One of the most significant outcomes of the CPC’s 20th Congress, held at the end of September, and the 1st Plenum of the Central Committee of the ruling party in China, held a month later, was a radical change in personnel, both in the leadership and in the state administration that implements the party’s decisions. The CCP Central Committee’s composition shifted by two-thirds. In terms of the Politburo Standing Committee, which has the most power in the PRC, six of the seven new members are previously unknown officials. Against the backdrop of such drastic changes in the personalities of the PRC leadership, the current Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s re-election for the next (third) five-year term appears extremely remarkable.
Putting aside the most general (inevitably subjective) interpretation of what is happening in the second world power’s political system (which is probably not fully understood even by professional sinologists), let us allow only the most general (inevitably subjective) interpretation of what this might mean for the political space surrounding it.
And the first thing that can be said with reasonable certainty is that China will maintain the foreign policy course that has gradually taken shape since Xi Jinping’s election in early 2013. Although it is difficult to discuss the final formulation of this course, given the situation at the Great World Game table, which has changed dramatically and comprehensively over the last 10–15 years.
However, an important proof of the stability of the trends that emerged in the PRC’s foreign policy 10 years ago was the fact that on January 1, 2023, former Foreign Minister Wang Yi took the post of the head of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the CCP Central Committee. In the hierarchy of managing the entire field of PRC foreign policy, this post is second only to the current Chinese head of state, to whom Wang Yi now reports directly. Note the no less important fact that he was inducted into the Politburo of the CCP Central Committee two months earlier.
Recall the statement he made shortly before his appointment to the above post on PRC-Russian Federation relations, defining the latter as “monolithic-firm.” These words were uttered a few days after Dmitry Medvedev flew to Beijing to meet the Chinese leader with a message from Russian President Vladimir Putin. On the eve of the New Year, the negotiations between the leaders of the two countries took place via video conference.
Let us also recall that the format of Russian-Chinese relations in the PRC has long been firmly defined as “back to back.” This means that in the course of escalation of relations between China and the United States, that is, the two current world powers, the former need not worry about the situation on the border with the Russian Federation, which is about 4,000 km long. Note that this border has taken its final shape with the active participation of Vladimir Putin.
The latter fact should be given special attention for two important reasons. First, it put an end to the disagreements, mutual distrust and even conflicts that have been recurring in the relations between the two great neighbors for the last century and a half. Second, it is the process of comprehensive development of Russian-Chinese relations that is at the heart of the motives for provoking an armed conflict in the region of the western borders of the Russian Federation.
In fact, everything associated with this strongly resembles the situation that developed three centuries earlier during one of the most dangerous periods of the Russian Empire’s emergence. When the ideological forefathers of the current Kyiv government decided to trade their subjugated territory and the people who lived there with Moscow’s mortal enemy at the time. This ended very badly for some of those people (despite the efforts of the “Supreme Prince”). But, again, it could not have been otherwise at that critical point of confrontation between the new Russia and the best army of the time, led by the best commander. On the eve of the decisive battle, time, which has always been the most important factor, has shrunk to hours.
And today on the territory of Ukraine, the “Mazepa syndrome” breaks out again, and in the process of its (“specific”) healing, it is difficult to overestimate the importance of the fact that Beijing supports Moscow. At the same time, the author would like to emphasize that this support imposes a number of serious costs on Beijing. This is because it has its own interests in the foreign policy arena in general and in relations with its main adversary in that arena in particular.
An extremely important difference between US-China and US-Russia relations is a very significant presence in the former of a trade and economic component. It can be argued with a fair degree of certainty that this will continue to be the case in the future. Despite the statements of intent characteristic of Washington’s public rhetoric. If not entirely, at least in the area of technologies that are becoming critical to ensuring national security. These include, for example, “chip” production technologies.
Nevertheless, it seems to the author (perhaps mistakenly) that there are signs of the possibility of some positive trends in bilateral relations. And not only because of the mentioned factor of mutually beneficial cooperation in the economic sphere, but also because of the awareness of the increasingly emerging “Thucydides Trap,” the triggering of which under the present conditions would mean a catastrophe of unimagined proportions. Not only for the two leading world powers, which are still moving directly and immediately in its direction, but also for the rest of humanity. It would appear that no one will stay unaffected by the “misunderstandings” in relations between the two.
Immediately after his appointment to a new post, Wang Yi confirmed the intention to strengthen relations with Russia and advocated taking a “right course” in relations with the United States. Qin Gang, who succeeded him as foreign minister, gave an emotional review of his one-year tenure as PRC ambassador to the United States. The new head of the Chinese Foreign Ministry expressed his intention to promote the development of bilateral relations in every possible way.
One of the masters of American political science, Joseph Nye, formerly Deputy Secretary of Defense of the United States and now a professor at Harvard College, released a remarkable article on the topic, titled “US must avoid provoking China”.
The New Year’s speeches of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and a representative of China’s Mainland Department, which is in charge of China’s relations with the island, show some toning down of mutual rhetoric and even calls to begin bilateral dialogue.
The start of China’s import from the United States of new specialty drugs developed by pharmaceutical giant MSD for the treatment of patients with early to mid-stage Covid-19 was also noteworthy. It is the latter that make up the bulk of the next wave of this disease in China, which is reaching near-catastrophic proportions. Once again, we see that it is quite possible to put aside political differences in the face of a common threat.
If the author’s sentiments reflect certain realities in US-China relations, then perhaps we will see an increasing presence of elements of the “Offshore Balancing Strategy” in US foreign policy. This was proposed two decades ago by respected US political scientists and involves a shift away from the strategy of an all-out US presence, which has been increasingly overwhelming and counterproductive to national interests.
One of the important practical consequences of the gradual introduction of this “strategy” into foreign policy was the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, initiated by President Barack Obama and continued (and also completed) by his heirs.
It should be noted that the (apparently planned) transition of the United States to the “offshore balancing strategy” in the Indo-Pacific region will by no means necessarily lead to a general easing of tensions in the region. This is because (and contrary to the absurd construct of the “end of history”) new contenders are already being identified to fill the positions in the ITR that the United States (again, seemingly) intends to vacate. Among them, the most important are India and Japan. It should be noted that such claims of the latter are strongly encouraged by Washington.
Therefore, the author will closely follow the large-scale foreign tour of Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, which began on January 8. With a final stop in Washington, where he is awaited with obvious impatience. Immediately after the end of the guest’s talks with President Joe Biden, another bilateral meeting is scheduled in the 2+2 format. The results of this meeting will be no less interesting than the already mentioned talks between the leaders of the two countries.
In conclusion, it should be noted that judging by the available biography, Japan is at the center of Wang Yi’s professional interests. The new head of China’s Foreign Ministry, however, has originally focused on the leading Anglo-Saxon countries. — Is Beijing preparing to change its main regional adversary?
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online journal “New Eastern Outlook”.