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Opinion | Is there a shift in Chinese diplomacy? It must be more proactive

By Augustus K. Yeung

Is China undergoing a shift in diplomacy and foreign policy? If this shift is significant, it must be critically examined. An article titled, "Proactive diplomacy" which reported what Wang Yi said in his press conference, provides a basis for discussion.

Wang Yi took the stage at China's "two sessions" – to explain the strategic framework of the country's foreign policy, underscoring a year of perceived diplomatic triumphs – and charting the course for a more assertive global stance in 2024.

"Wang navigated an array of international concerns, from the war in the Middle East to Sino-U.S.  relations. His narrative was not just a defense of past actions – but a declaration of Beijing's intent to shape the future of diplomacy, embodying China's increasing shift – from passive engagement to more proactive pragmatism." The article's two writers observed.

The opening question, from state broadcaster CCTV, gave Wang the chance to list "China's most impressive diplomatic achievements" from 2023. Instead, he spent almost half of his answer articulating China's diplomatic strategy for 2024.

Wang emphasized China's plan to "be more confident and self-reliant in cultivating the features of China's diplomacy"— which include "acting with a strong sense of historical responsibility and a vibrant spirit of innovation"; being "open and inclusive"; expanding global partnerships; showing great moral responsibility; and being "more unequivocal".

"This articulation suggests an evolution in China's foreign policy approach, reflecting a proactive stance similar to traditional U.S. engagement. China's tendency towards pragmatism in diplomacy has occurred in parallel with shifts in U.S. foreign policy: China's diplomacy is based on economic cooperation and development initiatives with various parts of the world."

China aims to build strategic dependencies – through economic investments, positioning itself as an indispensable partner.

China's involvement in conflicts is relatively reluctant. Yet, as it ascends to major power status, China finds itself drawn into global issues that it previously sidestepped. Despite this significant shift, China's engagement remains pragmatic.

This was visible in Wang's answers to the press. His first pick after CCTV was a representative from Rossiya Segodnya, a Russian state-owned media company, which asked about China-Russia relations. Wang was unambiguous, saying that "maintaining and growing the China-Russia relationship is a strategic choice by the two sides – based on the fundamental interests of the two peoples."

Wang also went on the offensive about the U.S. – saying that "US promises are not truly fulfilled…If the U.S, says one thing and does the other, where is its credibility as a major country? If it gets jittery whenever it hears the word China, where is its confidence as a major country?"

Wang's political critique of the U.S. suggested that such discrepancies weaken the U.S' global standing and challenge its ability to engage with and influence international partners and adversaries.

Later in the press conference, Wang advocated for Palestine's full UN membership and endorsed a road map for a two-state solution. His comments highlight China's departure from previous attempts to portray itself as a neutral mediator in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, instead expressing explicit support for the Palestinian cause.

Wang's statements portray a China that is increasingly confident in its diplomacy and foreign policy. It sees 2023 as a year in which the U.S, was mired in two unwinnable wars –-- while China helped broker peace between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

If Wang's proactive rhetoric is truly indicative of China's strategy for 2024, it is a sharp departure from the more passive role that Beijing held previously. China has benefited from what are arguably diplomatic missteps by the U.S. in the past year.

According to this newspaper article and analysis, several of the events that China counted as victories were less the result of active measures and more about benefits reaped from a passive stance. China found itself in more advantageous positions not necessarily through deliberate action – but by virtue of simply observing and waiting for the outcomes of U.S. efforts in the global arena.

Equally significant, China's diplomatic strategy offers a contrast to U.S. diplomacy – which is framed within a democracy versus authoritarianism narrative. This divergence is especially pronounced against the backdrop of U.S. international dynamics, such as vicious domestic politics and the re-emergence of figures such as former U.S. president Donald Trump.

China's focus on practical outcomes and strategic partnerships highlights a path of engagement – that favors multilateralism and priorities stability and economic growth over political alignment.

"However, the appeal of partnering with China for third-party countries must be weighed against the backdrop of strong U.S. alliances and China's tendency for non-committal support." (Source: SCMP)

As countries navigate increasingly treacherous landscapes, especially the ASEAN bloc, the challenge for China lies in demonstrating that its approach can offer advantages equal to, if not more than those provided by the U.S.

The consequential question that remains is whether China's vision of proactive pragmatism develops, as Wang suggested it has, "from a promising vision to practical outcomes".

For example, there appears to be an imbalance or discrepancy between development in China's strong military (which many Southeast Asian countries reportedly may find threatening) and its diplomatic force, which drastically needs to be expanded, or revamped. It must be outreaching – for the benefits of the host countries.

For example, China's embassies in ASEAN should be more proactively engaged in and reaching out to satisfy the economic needs of the host countries. Regrettably, the loss of the Philippines (as a strategic partner) to the U.S. is a case in point, which has documented China's tardiness in its diplomatic war – due to whatever reasons.

This lesson was probably learned when Wong Yi paid a proactive and speedy visit – meeting with Indonesian incumbent president and the incoming leader of the nation – hot on Prabowo's heel, right after his visit to Beijing.

Note: Indonesia (the strongest country in the bloc) is key to Sino-U.S. competition and cooperation: Geopolitically, ASEAN is one end of the dumbbell – while China's fast emerging GBA is integrally becoming another.


The views do not necessarily reflect those of DotDotNews.

To contact the writer, please direct email: AugustusKYeung@ymail.com

Read more articles by Augustus K. Yeung:

Opinion | How 'durian diplomacy' sweetens China-Vietnam broader relations

Opinion | German Chancellor Scholz in China – What are his goals?

Opinion | Sino-US stories of ambivalence and rivalry: Then and now

Opinion | Chinese leader: embrace a 'brighter future' through joint action


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