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Beijing wants to be friends again.
Chinese diplomats are fanning out with a new softer message for international partners and adversaries alike. Gone is the aggressive “wolf warrior” rhetoric. In its place, a warmer tone and a promise of economic cooperation.
Vice Premier Liu He took Beijing’s diplomatic olive branch to the exclusive annual huddle of the global political and business elite in Davos, Switzerland this week. With a heated transatlantic trade spat exploding in panel after panel and melting the Swiss Alpine snow, Liu offered a kinder, gentler Beijing.
“China’s national reality dictates that opening up to the world is a must, not an expediency. We must open up wider and make it work better,” Liu said on Tuesday.
The Chinese charm offensive drove a lot of private conversations in Davos amid the World Economic Forum gathering. Executives are eager to learn more — and as always to explore opportunities in a market as big as China’s. The shift, if real, would signal a return to something the Davos crowd considers more normal: a somewhat predictable, business-friendly Chinese communist leadership, more interested in making money than waging fights against internal critics or outside enemies. The improved economic relationship between China and Australia has fueled such optimism.
Western officials have heard the message as well, but are suspicious that the outreach is more diplomatic sparkle than an indication of substantive changes. They are leery that the growing economic and military threat posed by China remains despite the velvet gloves.
The shift has been gathering steam for weeks after China’s President Xi Jinping offered a warmer tone in his meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden in Bali in November. Xi urged a return to “healthy and stable growth” in bilateral relations.
That has set in motion a cascade of Chinese initiatives seemingly aimed at repairing the harm done by years of “wolf warrior”-style diplomacy; saber-rattling across the Taiwan Strait; a more bellicose military posture in the Indo-Pacific; economic coercion; and high-tech espionage.
China’s Foreign Ministry is rolling out a rhetorical red carpet for U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit in early February. Europe is bracing for a multi-country diplomacy spree by former Foreign Minister Wang Yi. On Wednesday in Zurich, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen’s meeting with Liu reaped an invitation to visit China “in the near future.” And the Chinese Foreign Ministry signaled gentler public messaging by banishing pugnacious spokesperson Zhao Lijian to the bureaucratic backwater of the ministry’s Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs last week.
Western officials still have their guard up, though — particularly since Chinese diplomats were until recently issuing outright threats to their host countries.
“We are seeing a warmer Beijing that’s keen to talk about a business-as-usual approach, and there are fewer wolf warrior narratives,” an EU official told POLITICO on condition of anonymity because he isn’t authorized to speak on the record. “However, a softer face doesn’t necessarily mean a softer heart.”
That skepticism springs from the fact that Beijing isn’t matching its rhetorical expressions of bilateral goodwill with any substantive policy shifts. China’s “no limits” alignment with Russia continues even after Moscow’s war on Ukraine and record numbers of Chinese military aircraft regularly menace Taiwan. Beijing denies its well-documented abuses against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang and continues what the U.S. calls “unfair trade practices” that sustain billions of dollars of U.S. tariffs on Chinese imports.
There are also suspicions that China is seeking to prevent the imposition of additional crippling U.S. export restrictions on high-technology items such as semi-conductors — and slow down or derail U.S. efforts to persuade its allies to do likewise.
“Xi wants the American boot off his neck — he can’t stomach any more tech containment or more sanctions and recognizes that a lot of [Beijing’s] foreign diplomacy has backfired and he wants to lower the temperature,” said Craig Singleton, senior China fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Beijing’s uptick in diplomatic outreach aims to “seek a reprieve from Washington’s regulatory assault on China’s tech sector, and then lay the groundwork to stimulate China’s economy after this current COVID wave subsides,” Singleton said.
China is in desperate need of an international image overhaul. The results of a Pew Research survey published in June indicated “negative views of China remain at or near historic highs” in 19 European and Asian countries due to concerns about human rights and perceptions of a growing Chinese military threat. Pew Research Center survey results released in September revealed that 82 percent of Americans in 2022 had “an unfavorable opinion of China,” an increase from 76 percent the previous year.
Beijing’s change in tone reflects its alarm at the Biden administration’s success in rallying international support for his China-countering Indo-Pacific Strategy. That has included arch-rival Japan’s embrace of closer defense ties with the U.S. underwritten by a multi-billion dollar investment in Tokyo’s military.
The ruling Chinese Communist Party’s sense of vulnerability is heightened by China’s raging COVID outbreak and an economy pummeled by three years of lockdown linked to the country’s now-defunct zero-COVID policy. “There’s recognition [in Beijing] that — wait a minute, the U.S. is not going anywhere, it is still a major geopolitical power — and so China has to reengage with the United States,” said Victor Shih, an expert in Chinese elite politics at the University of California, San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy.
But old habits die hard. Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng, the incoming Chinese ambassador to the U.S., accused the Biden administration of “besieging China through geopolitics such as the Indo-Pacific Strategy,” in a speech on Monday. And besides Zhao’s removal from the Foreign Ministry press briefing platform, Xi hasn’t fired or demoted any senior “wolf warrior” diplomats, points out Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
EU officials in Brussels are preparing for a visit by Wang, the former Chinese foreign minister who has been promoted into the 24-person Politburo, the Communist Party’s ruling body, to oversee foreign affairs.
But Wang faces an uphill struggle in convincing Europe of a shift in China’s diplomatic settings. The EU is angered by Xi’s close relationship with Moscow despite Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. In response, European leaders have started exploring the diversification of sources of key imports, including those from China.
In conversations with their European counterparts, Beijing officials and diplomats have adopted the tactic of highlighting recent transatlantic disputes to try to persuade the Europeans that the U.S. — even after the Donald Trump era — remains an untrustworthy ally.
“They like to repeat the U.S. ‘gains’ in the Russian war against Ukraine, as well as the IRA,” another European official said, referring to the Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act, which is seen by many Europeans as a protectionist policy unfavorable to EU businesses. China claims that the U.S. military-industrial complex stands to gain from the war, while Europe suffers more from the energy crisis than the U.S.
Beijing is also reaching out to traditional allies in the U.S. business community to amplify its more benign messaging. Wang sat down in Beijing last month with John Thornton, former Goldman Sachs president and the current executive chair of Barrick Gold Corporation. That meeting signaled that “China is open to dialogue with the United States at all levels,” current Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang tweeted.
Similar outreach to the European business community may fall flat.
“China heavily subsidizes its industry and restricts access to its market for EU companies,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said during the World Economic Forum in Davos on Tuesday. “We need to focus on de-risking rather than decoupling. This means using all our tools to deal with unfair practices.”
But Beijing will hope that persisting with the warmer rhetoric will pay off even if the fundamentals don’t change.
“There are elements of Wall Street and certain constituencies in the U.S. government that are extremely receptive to talk about stability and predictability in the U.S.-China relationship after a very volatile two years,” said Singleton from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “But it’s an illusion.”
Matt Kaminski contributed reporting from Davos, Switzerland.