The National People’s Congress of the People’s Republic of China’s annual meetings have traditionally been used as a platform for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to outline key positions the country has taken in its foreign policy. Entrenched stances are held up and new trends come to light at the same time, which are driven by important changes taking place both within China and in the global political landscape.
The Second Session of the Thirteenth National People’s Congress, which was held in Beijing between 5 March and 15 March 2019, lived up to the expectations. On March 8, Foreign Minister Wang Yi addressed journalists before moving on to answer 21 questions, most of which came from the foreign journalists who attended the Chinese Foreign Minister’s press conference.
Needless to say, the speech and the questions that followed were dominated by one crucially important issue—the present situation which is unfolding in relations between the United States and China, due to the de facto trade war between the most powerful two nations in the world—which consequently has an impact on the entire world. Last spring, the US President, who had set out to “restore fairness” in trade relations with all its foreign trading partners, triggered the trade war.
China has lent the most weight to the staggering imbalance in US foreign trade (almost half of the total trade deficit). Moreover, the “protective measures” which were taken as early as last year have not only failed to alleviate the US trade deficit with China; in 2018, the deficit actually grew by 11.6% compared to 2017 (from 375 to almost 420 billion dollars). The reason for this is an increase in the volume of forward purchases made by US companies in the last two quarters of 2018, in anticipation of rising prices on Chinese goods.
Experts are at a loss for why the number of Americans being hired fell by more than 10 times in February 2019 compared to just last month in January of the same year. Is this just a temporary, local phenomenon, or does it mark the beginning of a long-term negative trend? In both cases, the trade war with China is a constant in every expert’s explanation.
Wang Yi’s comments included several points on the situation which is unfolding in relations between China and the US in general, and focused more specifically on US-Chinese trade and economics. The Chinese Minister first noted that the trade war which has deteriorated bilateral relations has also had a negative impact on the overall global market, before speaking in favor of cooperation with the United States as opposed to a confrontation, which would be a loss for both of the world’s superpowers.
Secondly, by explicitly expressing Beijing’s interest in developing relations with Washington, Wang Yi just as clearly ruled out any prospect of achieving this goal at the sole expense of concessions made by China; Yi left no room for doubt that China has no intention of fulfilling the role of a sacrificial lamb. At the same time, the Chinese Minister highlighted attempts to impose a global blockade on Huawei, the Chinese telecom company leading the way in modern mobile technology, and made a specific reference to the arrest of Huawei’s Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Meng Wanzhou in Canada—the daughter of Huawei’s founder.
The Chinese Foreign Minister noted the ups and downs that there have been in China’s relations with the United States over a short period of time (several months), and finally stressed the long-term marathon approach China is taking to developing policy to move forward in the direction the US is pressing for.
It should be noted that the framework for any possible bilateral agreement in trade remains unclear. The most we can discern from the surface of the media landscape is bullish optimism in the US President’s tweets, and a cautiously optimistic outlook in the Chinese official narrative from the Global Times.
Another topic of no less importance which was covered in Wang Yi’s speech was the array of questions and issues that have recently emerged, as China’s leadership implements its central political and economic concept—the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)—unofficially referred to as the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-century Maritime Silk Road. These problems serve as a pretext for critics to discredit the BRI concept in and of itself not only in the US, but also in some European countries.
Within this context, Wang Yi stressed the importance of the forthcoming Second Forum to discuss how various projects are being implemented as part of this initiative. The Forum is scheduled for April of this year, and it is expected to attract all sorts of representatives from over a hundred countries.
China’s Minister for Foreign Affairs described a generally positive climate in the surrounding region, not speaking from the point of view of a passive observer, but as an active participant in the events taking place there.
In particular, you can hardly discredit what Wang Yi has to say about the work China has put into the process of trying to resolve the tensions and conflicts on the Korean Peninsula and in the South China Sea, as well as China’s involvement in recent developments between India and Pakistan.
By using the turn of phrase “iron friendship” to describe the state of relations between China and “iron brother” Pakistan, Wang Yi indicated the of China’s constructive role in containing and subsequently easing the Indo-Pakistani conflict, fueled by the bloody terrorist attack which took place in Indian Kashmir. In an article published a day after Wang Yi’s press conference in the Chinese newspaper Global Times, a general claim is made that China “does not pick sides” in the conflict.
It is worth noting India’s tepid response to the Chinese Foreign Minister’s expression of willingness to mediate in resolving the Indo-Pakistani conflict. Bear in mind that in general new Delhi has not welcomed any offers of external mediation to resolve “the Kashmir problem” (including offers from the UN).
Wang Yi touched on the crisis situation in Venezuela as he called for “the sovereignty and independence of Latin American countries to be respected” and particularly emphasized their right “to develop relations with China”.
Much of the press conference focused on China’s network of relations with European countries. This is in part due to the fact that Beijing sees Europe as one of the most important destinations for its future Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
However, at the same time, it seems that China has also taken the strained relations between Europe and the United States into account, which we must remember is China’s top geopolitical opponent. Therefore it is only natural that the following statement was made during the press conference to reiterate China’s interest in resolving the problems within the EU.
According to Wang Yi, the importance of Europe as the focal point of China’s foreign policy should be clearly discernible, given that the first foreign trip General Secretary of the Communist Party of China Xi Jinping this year will be in Europe.
As has been said numerous times before in NEO, the EU as a unit and Germany—at the top of this organization—are quite wary of China, which means they are in no hurry to cozy up to the Chinese any time soon. With all this considered, we will learn a lot from the telling extent of involvement from both the Brussels Eurocracy and Europe’s most influential countries in the forthcoming Belt and Road Forum.
There are reports that Italy, which is currently one of the biggest “troublemakers” in the EU and supports the idea of Europe massively increasing its involvement with China (vis-à-vis the US), could be sending the Italian Prime Minister to the Forum.
Russia was probably the only country where the Chinese Foreign Minister did not spot any red flags in their relations. In particular, Yi mentioned that “[their bilateral relations] are not affected by external factors.” Bilateral visits from the leaders of both countries which are scheduled for this year will evidence the strength of their relations, according to Wang Yi. The first of the visits could be Russian President Vladimir Putin’s trip, who will visit China to participate in the Belt and Road Forum.
In general, what the China’s Minister of Foreign Affairs has said at his latest press conference confirms the unmistakable fact that Beijing is here to stay in the international arena. In other words, China is turning a blind eye to the jabs its opponents are throwing today, which goes to show how patient China has learned to be; patience which China developed as the state evolved over several millennia.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on issues in the Asia-Pacific Region has written this article exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”