- By Tessa Wong
- Asia Digital Reporter, BBC News
Last Saturday, just hours after Xi Jinping sipped tea with Emmanuel Macron while calling for peace in Ukraine, fighter jets flew across the Taiwan Strait in a display of Chinese military might.
Aimed at intimidating Taiwan, China’s drills began the day after a state visit by the French president that marked a high point in Chinese diplomacy.
The jarring juxtaposition was the latest example of the two faces China has presented to the world – a dovish international peacemaker, and an attack dog baring its teeth to defend what it sees as its territory.
But can Beijing sustain this strategy?
On the diplomatic front, China has wasted no time since emerging from Covid isolation. In the last few months Xi Jinping has met Vladimir Putin; hosted several world leaders including Brazil’s president who arrived this week; sent top envoy to court Europe; and presented a 12-point solution to the Ukraine war.
Beijing also brokered a détente between Saudi Arabia and Iran in what is one of China’s biggest diplomatic coups; that it pulled this off in the Middle East, where US intervention has been mired in difficulties and failure, is especially significant.
At the same time, Beijing has unveiled various proposals for global security and development – a clear sign it is wooing the so-called “global south” as it did with the earlier Belt and Road initiative where it poured billions into other countries.
It has even appeared to town down its confrontational “Wolf Warrior” rhetoric by rotating out controversial diplomat Zhao Lijian, and promoting more even-tempered figures like Wang Yi and Qin Gang – though Mr Xi has continued to encourage his envoys to display a “fighting spirit”.
This diplomatic push positioning China as a key global powerbroker can trace its roots to the “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”, a long-held nationalist concept that sees the Middle Kingdom reclaiming its central position in the world.
More recently articulated by Mr Xi as the “Chinese Dream” when he first took power, it reflects the current leadership’s “confidence in their own path and approach in modernisation,” said Zhang Xin, an associate professor in politics and international relations at East China Normal University.
But it is not just about spreading the gospel of the Chinese way – much of it is also aimed at securing global economic ties.
“Mr Xi knows that you can’t rejuvenate a Chinese nation without a good economy,” says Neil Thomas, a fellow in Chinese politics at the Asia Society Policy Institute.
“China needs to keep growing while it acquires diplomatic influence. You can’t do that if you alienate the West, you still need to maintain good economic relations. That requires diplomacy, and stepping back from more ‘Wolf Warrior’ aspects.”
But the main reason for the recent flurry of diplomacy is that Beijing feels increasingly besieged.
Suspicion in the West has resulted in stronger defence alliances like Aukus and the Quad, and moves to restrict China’s access to advanced technology. In March, Mr Xi accused “Western countries led by the US” of “containment, encirclement and suppression of China, which has brought unprecedented severe challenges to our country’s development”.
It is a feeling that has heightened in the past year with the Ukraine war and the strengthened ties within Nato, noted Ian Chong, a non-resident fellow at Carnegie China.
“Beijing has realised the US has a lot of powerful friends. The Chinese feel this containment more, so it gives them greater impetus to break out of it,” he said.
This is why a key plank in China’s strategy is the “multi-polar world”, one that has multiple centres of power. Beijing touts this as an alternative to what it calls “US hegemony”, which it says has pushed countries to form power blocs and aggravates tensions.
This was evident during Mr Macron’s visit, when Mr Xi encouraged Europe to think of itself as an “independent pole” while echoing Mr Macron’s rhetoric about “strategic autonomy”.
While Beijing argues that a more balanced distribution of power would make the world safer, others see it as an attempt to lure countries away from the US’ orbit and shore up China’s influence.
China often highlights US foreign policy failures in Iraq and Afghanistan while projecting itself as a country without blood on its hands, implying it is a better candidate to lead the world. A common line in Chinese rhetoric is that Communist China has never invaded another country nor engaged in proxy wars.
But it annexed Tibet, went to war with Vietnam, and has been accused of territorial grabs in recent border clashes with India and in maritime disputes with several countries in the South China Sea. It also views self-ruled Taiwan as a breakaway province, and has vowed to claim it by using force if necessary.
So is the charm offensive working?
In the “global south” and other countries not closely aligned to China or the US, it would likely be welcomed. China is pitching a non-coercive mediation strategy, which would have “wide appeal”, said Dr Zhang.
This idea of non-interference would particularly resonate in states with authoritarian governments. “Many countries are not focused on democracy and human rights and China would be their champion in global governance,” said Dr Thomas.
But “whether they agree enough to stick their neck out for China is unknown,” pointed out Dr Chong. There are red lines they will not cross, as seen in the UN vote on the Ukraine war where most countries chose to condemn the invasion, while China abstained.
Meanwhile, traditional US allies such as Europe continue to debate how to handle China’s overtures.
Some do not appear easily swayed, like European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen who took a sterner tone with Mr Xi when she accompanied Mr Macron to the Chinese capital.
But others keen on preserving their countries’ economic relationships with China have been more open. During his trip, Mr Macron was treated lavishly by the Chinese, who welcomed him with an elaborate military parade. In an unusual step, Mr Xi personally accompanied him to the southern city of Guangzhou where he signalled they were “bosom buddies”.
Mr Macron later told reporters it would not be in Europe’s interest to engage on Taiwan and “get caught up in crises that are not ours”. He has since defended his comments, saying that being a US ally does not mean becoming its “vassal”. This is proof, to some, that Mr Xi’s courtship has worked.
Europe is becoming “the central battleground” of US-China relations and is a “swing state” where whoever it backs will come out on top, according to Dr Thomas.
But for now Mr Macron is an outlier among Europe’s leaders. His remarks sparked criticism and Germany has sent its foreign minister to Beijing to reinforce the EU’s harder stance on Taiwan.
While Europe is hedging its bets between the US and China, Dr Thomas said, “it knows the better bet is still with the US”.
It is on the topic of Taiwan, however, where China’s charm offensive starts to unravel.
Beijing’s latest military exercises – launched in response to Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen meeting top US official Kevin McCarthy last week – saw it deploy the usual array of tactics, sending warplanes and ships and simulating attacks on the island.
Taipei says Beijing has stepped up incursions into its air defence zone in recent years, with Chinese military aircraft flying hundreds of sorties every month.
Analysts say such moves undercut China’s claims of being a peacemaker. While others see it as military aggression, Beijing has always insisted these are defensive moves and, therefore, a domestic issue.
But a war over Taiwan would have global consequences, Dr Chong says. The island produces 60% of the world’s semiconductors, and sits at the crossroads of some of the busiest shipping lanes and submarine telecommunications cables that connect Europe to Asia.
China also cannot ignore the fact that if a conflict should break out it would be blamed, at least partially, for destabilising Asia.
Most observers believe China does not intend to invade Taiwan anytime soon. But the worry is that escalating military action could lead to a dangerous miscalculation and war with America, given Washington is committed to aid Taiwan’s defence should the island come under attack.
“Xi Jinping is trying to revive their [China’s] diplomatic presence while projecting strength on the Taiwan issue. It’s going to be increasingly difficult to walk the line between those objectives, as more countries become more concerned about China’s ability to attack Taiwan,” Dr Thomas.
As Beijing mounts its campaign to win over the world, it will also finds its actions under increasingly close scrutiny. Soon it may have to choose – to be the dove, or the dog.
Additional reporting by Grace Tsoi.