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China has high ambitions - but its diplomacy stands in its own way


With its self-imposed problems, the Middle Kingdom is a less threatening challenger than it seems. With its self-imposed problems, the Middle Kingdom is a less threatening challenger than it seems. The US regards the People's Republic of China as its biggest geopolitical competitor. But the gap between China's economic weight and its diplomatic sovereignty will limit Beijing's potential influence. The US could run the risk of overestimating China's competitive potential. This article is availa

With its self-imposed problems, the Middle Kingdom is a less threatening challenger than it seems.

  • The US regards the People's Republic of China as its biggest geopolitical competitor.

  • But the gap between China's economic weight and its diplomatic sovereignty will limit Beijing's potential influence.

  • The US could run the risk of overestimating China's competitive potential.

  • This article is available in German for the first time - it was first published on June 9, 2021 by the magazine "Foreign Policy".

US politicians see the resurgence of China as the greatest challenge yet to the security and prosperity of the United States in the form of a rival nation-state. In its Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, the White House concludes that Beijing is “the only competitor that is potentially able to combine its economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to challenge a stable and open international system on a lasting basis ".

All four of these dimensions of power have grown over the past year.

China is more at the center of the global economy today than it was when the coronavirus pandemic began in late 2019. The International Monetary Fund predicts the country will grow 8.4 percent this year and 5.6 percent in 2022, compared with 6.4 percent and 3.5 percent for the US.

By expanding its influence within core post-war institutions such as the United Nations and pursuing independent efforts such as the New Silk Road (Belt and Road Initiative, BRI), Beijing is increasingly shaping both the architecture and the norms of the world order.

Gap between China's diplomatic sovereignty and economic clout limits influence

Military conflicts in the Asia-Pacific region are escalating and Washington is increasingly focused on being less vulnerable to possible imponderables in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. Finally, as China moves towards greater technological independence and supports its vision with billions of dollars in government-directed capital, the US is confronted with the effects of a potentially divided, if not more fragmented, technology ecosystem.

But the growing gap between Beijing's economic clout and diplomatic sovereignty will limit its potential influence. One can imagine a scenario in which China is by far the largest economy in the world, but is becoming even more alienated from the advanced industrial democracies, which, taken together, will still have the preponderance of economic power and military strength.

During the tenure of former US President Donald Trump, China had a promising window of opportunity to consolidate medium- and perhaps even long-term strategic advantages.

This administration's "America First" foreign policy not only undermined the United States' reputation abroad, but also often targeted US allies and partners.

Beijing had a particularly favorable opportunity to strengthen ties with major powers both inside and outside the neighborhood last year, when a pandemic, recession and protests against racial injustice rocked the United States at the same time.

China during Trump Era in USA: Expansion of Influence - Emergence of "Wolf-Warrior Diplomacy"

Indeed, China made some strides in expanding its influence during the Trump years. It concluded the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a trade agreement that will strengthen intra-Asian trade flows, and finalized the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) with the European Union. In addition, China has added more countries to its network of BRI partners and expanded its technological presence in developing countries: According to a recent study, Huawei has concluded 70 contracts with governments or state-owned companies in 41 countries in the past 15 years, mainly in southern Africa the Sahara, Asia and Latin America.

This advance was accompanied by the emergence of a more confident, nationalist diplomatic tone in China, often referred to as "wolf-warrior diplomacy," after the Rambo-like films of the same name in which Chinese fighters defend their country's honor. Especially after the initial international criticism of Beijing's initial reaction to the COVID-19 outbreak, many Chinese diplomats began to sharply reject criticism of China's actions, highlighting the inadequacies of other countries and praising Beijing's successes. Chinese diplomats overseas have increasingly adopted this approach, including when dealing with journalists and on social media.

The headline-grabbing diplomatic style of the Trump administration often covered China's aggressiveness. In contrast, President Joe Biden's White House's calm, undramatic approach to restoring US alliances and partnerships has turned the diplomatic spotlight on Beijing's behavior. Not only is the United States' stance on China growing tougher. The European Union is also more skeptical of the Middle Kingdom and recently voted to put its ratification talks on the CAI on hold until Beijing lifts the sanctions against European parliamentarians and think tanks. Tensions with Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom have increased.Relations with India have deteriorated dramatically after the bloody border conflict last May. Japan and South Korea are reinvesting in solid alliances with the United States and are taking tentative steps to improve their own bilateral relations. Finally, Taiwan has been able to strengthen its international standing while its distrust of the mainland has grown.

Quad-states USA, Australia, India and Japan - NATO intensifies criticism of Beijing

Many of China's key bilateral ties are facing headwinds and democratic alliances are being more actively mobilized. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between the US, Australia, India and Japan is currently more dynamic than at any other point in time since it was set up. NATO has intensified its criticism of Beijing: At the end of March, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg described China as “a power that does not share our values”. In early May, the G7 foreign ministers issued a statement expressing concerns about China's oppression in Xinjiang and Tibet, its undermining of democracy in Hong Kong and its coercive economic practices. In an unprecedented move, Canada, the European Union,the UK and US in March coordinated sanctions in response to China's mass internment of Uyghur Muslims.

China struck back and presented itself as the victim of a containment campaign. Such messages are well received by Chinese citizens. But as political scientist Jessica Chen Weiss explains, they are not that popular abroad. And while Beijing is taking advantage of the nationalist sentiment, it is also restricting its freedom of action in foreign policy. After all, the kind of realignment that would allow Beijing to stabilize relations with other great powers could ultimately be interpreted as precisely the kind of concessions under external pressure that a more self-confident and capable China no longer, according to the confessions of President Xi Jinping needs to do. This dilemma contrasts with the relative flexibilityenjoyed China's leadership in the 1980s when it was able to withdraw many previous territorial claims to resolve longstanding border disputes with Russia and other countries.

The Chinese Communist Party's narratives fuel growing Chinese nationalism.

Xi declared in January, "The time and the situation are working in our favor." Chen Yixin, the powerful secretary general of the body overseeing China's domestic security, made a similar judgment that same month: "The rise of China is a major variable [of today's World] ... while the rise of the east and the fall of the west has become [a global] trend, and the changes in the international landscape are in our favor. "

Communist Party has two theses: the unstoppable rise of power in the People's Republic of China and a desperate USA

The Chinese leadership advocates two theses: Firstly, Beijing is inexorably on the way to regaining its rightful position as the center of world affairs and correcting an unfair strategic imbalance. Efforts to change this path are futile and counterproductive. Second, a dwindling Washington is desperately trying to maintain its current supremacy by hindering China's resurgence.

Not all Chinese analysts are so optimistic about Beijing's prospects, as one of our colleagues (Ryan Hass) summed up after more than 50 hours of dialogue via Zoom with Chinese interlocutors and a thorough analysis of the latest speeches by Chinese officials and comments by Chinese scientists. For example, Renmin University professor and government adviser Shi Yinhong said, "The attraction of China's 'soft power' in the world, the resources and experience available to China are relatively limited, and the obstacles China faces Domestically and internationally, including the complexities created by the coronavirus pandemic, are considerable. "

There are many reasons for Chinese observers to question the assumption that China can maintain its current momentum indefinitely. Beijing's foreign policy commitment to non-alignment limits its ability to forge alliances and other relationships of trust that it could use to withstand pressure from the US and its partners. China's productivity remains low compared to developed countries, and the country faces serious demographic problems and significant barriers to self-sufficiency in certain areas such as semiconductors.

China continues to be well on its way to overtaking the US in terms of overall economic size, adding significant weight to its threats - implicit or explicit - against countries that oppose it, especially developing countries. But a high macroeconomic weight does not immediately lead to a corresponding diplomatic size. Although the United States overtook the United Kingdom in terms of overall economic size as early as the late 19th century, it did not become a pre-eminent world power until after the end of World War II. And the combined size of democratic economies will exceed China's gross domestic product for many decades to come, even in Beijing's most optimistic growth scenarios.

US policy in dealing with China: Do not view Beijing too closely in the context of a “competition between the great powers”

There are at least two clear implications for White House policy.

First, Beijing's self-limiting diplomacy gives the United States leeway for a foreign policy that takes note of the resurgence of China but does not let itself be determined by it.

Washington should not allow its response to Beijing's behavior to precede pursuing other major foreign policy priorities, nor should it give the impression that China's choices determine how the US reforms domestically and repositions abroad.

Second, while the United States is taking advantage of Beijing's strategic mistakes to renew its relations with allies and partners, it must be careful not to view China too closely as part of a "competition between the great powers." Washington should rally its friends not primarily with a view to a country they want to fight, but with a view to the results they want to achieve together - above all a post-pandemic world order that includes both short-term crises such as COVID-19 as well as longer-term challenges such as climate change more effectively. After all, there are significant divergences among advanced industrial democracies in perceived threats and political priorities towards China, now and in the future.While shared concerns can spark partnerships, shared positive intentions can more reliably sustain them.

It could be countered that during the Cold War the United States defined its foreign policy as the opposition by presenting itself as the antithesis of the Soviet Union.

It should be noted, however, that Washington challenged Moscow at the time as part of a broader, future-oriented effort: to create order in order to prevent the catastrophes that made it necessary in the first place.

The US could run the risk of overestimating China's competitive potential

If, in triumph over the fall of the Soviet Union, the US has dismissed China's competitive potential too quickly, it could now run the risk of overestimating it.

Beijing is neither on the brink of collapse nor on the way to hegemony;

it is a persistent but limited competitor.

The efforts of the USA should start from the clear realization that the strategic competition with China will continue in the long term, as well as from a sober assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of this competitor. The United States can afford to face this competition calmly and confidently. The more they focus on advancing an open and just society, restoring their democratic institutions and maintaining their initiative on the world stage by pooling efforts to address transnational challenges, the better able they will be to harness the strength of their own system to demonstrate. Prestige ultimately comes from performance.Improving US performance at home and abroad should be the overarching focus of American politics.

by Ali Wyne and Ryan Hass

Ali Wyne

is a Senior Analyst in Global Macro at Eurasia Group.

He is currently writing a book on the competition of the great powers that will be published by Polity next year.

Ryan Hass

is a Senior Fellow and holder of the Michael H. Armacost Chair in the Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institution.

He is the author of

Stronger: Adapting America's China Strategy in an Age of Competitive Interdependence


This article was first published in English on June 9, 2021 in the magazine “” - as part of a cooperation, a translation is now also

 available to




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