Forget diplomatic squabbling. Here’s an alternative path forward for China

Foreign Affairs

This past year has seen China and the U.S. engage in petty squabbles and a dangerous game of diplomatic one-upmanship. But we believe — because we must — that constructive engagement remains possible and desirable. Given that the U.S. won't take the lead, here's why — and how — China should do so.

China and U.S.. dispute
Illustration by Derek Zheng

The sharp turn in Chinese foreign policy is unmissable. From the dialed-up rhetoric attacking and criticizing Western powers to hawkish remarks and gestures about the South China Seas, from territorial skirmishes with India to the tightening of political control over territories such as Hong Kong, the country’s political leadership has shed the largely pacifist tone that permeated official discourse as recently as Xí Jìnpíng’s 习近平 Belt and Road Initiative and “Chinese Dream.”

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Dèng Xiǎopíng 邓小平 had prescribed that China “hide its capabilities and bide its time” — 韬光养晦 tāoguāng yǎnghuì — that the country consolidate its domestic developments and avoid getting caught up in international disputes and politicking. (Only this way could the country “accomplish something” — 有所作为 yǒusuǒ zuòwéi, the second part of Deng’s quote.) This phrase has often been cited by media and China watchers with nostalgia for the “bygone era.” It — along with Deng’s pragmatic and at times Machiavellian brand of reform — guided the foreign policy of two subsequent generations of leaders, Jiāng Zémín 江泽民 and Hú Jǐntāo 胡锦涛, who maintained China’s rise as broadly peaceful.

2020 would have been the perfect year for Beijing to deepen the country’s diplomatic relations with neighbors and distant allies alike, to facilitate closer integration between Chinese civil society and its counterparts abroad. Already, there have been opportunities for China to consolidate its soft power, to rekindle previously dampened ties, and to construct a more mutually inclusive and beneficiary trans-national civil society, through institutions and initiatives such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

Yet these opportunities have been largely bungled. The country’s mask diplomacy efforts from March onwards won over some hearts and minds — in places such as Italy, Spain, and Serbia — but failed miserably in other places, where substandard personal protective equipment was sent. The country’s leaders allowed themselves to be baited into petty diplomatic spats with the U.S. Relations with Europe dipped to a historic low. The European Union had, until recently, been strategically ambivalent toward China, willing to hedge as opposed to picking sides between China and the U.S. (Same for states within the ASEAN community, who are wary of the two powers to equal degrees but for very different reasons: of China, for its territorial claims; of the United States, for its neocolonial economic ventures and increasingly erratic foreign policy.) But on their recent visit to Europe, foreign minister Wáng Yì 王毅 and top diplomat Yáng Jiéchí 杨洁篪 were met with ideologically rigid declamations from European leaders that the EU’s commitment to universal values — such as human rights and freedom of speech — would not be cast aside in favor of closer economic ties. While European diplomats have shunned the impetuous, over-hyped rhetoric of their transatlantic counterparts, their negativity toward China is increasing alongside widespread public distrust.

There is an impasse in the status quo. The Chinese party leadership is hesitant to engage in all-encompassing, extensive reforms and liberalization, in light of what they perceive to be the disastrous historical consequences of Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika. On the other hand, an increasing majority of China’s international counterparts are rendering their engagement with China conditional upon the country’s political transformation. Excessively reckless and drastic transformations would not be in China’s interests, nor would giving into the implicitly neocolonialist demands of ideological China hawks. Yet selective reforms that let off some steam from the proverbial pressure cooker could well be the best shot for the country to regain support from wavering partners, particularly in continental Europe and Southeast Asia.

China must recognize that there are battles it can win — and then there are battles it cannot. Between kowtowing to the West and practicing autarkic self-closure, there is a third way.

What does this path look like?

First, China can stand for its core territorial claims in a way that invokes and works within, as opposed to bypassing, international institutions and norms. China needs to seriously acknowledge other countries’ concerns about its intellectual property theft, territorial behaviors, and cyber-espionage. In lieu of deflection or whataboutery, Chinese diplomats should seek to answer, rebut, or respond dynamically to these charges levied toward them for its economic and foreign policies. Some of these charges may be disingenuous, others may be vindictive — but it behooves bureaucrats to constructively engage, as opposed to hermetically sealing external criticisms.

On questions of domestic security and political policies, Beijing has every right to stand firm on its national security lines, but it should do so while taking seriously the rights and interests of each and every one of its citizens, irrespective of ethnicity, political stance, religion, or otherwise. Reforms in these regions (including the ongoing movement toward universal suffrage in Hong Kong, which had previously been shot down by an unfortunate series of political maneuvers and gestures in 2015)  may come slowly — they need not be drastic — yet they should not be thrown out the window simply because they would “rock the boat.”

A more liberal, progressive, and reformed China need not become a full democracy; indeed, it would be foolish to think that an unfettered and unmanaged democratic transition is in the people’s interests, given the volatility and instability that would likely result. The country’s opening-up need not involve its giving in to the fantasies of neoconservatives and historicists in the West; instead, it would require it to engage in moderate political and economic reforms, to open the country up to greater accountability and representation from the people, while retaining the virtues of the China model. A world where Chinese leaders pursue this largely uncharted but critical middle path is also a world that would benefit both China and the rest of the world, especially in light of the moral vacuum left by America’s descent into chaos.

Second, China ought to offer a constructive and viable economic strategy that demonstrably enables multilateral cooperation — which may mean being more flexible in its enforcement of debt conditions, dialing up its economic aid, and supporting flailing or fledgling economies in their post-depression recovery. Loosening up debt requirements assuages potential allies of the worries that institutions such as the AIIB are persistently landing smaller countries in insurmountable debt, while ensuring that mass faith and support toward Chinese investment, in states with large populations that have been heavily hit by the COVID-19 crisis, such as Indonesia and Malaysia, could be restored.

The ramping up of targeted (and sensibly conditioned) aid — such as training and scholarships, skilled volunteering, debt relief and budget advice, aid-in-kind, and technical assistance — would place China in a stronger position to win support from civil society actors and a growing middle class in African economies. Such support may not matter in the short term, but if the country is to take its commitment to its “Asian-African-Latin American” friends seriously, it will take more than just superficial economic pork-barreling that lines the pockets of the elite. China has been largely reasonable and restrained in the trade war with the U.S.; if the Chinese Communist Party could replicate its pragmatism here at large, this would be instrumental in ensuring that the country could weather the economic onslaught brought about by the pandemic.

Finally, Beijing should reread a page from its recent history. During the dying days of the Soviet Union-U.S. Cold War, China wisely pivoted away from an amorphous, hedging position, turning instead to serve as a convenient geopolitical ally to the U.S. while concurrently securing a tactful, partial detente with the post-collapse U.S.S.R.

China not only benefited from the influx of investment and trade, but also embarked on a long journey of ascertaining self-sufficiency and the development of a largely stable, broadly intact political order in succession and governance. Hu and Wen’s years saw China accumulate significant regional presence and international goodwill, through diplomatic efforts that emphasized bilateral trade, unconditional development aid, and organic bottom-up growth initiatives. China’s joining of the World Trade Organization in 2001 and hosting of the Beijing Olympics in 2008 — even the halcyon early days of Xi Jinping’s first term, when anti-corruption and efficiency-driven domestic campaigns were coupled with nascent economic engagement with leading Latin American and Southeast Asian states — epitomized a more confident and more internationally amenable China.

A leadership vacuum has been left open in global politics, thanks to Donald Trump. As Ian Bremmer argues, we are at risk of sinking into a G-zero world. With its flagrant disregard for human rights, blatant contravention of democratic values, and explicitly racist rhetoric, the Trump administration simply cannot be counted upon. We’ve already seen the 27 member states of the European Union seek to pivot away from the United States as a collective, putting distance between themselves and the more belligerent, gung-ho stances adopted by the White House. Trump’s presidency offers no global leadership on issues of climate change, the COVID-19 crisis, the fight against terrorism, and authoritarian interference with elections.

Yet this does not imply that the status-quo “China Model” is necessarily the way forward, either. It is high time that Chinese bureaucrats and politicians demonstrate that the China Model, contra the regime’s critics and cynics, is neither ideologically nor existentially opposed to alternative systems of governance around the world. Through heightening perceived and actual transparency, dialing up governmental accountability, and pacifying the tensions between it and its neighbors, China could well vindicate itself and announce that it is here to stay. But to do that, the country needs to revisit Deng’s old adage. The best way for the country to 有所作为 yǒusuǒ zuòwéi — accomplish something — is to not only pick its battles, but also make the necessary reforms in ways that are conducive toward the interests of all.

Will the country heed the advice here? We could only be sanguinely optimistic. As the German writer and politician Johann Wolfgang von Goethe puts it, “In all things it is better to hope than to despair.”