Opinion | China's diplomatic offensive, and a mini-detente
By Tom Fowdy
Two critical political events have contributed to a significant easing of tensions between the west and China. The first is the conclusion of China's 19th Party Congress, by far the most politically sensitive event in the country. The second is the mid-term elections in the United States, wherein Biden's Democrats fared better than expected. Now both events are offered, the leaders of each respective country have felt more secure and comfortable to alleviate political tensions, and on such there has been a burst of diplomatic activity over the past couple of weeks between both China and the US, as well as both Beijing and the wider.
This has included, Olaf Scholz's visit to China, the Vietnamese leader's visit, as well as the President of Tanzania, but in addition a flurry of conveniently placed multilateral summits including G20, ASEAN and APEC. This has allowed China's Xi Jinping to meet with leaders on a rolling basis, including Biden himself, as well as the Prime Minister of Australia Antony Albanese, French President Immanuel Macron, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, South Korean President Yoon Seok Yeol and newly elected Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. New Zealand's Jacinda Ardern has also been invited to Beijing.
This all-round alleviation of tensions is good news, although it does not fundamentally change the strategic game plan. However, it is also reflective of China's desire to ultimately avoid confrontation with the west at large and to evade falling into the "Russia trap", acting with caution and relative restraint, than to take the "bait" of American provocations and any extreme risks. While China has long been consistent with this, the war in Ukraine has nonetheless brought some clear lessons for Beijing on how not to handle the strategic competition with the United States.
China understands American foreign policy well. Although it is sometimes criticized by its more patriotic supporters for seemingly being too restrained or not tough in the face of US provocations, Beijing's institutional worldview of the United States is shaped from the experience of the initial Cold War, Washington's victory over the Soviet Union and its behavior since in a "pax-Americana" world post-1991. That is, the United States is a hegemonic nation which will forcibly strive to isolate any country which directly contends against it, and uses the norm of "self-determination" to its own systemic advantage by maintaining a series of partnerships and alliances, of which it then uses to project power over given regions of the world through common interests.
In doing so, the United States has a diplomatic art of creating and perpetuating geopolitical tensions to drive wedges between countries with the goal of legitimating its presence. The biggest recent examples include Russia and Ukraine, but also China and Taiwan. By intensifying its military footprint, undermining a given status quo and playing upon sensitive issues, America thrives when its adversaries react overbearingly, which allows the US then to sustain military and political leverage over its effective allies, and therefore greater isolate or even defeat the target.
This is what is known as the "Ukraine trap"- whereby the adversary's hand is forced, and the US responds not only with large-scale sanctions, but through the building of a comprehensive military coalition against that given target. This is also the fate that beset Saddam Hussein when he invaded Kuwait in 1990. Now, the US has been very eager to "replicate" that model in Asia through the playing up of the Taiwan issue as a part of its Indo-Pacific Strategy. The US deliberately undermines the status quo in the Taiwan Strait, China reacts, but then the US frames Beijing as the one seeking to "change" the status quo and brands it as a destabilizing force. By stirring tensions, the US then tries to force the hand of other regional nations to oppose China on it too. We are currently seeing this effort being strongly lobbied at the Philippines.
China recognizes that although it cannot be seen as weak on Taiwan or lose its face, if it falls into America's trap, the United States will be able to maximize its political and military footprint in Asia and assume leadership. The US will in turn be able to dismantle the China-centric economic order that has naturally stemmed from regional integration. This contravenes China's longstanding position of seeking development and stability in the view to pursuing economic growth. This means that continuing diplomacy in the view to thwarting American objectives, beating back decoupling and keeping countries on board is a much more important priority for China than to pull the trigger. Thus, Beijing has responded with a diplomatic offensive post-party conference. Some western nations have exerted strategic space from the US to engage China again, rejecting the US-led premise of a bloc confrontation. Ultimately, if the US shapes geopolitics by igniting confrontation, then Beijing perceives the greatest long-term strategy is to in fact avoid it.