written by Carl Michel Reischel, President, Sciences Po Paris
On 5th May 2020, a border conflict erupted between the Republic of India and the People’s Republic of China. It’s the first time in three decades that China’s People’s Liberation Army fought on foreign soil. Not only does this incident mark one of many new approaches and changes in China’s foreign policy, it also paints a more assertive picture of the Middle Kingdom and raises the question of a changing Chinese foreign policy.
Since the 1970s, with the opening of Chinese diplomatic relations to the world many things have changed in China’s approach towards foreign relations. The current Chinese president, also chair of the Chinese Community Party (CCP) Xi Jinping, has changed many long-lasting foreign policy principles such as the traditional view of China’s centre point in the world and China’s restrained foreign policy ambitions.
The Chinese approach has become more offensive since the Coronavirus outbreak. Indeed, the People’s Republic has used the chaos caused by the pandemic to push their agenda further and to export the supposed benefits of the Chinese political system. Nevertheless, China’s growing influence in the World Health Organisation has led President Donald Trump to announce that the US would sever its relationship with the organisation. Relations between the US and China, already damaged due to the Trump Presidency, have worsened due to a lack of transparency on the origins of the coronavirus.
Chinese diplomats and military officials have also shown a bolder, more assertive use of rhetoric and language, mirrored by an increasing criticism towards western diplomacy and their crisis response. The PRC has gained massive criticism from abroad for tightening the grip over Hong Kong with its new national security law, essentially abolishing the former British colony’s semiautonomous status and for its crackdown on the Muslim Uighur minority in the province of Xinjiang — characterized by some as ethnic cleansing. The CCP’s image abroad seems to be less important for the party than before.
Amid growing tensions with the US, Beijing has also become more confident, especially in territorial disputes and claims. Chinese presence in the South China Sea has increased, with more patrols around the Diaoyu islands and a growing presence near the costs of Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia. China has also announced four new exercises in the last month aimed at “the current security situation across the Taiwan Strait”, increasing flights near the coast of Taiwan — evoking concerns for the island and the international community. Territorial claims have also spread on the opposite part of China. For the first time in 40 years an armed border conflict with India and Bhutan has erupted in May 2020.
Whereas the Trump administration has taken a quite offensive approach, taking action and measures against China, the EU and its member states have decided to take a more defensive stance. Amidst the negotiation of an investment agreement, the EU-China annual summit in June showed differences in major questions over human rights, Hong Kong, and 5G technology.
The European commission is also putting in place a screening process for Foreign Direct Investment, aiming at reducing the political influence of Chinese state-owned enterprises. Europeans have also been worried about China’s influence through the Belt and Road initiative (BRI), a multi-billion infrastructure project, said to increase trade and exchange with countries from Asia to Europe.
Xi Jinping’s grip on foreign policy seems to have increased in the last couple of months — putting the decision-making process in the hands of fewer and closer allies of the chairman, centralizing Chinese foreign policy.
All of these events show that some change has happened in China’s foreign policy.
Nevertheless, time and a more thorough analysis is needed to show whether a deep shift in China’s foreign policy has occurred or not, but it can be said that, since the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic, China has become more assertive in its foreign policy approach — forcing external players such as the EU and the US to rethink their policies and adapt to an increasingly present and dominant China.
Carl Michel Reischel is pursuing a master’s degree in European Affairs at Sciences Po Paris — where he is the president and co-founder of the European Horizons chapter. He previously studied at Saarland University, Université de Lorraine and Sciences Po where he received a degree in German & French Studies and a certificate in European Studies. His main academic interests include EU Trade and Foreign Policy, EU-China Relations and Brexit.