China has to strategize on how not to fracture its long-held relationships.
With Covid-19 becoming a pandemic, Beijing has entangled itself in several foreign policy challenges. Around the world, political reservations and strategic objections on China and Chinese sponsored schemes will grow. China’s “charm-offensive” of reaching out to countries by building goodwill through “developmental partnerships” and flooding them with Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects will not be easy to carry out from here on. The debate might also persist over whether it is a “Chinese virus” for which Beijing should be blamed, perhaps taxed and even held accountable for, or just a “virus that grew out of China”. If it is the latter, a greater strategic channel of understanding is required between the rest of the world and China.
Irrespective of the trajectory of this debate, a subtle gap might emerge and persist between a nationalist China, which is the biggest beneficiary of globalization, and isolated regions in the post-Covid-19 order that have now seen the benefits of having a strategic link with Beijing. To China, this has perhaps emerged as the biggest health and foreign policy challenge in the 21st century. It has to strategize on how not to allow the situation to escalate into fracturing its long-held relationships. So, how will Beijing frame its future foreign policy graph in a post-Covid order?
Any prognosis about Chinese foreign policy behaviour must start with the role of globalization, because it could work either ways—be a binding force or promote a divided trajectory with competing national interests coming to the core. This will put Chinese foreign policy overtures, such as “Community of Shared Future for Humanity” and “win-win” strategy through the developmental partnerships on the defensive. Moreover, countries might find it difficult to accept overtly Xi Jinping’s ornamental rhetoric that his foreign policy or BRI is trying to portray. Hence, Beijing’s foreign policy may be forced to combine both assertive and non-assertive shades in the post Covid-19 order.
In other words, Xi’s foreign policy might partially return to Deng Xiaoping’s “low-profile” stratagem. It is important to note that, unlike the previous Chinese leaderships, Xi Jinping’s foreign policy has been quite assertive and action oriented. Xi’s diplomacy became more “pro-active” once China’s strategic wealth and clout began multiplying over recent years. Renewed nationalism to reassert China’s maritime and land territories, heightened self-confidence as a leader in global forums and bigger networks in an Indo-Pacific order have been key arcs of Chinese foreign policy under Xi. Though the larger global community has viewed Beijing’s behaviour rather warily, none of the powers except perhaps the United States has adopted an explicitly confrontational approach. It is, hence, likely that China’s already flawed relations with the US will continue to be thorny.
Neither will Sino-US tensions ease nor is President Donald Trump likely to spare any opportunity to gain political mileage, in the run-up to the US Presidential elections, by attacking China for its irresponsible actions post Covid-19. Pushing an anti-China narrative is no longer going to be a difficult enterprise; promoting the claim that a pandemic could have been prevented if only China had been an open and transparent nation without revisionist aims, is no longer a difficult narrative to build. The response from the Xi administration would be equally commanding as 21st century China is not intimidated by the US. This became apparent when the Chinese foreign ministry accused the US military of bringing the virus to China. Besides, Beijing is aware that the post Covid-19 situation will not bring China to its knees internationally, but it will also not undermine entirely the influence of American power. In such circumstances, neither a “decoupling” nor a hard fight with the US is an option for China, although ties will remain strained. Any possible change in the US administration here is the only silver lining for China.
China’s approach towards Europe, even though a large European community is affected by the virus, is, however, different. This is partly because Europe’s approach towards China, unlike the US, has hardly been aggressive. They had received the BRI well, even though governance matters have never found a united force and the EU at times has come out strongly on matters relating to economic and security considerations. Further, China does not compete with the EU for global prominence, unlike it does with the US. A fight with the latter could raise China’s stature, while a fight with the former could weaken its solidarity and outreach. Therefore, China would pursue a “low-profile” foreign policy towards Europe and try to mend its ties with the European world, where struggling economies would require Chinese financial assistance to help recover their economy. After all, the future of the BRI vis-à-vis the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) rests primarily on how it would manage to extend its Eurasian diplomacy to the larger European community. Hence, Chinese foreign policy towards Europe is likely to witness continuity with a new level of rapprochement.
With fellow Asian nations, Beijing might employ a mixture of assertive and non-assertive approaches. A “low-profile” approach might be visible on conflicting issues like the South China Sea and East China Sea, as well as the boundary disputes with India for some time, even though there is nothing changing Beijing’s claim and posturing. Matters pertaining to Hong Kong would be closely and seriously monitored, and China will ensure that it does not allow the Hong-Kong protest movement to flare up. Overall, a moderate approach combined with both assertive and non-assertive posturing is likely towards Asia. Such an approach stems from the aims and aspirations of economic expansion that Beijing holds in the region when it has to conclude the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).
Besides, rebuilding economic ties with Japan, South Korea, India and the Southeast Asia, the premier economies and region of Asia, will become a strategic priority for China at a time when trade tensions with the US continue to intensify. Holding relatively stable relations with India will become a priority, even though Beijing would be mindful of New Delhi’s growing partnership with the US, and India’s rising Indo-Pacific profile. Above all, it is important to reiterate that the overlying foreign policy objective of Beijing is to promote a pax Sinica, a stable peaceful economic order with China in the lead, which requires a stable Asia. In fact, China’s gradual restart of production at factories and easing out restrictions on travel and transport comes as a reference point towards Beijing’s desire to regain its central position in the global supply chain in the post Covid-19 period. Such would further ensure, China maintains a strategic edge over other Asian powers irrespective of the criticism stemming from the Covid-19 pandemic.
The struggle between a pax Sinica and a pax Americana set-up has long defined US-China relations. Which way the global axis would tilt in this situation was and is dependent on the economic sphere. What must be noted here is that unlike the US, China has always focused on playing the long game. China’s policies towards the US have moved from strategic competition to active attempts at containment of the American influence around the world. US initiatives and a broader Asia outlook is all centric to the immediate goal of pausing the rise of an assertive and revisionist China. Contrary to this, Chinese approach towards minting its new place in the world is not a hastened process; all initiatives follow an independent model of analysis dedicated solely to building Chinese assets; they are not a response or counter to policies of another nation. It is because of this that Chinese dedication to establishing a pax Sinica order will not reduce in a post-Covid-19 set-up even though it may get postponed. With China focusing on the long game, this will not constitute as too major of a sacrifice.
More objectively, Chinese foreign policy will continue to witness a zig-zag pattern in the post Covid-19 order. Neither will it show any fragility, nor would it be overtly firm, except towards the US. Xi Jinping’s “new era” foreign policy is based on “major power diplomacy”. It would not be an overestimation to foresee that Chinese diplomacy post Covid-19 would treat each and every country, no matter how big or small they are, as major powers, signifying their importance to the world.
Dr Jagannath Panda is Research Fellow and Centre Coordinator for East Asia at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. He is also the Series Editor for “Routledge Studies on Think Asia”.