Beijing’s flurry of diplomatic activity shows a desire to strengthen regional ties and prevent US-imposed isolation
by Timur Fomenkothe political analyst
Since the conclusion of the 20th Party Congress, China has been on a diplomatic roll. In the past week alone, it has hosted the prime minister of Pakistan, the leader of Vietnam, and Germany’s Olaf Scholz, while sending its vice premier to Singapore, where 19 bilateral deals were inked. The president of Tanzania, Samia Suluhu Hassan, then followed.
The party congress is China’s most important political event of all, where Beijing determines its agenda and sets the direction for the following year. So it is natural that many things are “put on hold” until after the gathering concludes.
Then, immediately afterwards, the call to action follows, and, on the international stage, China has a lot of work to put in and a lot of catching up to do. The most pressing matter is the US drive to demonize Beijing and contain its rise, and the building of coalitions of countries dedicated to doing just that.
We’ve seen the ‘Quad’, the ‘Indo-Pacific Framework’, AUKUS, ‘Partners for a blue Pacific’ – the list goes on. Washington has also placed unprecedented levels of sanctions on Chinese technology in a bid to try to curb its national development.
China is under pressure. But lashing out has never been in Beijing’s foreign policy playbook. Instead, it prefers to go on the diplomatic offensive, and that’s what it’s doing here. China’s goal is not to fight with the US, but to indirectly undermine Washington’s goals through an offensive charm to countries it deems important.
And these countries – including Germany, Singapore, Vietnam, Pakistan, and Tanzania – are critical to China’s agenda in various ways.
First of all, China wants to keep Europe on board, especially at a time when the US is pushing the continent to take sides with it against Beijing. It wants to keep economic ties open and prevent decoupling. Germany, as the largest and most influential state in the EU, is critical to that effort. The government in Berlin and the country’s business leaders hold a common interest in this, and Scholz’s visit to Beijing was undertaken despite overwhelming opposition from US-linked media and think tanks.
Secondly, Singapore. The Lion City may be small, but it is a critical financial and technological center in Southeast Asia that is an indispensable partner for China. It is friendly to the US, but also views China positively. Amongst the 19 bilateral deals signed this week, some technology involved. Singapore is very influential in keeping Southeast Asia and the rest of the region open to China.
Thirdly, Vietnam. As China’s neighbor and a fellow communist state, the relationship with Hanoi is a very important one. It’s also a complicated one. The two sides have a huge territorial dispute over the South China Sea and popular Vietnamese sentiment is overwhelmingly unfavourable towards China. It is no surprise that the US eyes it as a potential quasi-ally in trying to contain Beijing.
However, the willingness of Vietnam’s leader to come immediately following the party conference signals that, wing to ideology, Hanoi is still willing to bestow its blessing on China’s political system, something that it cannot replicate with the US. Vietnam does not want to be strategically dominated by China, but it cannot truly trust the US either. History doesn’t lie. Vietnam’s continuing neutrality is thus an important point for Beijing.
Fourthly, Pakistan. Owing to geography, Pakistan is one of China’s most strategically critical partners, as it provides a route from China itself down to the Western Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and therefore, by extension, Europe. This is precisely why the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) strives to maximize the country’s infrastructure to make it an economic thoroughfare for China, thwarting any potential attempt to impose a naval embargo around its periphery and bypass India.
It comes as no surprise that on Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s visit to Beijing, the focus of the visit was on CPEC and the two sides’ recommitment to it. It is worth noting that Sharif is subtly more pro-Western than his predecessor, Imran Khan, meaning China has to keep Pakistan incentivized as the country wrestles with fiscal and humanitarian crises.
Finally, Tanzania. Unlike the other parties, the US is not making a serious effort to win over African countries against China because the continent is not a priority, and most of its promises in terms of aid and development have been hollow. China, meanwhile, chooses to make a point of inviting African leaders to Beijing in order to demonstrate its longstanding close ties and solidarity with the continent. African countries find an audience in China they do not find with the West. In setting up these meetings, Xi Jinping will aim to continue to promote favorable trade and investment relations with Tanzania to champion the message of shared development and ‘South-South’ relations.
In conclusion, China is ramping up its diplomatic game. The US wants to tighten the noose of containment, and Beijing believes the best way out of it is to keep as many countries on board as possible and deepen its economic and trade integration with them. This is why China’s most important neighbors – Singapore, Vietnam, and Pakistan – as well as its most critical partner in Europe – Germany – were first and highest on the agenda. To wrap it up, China has also demonstrated that it continues to prioritize relations with African countries, which the West neglects.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.