China: which foreign policy?

The People’s Republic of China urgently needs to revive the national economy after GDP growth stopped at 3% last year, marking the second-worst performance in the last 50 years.

However, Beijing’s ambitions have to deal with an extremely unstable and conflictual international context, marked by the persistence of the war in Ukraine, the slowdown of the global economy and the risks relating to the possible emergence of new variants of Covid-19.

In this framework, Beijing would seem to intend to make a series of changes of an essentially tactical nature to its foreign policy, in order to adapt it to current challenges and to achieve long-term strategic objectives which remain unchanged.

In particular, Chinese diplomacy could adopt a more conciliatory approach, setting aside the confrontational and combative rhetoric characteristic of the so-called wolf warriors diplomacy.

Signs of a change in this direction have emerged with the removal of the “hawk” Zhao Lijian from the role of Foreign Ministry spokesman, with the first soothing statements by the new Minister Qin Gang and, above all, with the speech by Vice Premier Liu He at the Davos Forum in which there was once again strong talk of an opening of the Chinese market to foreign investors and capital.

The objective of the changed diplomatic approach underway is to put an end to the progressive deterioration of relations between China and the Euro-Atlantic bloc that began with the outbreak of the pandemic in 2020 and intensified following Beijing’s failure to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

In particular, the Chinese leadership wants to try to reverse the trend that sees EU states increasingly committed to strengthening strategic autonomy, through diversification plans for the supply of raw materials useful for the development of critical technologies,
the systematic use of golden power and the implementation of innovative legislation aimed at making it more difficult for Chinese companies to enter the European market.

With these tactical changes, however, the priorities of Chinese external action should not change in the course of 2023. In particular, the theme of re-unification with Taiwan, the revival of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) will remain at the centre of Beijing’s foreign policy, especially in its Asian segments, the development of strategic partnerships with Central Asian and African actors and, more generally, the support of international fora, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which aim to develop a multipolar international system.

In this context, the plan to modernize the People’s Liberation Army should also continue unabated, aimed at consolidating China’s position as a global player and developing its projection and
deterrence capabilities.

The Taiwan dossier, in particular, will occupy a prominent place in Chinese foreign policy. From this point of view, Chinese military pressure in the Strait should remain high during 2023, just as the People’s Republic’s “blow-for-blow” response strategy to the moves of the USA and their partners in the region should remain unchanged.

However, it seems unlikely, in the short to medium term, to see an escalation since strong Chinese action, at the moment, would complicate the plans to relaunch the domestic economy underway which remain absolute priorities.

On the BRI, it is reasonable to expect a progressive relaunch of infrastructure development plans related to connectivity and trade, after two years in which the focus was mainly on supporting partner states in tackling the health emergency linked to COVID-19.

However, Beijing’s projects will have to deal with the complicated internal economic situation and with the series of economic crises underway, especially in South Asia, where a key BRI state like Pakistan even risks default if not promptly supported by the international community.

In Asia, competition with India should remain high and could manifest itself, with increasing force, in territories considered “disputed” such as Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka.
At the moment, it seems unlikely that there will be substantial changes in the situation in Ladakh, on the Sino-Indian border.

In fact, in this area, China would seem to have an interest, at least in the short term, in leaving the current balance of forces unchanged, which allows it to maintain the ground gained and consolidate its control through the construction of infrastructures useful for troop mobility.

Meanwhile, Beijing has recently relaunched its commitment to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, with an agreement on oil extraction, a possible prelude to a greater presence also aimed at countering the growing terrorist threat. Complex dossiers remain those of North Korea and Myanmar. In fact, although the two countries are useful to China in countering the US “integrated deterrence” strategy in the Indo-Pacific, they are going through critical phases that could create problems for Beijing even in the short to medium term.

In Africa, 2023 will see a consolidation of the Chinese position while the relaunch of any investment plans remains linked to the performance of the Chinese domestic economy. However, the overall strategy for the region should not change and China remains ready to exploit, as it has done in recent years, any spaces left open by the other international players present on the continent.

Overall, the effectiveness of Xi Jinping’s external action by China in the course of the new year should in any case remain linked to the performance of the domestic economy and developments
in the conflict in Ukraine.

The continuation of the war, in particular, could further distance Beijing from its European partners, further degrade relations with the USA and widen the polarization of the international context. This scenario could frustrate the efforts made by Chinese diplomacy and complicate the plans to revive the economy, a real challenge for the People’s Republic in 2023. (Photo: Foreign Minister Qin Gang (left) meets Chairperson of the African Union (AU) Commission Moussa Faki Mahamat in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on Jan 11, 2023. [Photo/Xinhua]

Tiziano Marino/CeSI



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