China’s multilateralism, Wang told the media: “China believes that true multilateralism means observing the purposes and principles of the UN Charter, upholding the UN-centered international system and promoting democracy in international relations.” He further stressed that, “The UN is not a club for big or rich countries. All countries enjoy sovereign equality, and no country is in a position to dictate international affairs. We should increase the representation and voice of developing countries in the UN to better reflect the shared aspiration of the overwhelming majority of countries.”
In this connection, Yang Jiechi went as far as asserting at the U.S.-China high-level foreign affairs meeting in Anchorage that, “What China and the international community follow or uphold is the United Nations-centered international system and the international order underpinned by international law, not what is advocated by a small number of countries of the so-called rules-based international order… The United States itself does not represent international public opinion, and neither does the Western world. Whether judged by population scale or the trend of the world, the Western world does not represent the global public opinion… [The U.S.] only represents the government of the United States. I don't think the overwhelming majority of countries in the world would recognize that the universal values advocated by the United States or that the opinion of the United States could represent international public opinion, and those countries would not recognize that the rules made by a small number of people would serve as the basis for the international order.”
At his news conference, Wang gave the following comments on China’s relations with Europe: “China and Europe are two great civilizations capable of dialogue and exchanges, and they are not systemic rivals… The relationship is equal and open, not targeting any third party or controlled by anyone else. Therefore, there is no question of China wanting a rift in the U.S.-Europe relationship.” Answering a question on China’s rise and ideological and systemic competition with the West, he took issue with the growing U.S.-led criticism of China’s regime, stating: “There should not be only one model… To smear or attack others for their different system or even claim superiority is in essence ‘hegemony of system’.”
Speaking on relations with Russia, which is also competing with the West like China, Wang said: “China and Russia firmly support each other in… opposing ‘color revolution’.” When fielding a question from an Egyptian reporter, Wang began his remarks by stating: “China and Africa were comrades-in-arms (in the struggle for the liberation of colonies), and we are brothers,” pointedly using the term “brothers.” This does not only mean close relations with the African countries, but also implies China’s true feeling that the relationship with these countries, which are targets of its Belt and Road Initiative, is actually not equal, since China is the “elder brother.”
In his online dialogue with the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in April, Wang further asserted that China has its own form of democracy that is suited for its own circumstances, and it is undemocratic to label China as "authoritarian" or a "dictatorship" simply because its democracy takes a different form. While the term “Chinese-style democracy” had been used before, China used to be defensive about issues concerning its political regime, claiming imposing democracy and human rights on China amounted to interference in its internal affairs. Yet, recently, it has begun to openly assert the legitimacy of its regime, claiming “Chinese-style democracy” is also democracy while sidestepping the question of what democracy is. It is conceivable that behind this is China’s diplomatic posture in recent years aimed at gaining a stronger voice, i.e. achieving greater influence for China’s discourse in the realm of international public opinion (what the Chinese call “discourse power”).
4．Chinese-style “Value Diplomacy”
Since it embarked on the policy of reform and opening up, China has developed by taking full advantage of certain aspects of the Western-centered liberal and open international order that serve its interest, such as the free trade system. In that sense, it is probably one of the top beneficiaries of the current international order. During the Hu Jintao era, China advocated “peaceful rise,” under which its rise would not be threatening to the world. Even in recent years, many Chinese scholars of international relations have not envisaged China challenging the existing international order head-on and replacing the U.S. in the near future.
However, concepts such as “new type of international relations” and “community with shared future of mankind” that have come to be promoted in the Xi Jinping era have gradually betrayed its hidden motive of forming a China-centered international order. As early as 2016, former Chinese Ambassador to the UK, Fu Ying maintained that the present international order contains three pillars: Western values, the U.S.-led military alignment, and the UN and its institutions, but China has a strong sense of belonging only to the UN-led order. Even granting that Yang Jiechi’s statements in Anchorage were mainly meant for the domestic audience in light of the intensifying U.S.-China rivalry, he also negated the U.S.-led international order more explicitly. Yang and Wang were correct in pointing out that the U.S. and other advanced Western countries are a minority in the UN, and the developing countries are the majority. Many of these countries have experienced the decolonization process, and they do not unquestioningly accept the values led historically by the Western countries. It is also true that they do not strongly resonate with the human rights issues advocated by the Biden administration, nor the rule of law or the Western-centered international order.
However, the UN’s doctrine actually has its roots in the Atlantic Charter promulgated by Roosevelt and Churchill, which embraced such principles as national self-determination and freedom of the sea that were based on the liberal ideas and norms in the Western countries. Although Yang Jiechi went as far as arguing, “What China upholds is the UN-centered international system and not what is advocated by a small number of countries of the so-called rules-based international order,” the UN system is precisely aimed at achieving a rule-based international order. While Fu Ying stressed that China has a strong sense of belonging to the United Nations since it is one of the founders, the original founding member was “the Republic of China” and not “the People’s Republic of China.” The PRC only joined the UN in 1971. Furthermore, the UN’s main objectives include not only “maintenance of international peace and security,” but also “respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.” It is revealing that after a joint statement on the Uygur issue was issued by 39 nations consisting mainly of the Western countries last November, China not only retorted, but also mobilized the developing countries, boasting that more than 70 countries supported China’s position. There is concern that as a result of China’s growing influence in the UN, its basic principles from its founding days may be eroded gradually.
It is reckoned that China’s support of the UN-centered international order is not out of its understanding and affirmation of UN principles, but rather merely based on its desire to use the UN structure made up of a majority of developing countries to its own advantage. For sure, China’s development model of achieving economic growth in a short period without going through painful political reforms indeed looks appealing to many developing countries under authoritarian regimes. However, China’s economic development owes partly to a uniquely Chinese background and factors, which may not be easily emulated by other developing countries. At this point, the ambiguous concepts of “new type of international relations” and “community with shared future mankind”offered by China have yet to gain widespread positive support from the non-Western developing nations. Actually, it can be said that support from these countries is simply driven by China’s enormous economic power. With regard to the goal of strengthening Chinese discourse in international public opinion, as mentioned earlier, China has not been able to gain a positive response from the people of other countries, as well as the international community, which is the true goal of public diplomacy.
It is difficult for outsiders to gauge the Chinese policymakers’ honest view and analysis of the international environment surrounding China and its foreign policy strategy in response to current environment. From China’s standpoint, the U.S. national power is declining in the long term, and the Trump administration had exposed the disarray in democracy, which in contrast would have reinforced China’s confidence in its own political regime. Meanwhile, it is also conceivable that China is unsettled by the fact that the Biden administration not only maintains the former administration’s tough stance against China but has also been unexpectedly fast in taking active steps to formulate cooperative and comprehensive policies with U.S. allies and partners. As a result, China seems to be adopting a more confrontational stance even in terms of ideology in its attempt to challenge the U.S. head-on. However, have the officials responsible for China’s foreign policy even made a level-headed analysis and judgment as to whether such policy is in its national interest?
In the past, China had often talked tough and adopted a harsh stance when facing changes in the international environment or a diplomatic stalemate but quietly and skillfully changed gear in its actual actions, demonstrating a realist attitude in pursuit of national interest. However, it is possible that China is now grappling with stronger constraints from domestic factors, making it more difficult to conduct flexible diplomacy. Xi Jinping has indeed maintained a tough stance, so far, on Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and others which China regards national sovereignty issues. Moreover, the CCP will mark its centenary in July and hold its 20th Party Congress in fall 2022. It is reckoned that Xi will find it even more tricky to make concessions in foreign affairs under this domestic political schedule.
Furthermore, it is also conceivable that Xi’s consolidation of strong power and promotion of party-led diplomacy has not only tied the hands of the foreign affairs officials but also introduced a more subservient attitude. Greater interference in diplomacy by a party that is focused on ideology and unfamiliar with the actual situation will not only compromise the responsiveness of diplomatic activities but also affect reports submitted from the field to the party center. In other words, “unpleasant” reports are less likely to reach Xi, and there will be a growing gap between the actual international environment around China and its own perception. In addition, the nationalism fostered by the Xi Jinping regime to win the support of the masses may yet come to tie the hands of its diplomacy. Yang Jiechi’s statements in Anchorage were well-received by the masses at home but they actually served to raise the hurdle for China to conduct flexible diplomacy toward the U.S. There were indeed a fair number of diplomatic debacles in history where a country suddenly found itself at a point of no return one day.
18 Permanent Mission of the People’s Republic of China to the United Nations Office at Geneva and Other International Organizations in Switzerland, “Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying’s Remarks on Friendly Countries’ Joint Statements in Support of China at the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly,” October 10, 2020.” (http://www.china-un.ch/eng/zgyw/t1822255.htm)
20 For example, in surveys on Southeast Asian countries, China tends to have a lower overall rating in trustworthiness than the U.S. while Japan enjoys a high level of trust. ASEAN Studies Center, ISEAS - Yusof-Ishak Institute, The State of East Asia:2021 Survey Report, February 2021. (The-State-of-SEA-2021-v2.pdf (iseas.edu.sg))
21 China has also emphasized public diplomacy in its foreign policy. However, it is unique in that the goal of its public diplomacy consists not only of winning the goodwill of other countries and the international community, but also winning the understanding of domestic public opinion.