Focus Topic: Staying the course - China's Global approach in 2021
At the superficial level, Beijing set a warmer diplomatic tone at the start of 2021 by calling for a reset in China-US relations after the inauguration of President Joe Biden on January 20. Although it still blamed Washington for the current tensions and warned that China would not back down on its core interests, Beijing seemed to be offering the new US administration a route out of the frictions created by Donald Trump’s trade wars and aggressive rhetoric and a return to the pre-Trump status quo.
China’s ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, said it was time for “dialogue and cooperation” so the two sides could “together with other countries and the international community, advance the noble cause of world peace and development”. A “new window of hope is opening”, as foreign minister Wang Yi put it.
In Western capitals, Beijing’s international standing took a hit in 2020, due to its initial coverup of the Covid-19 pandemic, its crackdown on Hong Kong and its hardline “wolf warrior” diplomacy. These statements by Beijing have therefore raised modest hopes that China may tone down its rhetoric and reduce its international assertiveness, to seek a return to better relations with the United States. This, however, is unlikely. In fact, Beijing is doubling down on its policies and approach. Recent toned-down rhetoric is little more than the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) telling the world – and the West in particular – what it wants to hear.
Beijing feels 2020 was a relatively successful year
In a series of early year speeches by top party leaders, Beijing made clear the central leadership is largely satisfied with China’s global role in 2020 and with its positioning as it enters 2021.
President Xi Jinping’s new year address, laced with references to China’s unyielding national spirit, listed some of China’s 2020 achievements. From overcoming the Covid-19 pandemic and achieving positive economic growth, to eradicating extreme poverty, and engaging with the international community to pursue a “human community with a shared future for mankind,” 2020 was deemed a hard but successful year for China and the party.
Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi reached a similar conclusion in his review of China’s diplomatic efforts in 2020. Acknowledging the difficulties China had faced, he argued that China helped to build consensus on a global response to Covid-19, making more friends in the world in the process, and helping protect and advance the shared interests of the developing world. Notably, Wang also issued a strong defense of China’s much criticized “wolf warrior” diplomacy – often seen in Western capitals as fueling the growing international backlash against China’s international behavior. In Wang’s words, part of the distinct Chinese style of diplomacy is that China treats “friends with hospitality and partners with cooperation,” but it also “ fights against wicked people.”1
These statements are primarily aimed at a domestic audience, so any admissions of error would undermine their purpose. Nonetheless, contrary to the widespread perception in Western capitals, their tone clearly shows that Beijing sees itself as having successfully taken on a more important role on the international stage, taking advantage of the United States’ withdrawal and the global Covid-19 pandemic.
Institutionalizing China’s international assertiveness
Foreign policy begins at home, and China is no different in this regard. To understand the trajectory of China’s international behavior it is therefore important to look beyond rhetoric and statements targeted at international audiences. Internal goals, guidelines and pronouncements, especially those meant for domestic or internal party consumption, often provide the best indications of where China’s foreign policy is headed.
2021 is a milestone year for the CCP. It marks the 100th anniversary of the party and the completion of the first centenary goal – the achievement of a moderately prosperous society. We can expect to see the promotion of a number of further goals intended to return China to its rightful place as a global power by 2049. Indeed, policy pronouncements and statements of intent have been in plentiful supply in recent months.
The Fifth Plenum of the Central Committee of the CCP, held in October 2020, offered a first glimpse of China’s main upcoming policy priorities and targets. It saw the release of the “Proposals on Formulating the Fourteenth Five-Year Plan for National Economic and Social Development (2021-2025) and the Long-term Goals for 2035,” which will form the basis of China’s 14th Five-Year Plan. In matters of defense of diplomacy, neither this document nor the slew of internal party commentary that followed signaled any significant changes in policy directions. Rather, they called for an acceleration of current themes and initiatives, from the BRI and the reform of the global governance system, to PLA modernization.
The focus remained squarely on the common theme of strengthening China’s national security in order to face down the mounting external challenges to the party’s rule and its development plan for China, and to protect China’s overseas interests more effectively.
Recent revisions to two important laws – China’s National Defense Law and Coast Guard Law – also struck a similar tone. The new National Defense Law gives the Central Military Commission the power to mobilize military and civilian resources to defend China’s “national and development interests,” which could well be applied to Chinese investments or projects overseas.
Vague language is also used in the revised Coast Guard Law. This law, which for the first time allows China’s Coast Guard to fire against foreign vessels, is meant to apply to activities in China’s – undefined – “waters under national jurisdiction”, a term that is likely to include China’s claims in the East and South China Seas, supporting Beijing’s increasingly assertive behavior in its neighborhood.
Despite the apparent toning down of rhetoric vis-à-vis the United States, where it matters Beijing is signaling that it intends to continue on its current course. Barring any last-minute surprises, this approach will be reinforced at the March 2021 National People’s Congress, when the next Five-Year Plan will be approved.
What does it mean for Europe?
2020 was not an easy year for China, and 2021 is not likely to be easy either. The party leadership, however, still sees “time and momentum” as being in China’s favor, as the “East rises and the West is in decline”. Although China is entering a new phase this year, as Xi likes to put it, its foreign policies are likely to remain remarkably similar. The party’s and China’s core interests and fundamental policies have not changed and, as such, 2021 is likely to see a continuation and even an acceleration of China’s current international behavior. The following are the top issues to watch this year. They will pose clear challenges to Europe’s interests and security in the short-term:
- Tensions in the Indo-Pacific region: the CCP is unlikely to want to disrupt its 100th anniversary celebrations with open conflict in its neighborhood. Despite this, Europe should expect to see increased tension in the East and South China Seas, now that the Coast Guard has been given expanded powers to operate in the region, as well as ramped up pressure on Taiwan.
Continued deployments of naval assets to the region by the United States, Australia and some European countries, including France, the UK and Germany, will anger Beijing. This could potentially lead to diplomatic retaliation, especially if Beijing considers that Western countries are coordinating in order to contain China. The Chinese military is similarly likely to maintain its presence along the China-India border, despite the recent agreement to disengage, which could trigger further clashes below the threshold of conflict.
- Assertive or coercive diplomacy: one of Beijing’s main concerns this year is likely to be the prospect of a new coalition among liberal democracies and like minded states to confront China’s worst behavior in the international arena. We can expect to see China continue its “divide and rule” approach to Europe. “Wolf warrior” diplomacy will play an important role, as it serves to shape European public narratives and to sustain perceptions that it is both impossible and unwise for other countries to try to block Beijing’s pursuit of its own interests.
China will also use this opportunity to promote its governance model as superior to liberal democracies, much as it did in the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, the rhetoric may be toned down slightly to match the new spirit of multilateralism that Beijing is – at least outwardly – calling for these days. It is also possible that European countries will become the targets of China’s coercive diplomacy, as Australia was in 2020.
- Influence in international organizations: 2021 is likely to see further efforts by Beijing to expand its influence inside the UN system, given the number of upcoming leadership changes at important UN agencies. China will not pass on this opportunity to build coalitions of developing and like-minded countries against the West, either by seeking to get its own candidates elected or by lining up support behind the candidates of friendly countries. By increasing its clout at the UN, China can further prevent international scrutiny of its behavior and continue to play a major role in setting global standards in areas ranging from cybersecurity and transport to telecommunications and agriculture. Beijing’s success inside the system also bolsters CCP claims that its governance model is superior.
- Transatlantic relations: Beijing will be watching developments closely as the Biden administration seeks to revive the transatlantic relationship after the damage of the Trump era. Beijing is likely to regard two major events as litmus tests for the emergence of a transatlantic anti-China bloc; the 2021 NATO Leaders’ Summit, which will once again focus on China, and the results of the EU’s review of the implementation of the 2019 EU-China Strategic Outlook. In the run-up to these events, Europe should expect Beijing to attempt to exploit existing divisions within NATO and the EU. European countries should prepare to see China use a range of familiar tools and tactics to influence their decision-making, such as cyber warfare, disinformation, elite capture, economic pressure and legal warfare, among others.