China becoming more aggressive

Chinese President Xi Jinping sings the national anthem during the opening session of the National People's Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on 5 March, 2019. (Wang Zhao / AFP Photo)

China’s diplomats aren’t being very diplomatic.

In the past few months, its envoy to Canada publicly accused his hosts of “white supremacy,” its ambassador in Sweden labelled the Swedish police “inhumane” and blasted the country’s “so-called freedom of expression,” and its chief emissary in South Africa said President Donald Trump’s policies were making the United States (US) “the enemy of the whole world.”

“I don’t think we are witnessing a pattern of misstatements and slips of the tongue," said Ryan Hass, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who previously oversaw China affairs at the US National Security Council. “We seem to be watching China’s diplomats matching the mood of the moment in Beijing. Beijing rewards diplomats that are aggressive advocates of China’s views and scorns those that it perceives as overly timid.”

That may be damaging Xi Jinping’s efforts to win friends abroad and capitalize on Donald Trump’s international unpopularity. While China has seized on the trade war and US disengagement abroad to pitch itself as a champion of globalisation, 63 percent of respondents to a 2018 Pew poll in 25 countries said they preferred the US as a world leader, compared with 19 percent for China.

Backlash builds

At stake is China’s avowed goal of establishing itself as a global superpower with influence over a network of allies to balance US influence. China is pouring billions into global efforts such as Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to forge stronger links with countries around the world.

But China’s increasingly strident diplomatic approach could do more harm than good. Anti-China sentiment has played a pivotal role in election surprises across Asia, and more countries around the world are becoming sceptical of Chinese investment – particularly in telecommunications, with fears growing about using its equipment in 5G networks due to concerns about espionage.

China’s foreign ministry didn’t respond to faxed questions about the more aggressive language from diplomats. After Trump took office, China has sought to portray itself as a supporter of the international order, with Xi himself defending globalisation at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland. His charm offensive stood in contrast to Trump, who has reshaped public discourse with regular insults of other world leaders on Twitter.

Even so, foreign diplomats in Beijing say that the behaviour of Chinese officials has become far more aggressive and assertive in private meetings in recent years. Their discussions have become more ideological, according to one senior foreign envoy, who described the behaviour as a strong sense of grievance combined with increasing entitlement about China’s international role and rights.

China’s reported behaviour at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in November highlighted the shift. Papua New Guinea police were called after Chinese officials attempted to “barge” into the office of the country’s foreign minister to influence the summit’s communique, according to the Agence France-Presse (AFP) news agency. Chinese officials later denied the report, calling it “a rumour spread by some people with a hidden agenda.”

Huawei advocacy

Chinese diplomats’ advocacy for the country’s embattled tech giant, Huawei Technologies Co., has even riled heads of government. After the Chinese ambassador to the Czech Republic, Zhang Jianmin, announced in November that the Czech cyber security body’s decision to ban Huawei did not represent the view of the Czech government, Prime Minister Andrej Babis said, “I do not know what the ambassador is talking about," according to Czech Radio. One European ambassador in Beijing said China’s aggressive advocacy for the company has been prevalent across the 28-nation bloc.

In some regions, China’s overseas rhetoric has been hardening for years. Foreign officials noticed an increasingly strident tone from Beijing following the global financial crisis. At a 2010 meeting hosted by Southeast Asian nations in Hanoi, then foreign minister Yang Jiechi famously dismissed some of China’s neighbours as “small countries” when challenged over Beijing’s stance in the South China Sea.

Foreign diplomats said the outbursts have increased in both, frequency and intensity since Xi took power in 2012. In the last few years, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia and now Canada have all incurred Beijing’s wrath, with diplomatic barbs often accompanied by economic pressure through import restrictions, store inspections and safety warnings to Chinese tour groups.

In a speech at the 2017 Communist Party conclave that saw Xi appointed for a second term as party chief without an apparent successor, Xi described China as “standing tall and firm in the East” and pledged to make the country a global leader in innovation, influence and military might. At a conference for Chinese ambassadors at the end of that year, Xi urged diplomats to play a more proactive part in an increasingly multipolar world – a speech China’s ambassador to the United Kingdom (UK) described as a “mobilisation order,” or “bugle call.”

‘Crags and torrents’

China’s diplomatic corps has been quick to show its loyalty to Xi. In a 2017 essay in the party’s theoretical magazine Qiushi, top diplomat Yang Jiechi pledged to study and implement Xi’s thought on diplomacy in a “deep-going way.” And Foreign Minister Wang Yi recently praised Xi for “taking the front line of history” and “braving 10,000 crags and torrents.”

“Chinese ambassadors always feel they have to speak to the leaders in Beijing more than to the local public. Their promotions depend on it,” said Susan Shirk, a former US deputy assistant Secretary of State for East Asia. “If today what they say is more overtly anti-American or anti-Western then that reflects the changing foreign policy line.”

In line with national “party-building” campaigns, Chinese diplomats regularly engage in “self-criticism” sessions at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, according to people familiar with the meetings. Last month, the former deputy head of the party’s powerful Organization Department, Qi Yu, was appointed as the foreign ministry’s Party Secretary despite a lack of diplomatic experience. One foreign ambassador said Chinese diplomats are skilled and smart but also increasingly “scared.”

China has seen this kind of ideology-driven diplomacy before. During the Cultural Revolution, Chinese diplomats in London videotaped themselves fighting protesters on the streets of London, according to the book China’s Quest by historian John Garver. In Beijing, British and Soviet diplomatic missions were besieged or invaded and other diplomats were threatened on the streets.

The new wave of truculence is also affecting how foreign envoys are treated in China. Detained Canadian citizen and former diplomat Michael Kovrig has been questioned about his work as a diplomat, according to people familiar with the discussions. The move may be a violation of Article 39 of the Vienna Convention, which explicitly covers the past work of former diplomats. China is a signatory.

Foreign diplomats visiting China’s far western region of Xinjiang have been followed, temporarily detained and forced to delete photographs from their phones, while Swedish citizen Gui Minhai was grabbed by Chinese authorities in front of Swedish diplomats, according to the country’s foreign ministry.

The shift in mood, and tensions with the US, have altered the tone of discussions inside China’s bureaucracy. One Chinese trade diplomat said that while it’s never been easy to be a dove in China, all but the most senior officials now refrain from publicly voicing moderate positions toward the US.

“Beijing has established a pattern of making examples of middle powers in hopes that doing so deters others from challenging China’s interests,” said Hass at the Brookings Institution. “Some in Beijing also seem to be growing frustrated that China’s rising national power is not yet translating into the types of deference from others that it seeks.” - Bloomberg