Is China waking up to the costs of its US policy? | Analysis
It isn’t clear whether this marks a correction, or a tactical attempt to manage tensions. Washington isn’t convinced
China is getting increasingly concerned at the “alarming” deterioration in relations between China and the United States (US). Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-owned Global Times, who has a huge following on social media, wrote on his Weibo account in May: “Honestly, America today won’t back off before crippling China!”
Many Chinese academics, intellectuals and strategists have been cautioning the leadership, since 2017, that the assertive foreign policy it has adopted will lose China friends and add tension to the already severely strained Sino-US relationship, thereby adversely impacting China’s rise. They have been advocating a return to Deng Xiaoping’s policy of “lie low, bide your time”. This was also among the demands listed in the criticisms levelled against Chinese President Xi Jinping in the wake of the pandemic, and in letters to members of China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) — the country’s version of a Parliament — posted on the Internet in May.
Either as a response to these voices, but probably to make overtures to Washington as the political establishment in the US gets busy with the presidential elections, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi made an important 3,144-character speech to a forum on China-US relations on July 9. Moderate in tone, the speech was an obvious plea to get relations back on track. Wang Yi said, “Alarmingly, China-US relations, one of the most consequential bilateral relationships in the world, is faced with the most severe challenge since the establishment of diplomatic ties”. In an apparent bid to dispel notions of China using force to achieve its goals, Wang Yi emphasised that “…aggression and expansion are never in the genes of the Chinese nation throughout its 5,000 years of history”. He explained: “Some friends in the US might have become suspicious or even wary of a growing China. I’d like to stress here again that China never intends to challenge or replace the US, or have full confrontation with the US”. Wang Yi was emphatic, though that “China and the US should not seek to remodel each other. Instead, they must work together to find ways of peaceful coexistence of different systems and civilisations”.
China’s ministry of foreign affairs (MoFA) quoted Wang Yi as stating that “China just wants the relationship back on track and is willing to sit down and talk to make that happen”. He proposed creating three lists to frame a discussion to mend relations: One, to outline bilateral and global issues the two countries could work on together; two, to list issues on which they have disputes, but which can be resolved through dialogue; and three, for “tough” issues that are unlikely to be resolved “in the near future”. It quoted Wang Yi as saying that “the US must not seek to change China’s political system”.
In late April 2020, retired major general Qiao Liang, co-author of the book, Unrestricted Warfare, and a hawk who is very popular in China and Wu Shicun, a high-level provincial cadre and president of China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies, commented on China’s most sensitive issues through media outlets in Hong Kong. Qiao Liang hinted that the reunification of Taiwan with the mainland need not have a deadline, adding that Beijing should clarify this. Similarly, asserting that the South China Sea (SCS) is vitally important for China, Wu Shicun acknowledged that it is indispensable for US hegemony in the Western Pacific and hinted that China would not precipitate matters in the SCS. Taiwan and the SCS are both areas where Beijing has either resorted to, or hinted at the imminence, of military action.
Separately, just days prior to Wang Yi’s speech, a government-managed web portal published an article by three Chinese researchers calling on Beijing to “actively manage” differences with Washington. It candidly stated that China is “the weaker side of the strategic competition of major powers” and “needs to carefully assess the risk of these confrontations dragging the two countries into conflict”. The article said maritime strategic competition in the West Pacific Ocean and SCS should be properly managed and a long-term strategic stalemate envisaged. Similarly, “China and the US should refrain from the urge to gather third-party forces to block and counterbalance each other”.
Wang Yi’s speech excluded no subjects from discussion except China’s political system. It would have particularly addressed persons favouring continued ties with China. Whether it indicates the potential for a foreign policy course correction or attempts to reduce tensions while Beijing continues pursuing policies as before, is uncertain. Washington has interpreted it as the latter as indicated by its reaction to developments in Hong Kong and its naval exercises in the SCS. It nevertheless confirms that China is under immense strain and that pressure on President Xi Jinping, who also chairs the Central Leading Small Group on Foreign Affairs which oversees China’s foreign policy, is growing.