20th Party Congress Primes China for Continued Confrontation Around the World

The leadership changes following the 20th Party Congress not only entrench Xi Jinping’s power at home, but also solidify his vision for China’s engagements abroad. Official rhetoric in and around the Congress points to a continuation of the CCP’s assertive and increasingly aggressive international posture, exemplified by officials’ notorious “wolf-warrior diplomacy.” With Xi calling the shots on the Chinese side and no one daring to dispute, the West braces for more confrontation with Beijing.

Xi’s desire to further project China’s power abroad was a clear theme of the Congress. One of the “Five Firm Grasps”—a new buzzword meant to summarize the “spirit” of the Congress—emphasizes Xi Jinping Thought as a “world view.” The phrase suggests that Xi’s thought has global relevance, and as China Media Project stated, it “sends the additional message that the general secretary’s ideas are a formula, a toolbox, that should be used to grapple with the challenges in the decade to come — whether in China or in the world.” Tuvia Gering’s latest Discourse Power newsletter highlighted Xi’s vision for China’s global influence as expressed in his work report to the 20th Party Congress:

“We must accelerate the development of Chinese discourse and narrative systems, effectively communicate the voice of China, and portray a credible, lovable, and respectable image of the country. 

“Improve our ability to communicate internationally, boost the effectiveness of our global communication, and strive  for international discourse power commensurate with our comprehensive national power and global standing; enhance mutual understanding and cultural exchange, and better represent Chinese culture around the world.” [Source]

A unique and commanding Chinese voice is part of Xi’s diplomatic vision. As highlighted by Thomas des Garets Geddes in his new newsletter Sinification, Zhu Feng, the director of Nanjing University’s School of International Relations, argued that Xi’s report “conveys clearly and powerfully to the international community the ‘Chinese voice’ of great power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics.” On the opening day of the Congress, Chinese diplomats in the U.K. used their voices, and fists, to physically disrupt a protest outside their consulate in Manchester. Ethan McAndrews argued in The Diplomat that the Manchester incident embodies Xi’s approach to Chinese diplomacy, which was reinforced in the 20th Party Congress

Official rhetoric at the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) affirmed China’s changing diplomatic norms. At a press conference titled “Under the Guidance of Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy, Forge Ahead and Strive to Break New Ground for Major-Country Diplomacy with Chinese Characteristics,” officials Ma Zhaoxu and Shen Beili hailed the “fighting spirit” of Chinese diplomacy under Xi. “Having the courage and ability to carry on the fight is a fine tradition and distinct characteristic of Chinese diplomacy,” Ma, the current vice minister of foreign affairs, added in his remarks.

In this sense, the recent scuffle in Manchester was well-applied Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy.

[…] Patriotism, not peace, is the orienting element of China’s diplomacy under Xi Jinping. [Source]

China’s new foreign policy personnel also suggest a confrontational approach to diplomacy. According to a Xinhua report on Sunday, Xi “personally took charge of the planning and personally took charge of the gatekeeping,” and a key qualification for leadership, in addition to political allegiance, was whether a candidate has the “courage and ability to fight the U.S.-led Western sanctions and safeguard national security.” Chun Han Wong and Keith Zhai at The Wall Street Journal reported on how Xi is set to stack his foreign policy team with loyalists who would likely consolidate his aggressive style of diplomacy:

Naming [Xi’s handpicked ambassador to the U.S. Qin Gang] foreign minister would indicate that “the choice of China’s diplomats are completely dominated by Xi,” who discards convention in choosing personnel, said Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center, a Washington-based think tank. Backed by his “special relationship” with China’s leader, Mr. Qin would likely “carry forward Xi’s fighting spirit in his diplomacy with the U.S.,” Ms. Sun said.

[…] Mr. Xi’s foreign-policy appointments also serve his plan to centralize diplomatic decision-making at the party’s top echelons, according to people familiar with the issue. The Foreign Ministry would focus less on influencing Mr. Xi’s decisions and more on implementing them, and must do so with greater vigor than before, they said.

[…] “While Mao relied on violence, and Deng relied on money, Xi is increasingly relying on ideology to legitimize his rule. This certainly constrains the flexibility of Chinese diplomats and diplomacy,” said Dylan Loh, an assistant professor at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University who studies China’s foreign policy. “There is very little room for alternative, fresh thinking on foreign policy issues. Even if there is, it would not be articulated by people who matter to the person that matters most.” [Source]

Commenting on the Wall Street Journal article, Bill Bishop wrote: “What is called ‘wolf warrior diplomacy’ is really Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy being put into practice, and expect to see much more of it.” Tsukasa Hadano from Nikkei Asia reported on two other personnel changes in the CCP’s leadership that portend more “wolf-warrior diplomacy”:

The ruling Communist Party’s just-ended national congress led to Yang [Jiechi, director of the general office of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission,] leaving the Politburo. Wang [Yi] was added to the Politburo and is widely expected to take Yang’s job heading the CFAC.

[…] Wang, a member of the party’s roughly 200-strong Central Committee, has now joined the 24-member Politburo. As foreign minister, he has advanced “wolf warrior diplomacy” to pressure countries that do not toe Beijing’s line.

[…] Wang Huning, a top adviser to Xi on domestic and foreign affairs, is one of the two officials to return for a second term this time on the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee.

Wang Huning is known as a leading theorist of wolf warrior diplomacy, while Wang Yi will apply it in the real world. In short, it appears that the two Wangs are being kept on board to maintain China’s hard-nosed foreign policy. [Source]

However, Xi’s promotion of loyal hardliners risks locking China into a permanent position of inflexibility in its foreign relations. As Yuan Yang recently wrote in The Financial Times, “Basing party discipline on obedience to Xi makes the task of Chinese diplomacy even harder. If all policy ultimately originates with the leader, and if he is infallible, then there can be no admission of mistakes, no apologies, no compromises — in short, no diplomacy.” Commenting on Xi’s inward turn, Rana Mitter noted that “there is a tone-deafness to much of China’s recent international forays. Diplomacy, academic links and trade can’t really function if one of the partners is only rarely willing to step into the wider world.”

Such a stance threatens increasing disruption in the international system. In the lead-up to the 20th Party Congress, The Economist published a special issue on Xi’s global vision for China, called “The World Divided.” It analyzed China’s attempts to “change, or break, a world order set by others,” prioritize sovereignty in international relations, build its own multilateral institutions, and exert power beyond its borders. Joe McDonald wrote for the AP that now that the 20th Party Congress is complete, the world faces more tension over trade, security, and human rights with Xi so firmly in command

Xi says “the world system is broken and China has answers,” said William Callahan of the London School of Economics. “More and more, Xi Jinping is talking about the Chinese style as a universal model of the world order, which goes back to a Cold War kind of conflict.”

[…Xi called for] protection of Beijing’s “core interests” abroad. He announced no changes in policies that have strained relations with Washington and Asian neighbors.

[…] Beijing wants a “China-centered security system,” said Callahan. “Beijing wants to be a world leader, and part of that, according to Beijing, is to be a leader in the hard politics of global security.” [Source]

Some argue that China’s leadership reshuffle after the 20th Party Congress puts greater weight on relations with the U.S. Le Monde’s Frédéric Lemaître summarized the Congress by writing that “Xi Jinping grants himself complete control to confront [the] West […] The Chinese leader intends to rearm the country on all fronts against the ‘hegemonic’ United States.” FT’s Gideon Rachman argued that Xi’s show of dominance at the Congress both threatens and unifies the “global west,” a loose coalition of rich liberal democracies that are strongly tied to the U.S. and motivated to push back against China’s expanding global presence.

Others analyzed how China’s new leadership changes would affect relations with the Global South. The China-Global South Project’s Eric Olander suggested that Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s prior experience in Asia makes him a likely advocate for deeper engagement with developing countries, and should he replace his boss Yang Jiechi, whose background lies in the U.S., China might then increase its focus on the Global South. However, should Chinese ambassador to the U.S. Qin Gang become foreign minister, he might pivot to focus on China’s stance toward the U.S. at the expense of other regions. Facing an international debt crisis, accusations of anti-African racism, and other serious diplomatic challenges, China may not be able to divert attention away from the Global South. Jevans Nyabiage from the South China Morning Post described how diplomatic continuity and caution will be key to China-Africa ties in Xi’s third term:

“This heavy consolidation of personal authority means that Xi’s signature policies – including China’s revamped Africa policy released in 2021 – will continue,” said [Paul Nantulya, a research associate at the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies at the National Defence University in Washington].

[…] He said Xi’s policies also represented a continuation of the long-standing principle that “big powers are the key, China’s periphery is the priority, developing countries are the foundation, and multilateral platforms are the stage”.

“This ordering of foreign policy priorities is set to continue, meaning Africa will continue to be a key piece of China’s foreign affairs, even as China will likely reduce funding and pare back on some of its grander initiatives on the continent,” Nantulya said.

[…] “During Xi’s third term, China’s Africa policy is likely to be increasingly marked by growing geopolitical and geoeconomic competition with the West,” said [Tim Zajontz, a research fellow at the Centre for International and Comparative Politics at South Africa’s Stellenbosch University].

[…] “At the institutional level, Xi’s third term might serve as an inspiration for autocrats in African capitals to remove term limits and to reinterpret democracy along the lines of China’s Communist Party,” Zajontz added. [Source]

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