As the geopolitical acrimony continues to grow between the world’s two biggest economies ahead of the US presidential election, Beijing is apparently feeling the heat from Washington.
China has sent its top diplomats on whirlwind tours of Europe and Asia in a scramble to shore up ties and repair its coronavirus-battered image, amid fears that the conflict with the US may turn into a new Cold War.
Days after Politburo member and top diplomat Yang Jiechi wrapped up a visit to Singapore and South Korea, Foreign Minister Wang Yi arrived in Europe on Tuesday for a tour of Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, France and Germany.
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Beijing’s latest charm offensive marks a return to face-to-face meetings after months of virtual communications, and observers say it underlines the diplomatic priorities for China as it tries to manage the crisis resulting from its aggressive coronavirus diplomacy and tit-for-tat confrontation with the US.
“China sees a strategic imperative, not opportunity, to engage in such moves as part of the contestation of influence and narratives against the perceived US-led containment scheme,” said Collin Koh, a research fellow from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.
While observers note that Beijing appears to have reined in its belligerent Wolf Warrior-style diplomats – a reference to a popular nationalistic movie franchise in China – they say it is too early to tell whether its foreign policy direction has changed as the country faces increasing international pushback.
“To be sure, China’s rhetoric may be more accommodating, but tensions remain high in the South and East China seas as well as with India, in large part as a result of Beijing adopting a more assertive defence posture over the last few months,” said Benoit Hardy-Chartrand, an international affairs expert at Temple University in Tokyo.
In addition, he noted that recent public surveys had shown a significant drop in favourability towards China in countries including the US, Britain, France, Italy, Canada, South Korea and India.
He said China’s objectives and priorities had remained largely unchanged, as it sought dominance in Asia while seeking to undermine US alliances and reduce Washington’s influence.
“In this context, it is most sensible for the country to embark on a charm offensive in key countries,” Hardy-Chartrand said.
Those countries targeted in Beijing’s latest diplomatic flurry indicate the strategic importance of its Asian neighbours and Europe in the long game with Washington.
Philippe Le Corre, a non-resident senior fellow in the Europe and Asia programmes at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the foreign minister’s focus on some of the largest, most influential EU countries showed Beijing’s understanding of where the power was within the bloc.
He also noted that the “new normal” aggressive approach to diplomacy would not help Beijing’s efforts to find support in Europe.
“Having said that, the prospects for an improved dialogue between China and the EU seem better than a US-China one,” Le Corre said. “But it won’t be easy to repair the image issues created from Covid-19 in Europe and from issues taking place in China itself.”
Pang Zhongying, an international affairs expert at the Ocean University of China, said the deteriorating ties with Europe were no less challenging for Beijing than its tensions with the US.
“Unfortunately Beijing seems to have difficulty coming to terms with the reality that the EU countries have their own problems with China over human rights issues in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, as well as the South China Sea and Huawei,” Pang said.
These problems may have motivated Beijing to send Yang, director of the Communist Party’s foreign affairs office, to Europe as well. He is expected to arrive days after Wang finishes his tour of the region this week, visiting Spain, Greece and possibly Portugal, sources have told the South China Morning Post .
Yang’s trip to Singapore and South Korea – his first overseas travel since a meeting with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Hawaii in June – came as tensions neared boiling point between Beijing and Washington over the South China Sea, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong described his meeting with Yang as “fruitful”, with relations with the US and the maritime dispute believed to have topped the agenda.
Zhang Mingliang, a Southeast Asian affairs expert with Jinan University in Guangzhou, said the intensifying US-China rivalry had made Singapore and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations all the more important in Beijing’s efforts to contain its regional rivals and counter the US.
“China cannot afford destabilised ties with Asean or to scare away the smaller countries in the midst of the worst Sino-US crisis since the 1970s,” he said. “That puts the Asean members at an advantage in dealing with China.”
Washington is also edging closer to Asean, especially after Pompeo’s statement in July rejecting Beijing’s expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea.
“China remains Asean’s primary opponent, regardless of what it says publicly,” Zhang said. “Southeast Asian countries had pinned their hopes on Washington intervening to counter an increasingly assertive Beijing, and now it’s happened.”
But despite Asean’s importance for Beijing, Zhang believed it was unlikely to make key concessions on the deadlocked South China Sea code of conduct talks, especially the Chinese proposal to exclude countries outside the region – an apparent reference to the US.
In South Korea, Yang’s trip to Busan last weekend may have achieved something more concrete, with an agreement for Chinese President Xi Jinping to visit the country as soon as the coronavirus pandemic was under control. Xi was to visit both Japan and South Korea in the first half of this year, but the plans were shelved because of the pandemic.
The Japan trip is now looking increasingly unlikely due to Tokyo’s role in Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy targeting China. However, a visit to South Korea – a treaty ally of the US – would be Xi’s first overseas trip since he went to Myanmar in January, and a breakthrough for China’s coronavirus-hit global ambitions.
It would also “contribute to Beijing’s objectives of creating friction between Seoul on one side, and Tokyo and Washington on the other”, according to Hardy-Chartrand of Temple University.
As in Europe, allies of the US in Asia – especially Japan and South Korea – are seeking autonomous security strategies in the era of President Donald Trump’s “America First” approach, citing regional threats such as North Korea.
“The coronavirus has pushed our Asian neighbours further away from China,” Pang said. “And their proclaimed strategic autonomy essentially means they want to hedge against China.”
More from South China Morning Post:
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- China’s top diplomats in ‘unprecedented’ back-to-back Europe trips amid tensions with US
- China’s foreign minister Wang Yi tells European Union not to get caught up in ‘new Cold War’
- US-China relations: Mark Esper urges allies to help counter China in Indo-Pacific
This article China seeks to manage crisis, shore up ties with diplomatic flurry in Europe and Asia first appeared on South China Morning Post