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On the Level

Challenged with mounting pressure from Washington, China’s recent diplomatic maneuvers and rhetoric may mark a historic change in its diplomatic approach

By NewsChina Updated Jun.1

Although a consensus among observers is that the Biden administration is unlikely to reverse the anti-China agenda of the Trump administration, there were high hopes around the globe that the US-China relationship could at least be stabilized.  

Such hopes quickly waned, if not evaporated, as the Alaska Summit held on March 19 between senior diplomats from the US and China opened with a public spat between the two sides. While US Secretary of State Antony Blinken criticized China for its alleged “coercion and aggression” toward other countries, China’s State Councilor and top diplomat Yang Jiechi said the US is “not qualified” to take a condescending attitude toward China.  

For many observers, the unusual and unexpected exchanges marked a paradigm shift in the interaction between the world’s two largest economies. Weeks after the Alaska summit, tensions between China and the US remain high. Washington, along with its European allies, imposed new sanctions on Chinese officials and entities over alleged human rights violations in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. Calling it an anti-China smear campaign, China retaliated with its own sanctions against Western individuals and entities.  

While the US said it would work with NATO and the European Union to handle “common challenges posed by China,” China has been on a diplomatic drive in the past weeks to seek support among its own circles of friends.  

Russia and the Middle East 
On March 23, four days after the Alaska meeting, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi received his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in Guilin, Southwest China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. Reaffirming China’s strategic ties with Russia, Wang said that ChinaRussia strategic cooperation has “no end and no upper limit.” Lavrov responded that Russia will continue cooperation with China in “all spheres.”  

The next day on March 24, Wang embarked on a weeklong tour of the Middle East, visiting Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Oman. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said that Wang and his counterparts discussed regional affairs and strategic issues, the Belt and Road Initiative, pandemic responses and the post-Covid economic recovery, as well as “promoting synergy between the building of a new development paradigm in China and major development strategies in those countries.”  

The culmination of Wang’s trip is a 25-year strategic cooperation agreement with Iran. “Relations between the two countries have now reached the level of strategic partnership and China seeks to comprehensively improve relations with Iran,” Wang told his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iranian state media reported.  

In his meeting with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Wang unveiled a five-point initiative to achieve security and stability in the Middle East, which calls to advocate for mutual respect, uphold equity and justice, achieve non-proliferation, jointly foster collective security and accelerate development cooperation.  

Saying that China-Saudi relations have become “more prominent in the face of changes unseen in a century,” Wang called for the two countries to “conduct timely strategic communication, safeguard common interests and contribute to global peace, stability and development.  

The crown prince, for his part, said Saudi Arabia firmly supports China’s legitimate position on affairs related to Xinjiang and Hong Kong, opposes interference in China’s internal affairs under any pretext, and rejects the attempt by certain parties to sow dissent between China and the Islamic world, Xinhua News Agency reported.  

According to Wu Sike, China’s former Special Envoy on the Middle East Issue, Wang’s recent visit to the Middle East and China’s highlighting of the importance of “strategic communication” indicates that the status of the region has risen to a new level on China’s diplomatic map. “As a major part of the Muslim world, their support of China’s position over the Xinjiang issue is particularly valuable,” Wu said.  

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (left) and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi sign joint documents following a meeting, Guilin, capital of Southwest China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, March 23, 2021

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (left) meets with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi (right) in the Iranian capital of Tehran, March 27, 2021

ASEAN Countries 
Almost as soon he returned from his Mid-East trip, Wang received the foreign ministers of four ASEAN countries (Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines) and South Korea separately in Southeast China’s Fujian Province over five days between March 30 and April 3.  

Against a backdrop of increasing US efforts to coordinate with allies in Asia, the Fujian meetings are widely seen as a countermove to reaffirm China’s partnerships in the region, as China is perceived to have an edge over the US with its economic ties with regional countries.  

In 2020, after surpassing the US in 2019, ASEAN countries replaced the European Union to become China’s No.1 trade partner, with a combined trade volume of US$684.6 billion.  

In the past couple of years, ASEAN countries have voiced concerns over the escalating China-US tension and resisted US pressure to take sides.  

Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has called on the US government to manage its disputes with China on several occasions, most recently during the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2021 in late January, when Lee called for the Biden administration to steer the US-China relationship to “safe waters” and avert a clash between major powers.  

In October 2020 and January of this year, Wang made two trips to Southeast Asia, which took him to every member of ASEAN except Vietnam, though he held talks with Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh in Guangxi in August 2020.  

South Korea is also perceived to have resisted the pressure to completely fall into the US’s orbit despite their military alliance. After the “2+2” dialogue with US senior officials in March, South Korea did not follow the US in criticizing China’s internal affairs as South Korean President Moon Jae-in said South Korea will not take sides in the US-China rivalry.  

In November 2020, China and the 10 ASEAN countries, along with South Korea, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which is set to become the world’s largest trade bloc.  

On March 8, China’s deputy Commerce Minister Wang Shouwen announced that China was the first country to ratify the agreement. Wang also said that China will push for “early implementation” of the pact.  

Historic Change 
For many, the Chinese diplomats’ tough position in Alaska and China’s recent diplomatic maneuvers reflect the emergence of a new diplomatic doctrine, dubbed by some as “pingshi diplomacy.” Literally meaning “view at eye level” or “view equally,” the term pingshi was first raised by Chinese President Xi Jinping when he said during the annual session of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) in March that China’s younger generations now can “view the world on level terms,” rather than from an inferior or backward position like past generations.  

According to Professor Ma Xiaolin, an expert on international issues from Zhejiang International Studies University, pingshi now underlines China’s doctrine toward its US policy.  

“It [the Alaska meeting] was a chance for China to unveil its new pingshi diplomacy,” said Ma in a widely cited article published on April 4. “In response to Washington’s diplomatic ambush and intimidating rhetoric, China’s top two diplomats made it clear that while China will not look for trouble, it will not fear trouble either.”  

At first glance, pingshi appears to be nothing new. China has long advocated equality, mutual respect and non-interference in internal affairs in its foreign policy. It is under the principle of equality that China has supported multilateralism and advocated for a multi-polar world.  

The idea is also behind the concept of “new type of major power relationship” launched by the Chinese leadership under Xi in 2013. But never before has China voiced its defiance against Washington’s self-claimed authority so directly and assertively.  

According to Guo Liangping, a professor from the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore, the significance of Xi’s declaration that “China can view at the world on level terms” is comparable to former Chairman Mao Zedong’s historic declaration in 1949 that “the Chinese people have stood up!”  

“For thousands of years, China held a sense of superiority regarding its relationship with the rest of world, which then turned into a sense of inferiority following the humiliation China suffered at the hands of Western powers in the colonial period,” Guo said in a commentary published in Singapore-based Lianhe Zaobao on March 25. “Xi’s declaration marks a new historic change in China’s psyche about its global status,” Guo added.  

According to Guo, China’s change of mentality is the result of the new political reality of the US-China relationship. During the Trump administration, Washington played most of the available cards against China. As the Biden administration continues Trump’s anti-China agenda, it has less leverage over China and whatever cards left to play will have to touch on issues considered by China as core interests with no room to back down.  

On the other hand, after successfully dealing with various crises in the past years, China has gained confidence in its capabilities. “China is less and less willing to swallow humiliation from the US, especially when it is clear that the US-China relationship will not go back to the past,” Guo said.  

“Based on the new political reality, China has opted to abandon the so-called ‘laying-low’ policy, and take on the comprehensive challenges posed by the US with whatever power it has,” Guo added.  

‘Equal Basis’ 
According to Ruan Zongze, vice president of the China Institute of International Studies, China’s adoption of pingshi diplomacy does not mean that Beijing will become more arrogant and aggressive. By emphasizing the principle of equality, China only seeks to restore what is supposed to be the relationship between different countries, Ruan said. “After all, the equality principle is enshrined in the UN Charter, which stipulates that every country is equal and no one is above another,” Ruan added.  

This is the message Wang conveyed throughout his recent diplomatic tours. During his meeting with Russia’s Sergey Lavrov, Wang said that the “rules-based international order” repeatedly raised by the US only “reflects the rules of a few countries and does not represent the will of the international community.”  

During his Middle East tour, Wang told the UAE’s official news agency WAM that the current instability and conflicts in the region were largely caused by the meddling of “some big powers” in the Arab Spring. He called for Middle Eastern countries to explore independent paths of development and seek peace and stability in the region.  

In Saudi Arabia, Wang told Saudi Arabian media outlet Al Arabiya that the region must “break free from the shadows of big-power geopolitical rivalry and independently explore development paths suited to its regional realities” so it can emerge from chaos and enjoy stability.  

Speaking to Chinese State media on April 5 about his meetings in Fujian with foreign ministers from ASEAN countries and South Korea, Wang said the US does not have the final say in global affairs. “China will not accept that there is any nation in the world that can put itself as superior to the others,” said Wang.  

Answering a question about the relationship with the US, Wang said that “the door for dialogue with China is open. “But the dialogue should be done on an equal basis and with mutual respect... If the US continues to be confrontational, China will take it calmly without fear,” he said.  

In the same week, China’s Minister of Defense Wei Fenghe concluded a trip to four European countries including Hungary, Serbia, Greece and North Macedonia. The trip coincided with European plans to send warships to the South China Sea for joint exercises with the US.  

On April 2, as Wei paid tribute to three Chinese nationals killed during the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in the former Yugoslavia in 1999, Wei vowed that “the Chinese military will never allow history to repeat itself as China is capable and determined to defend its national interests.”  

As neither the US nor China show signs of backing down from their positions, the open spat in the Alaska High-level Strategic Dialogue may just be the beginning of a more volatile US-China relationship for years to come.