Mariano Caucino

China and the limits of detente

Facing the slowest economic growth since the launch of Deng Xiaoping´s reforms in 1978, China seems to be offering evidence of an attempted detente in its traumatic relationship with the United States.

According to observers, after having achieved an unprecedented third term as head of the People´s Republic, Xi Jinping could be showing signs of seeking to stabilize the link with the US and its Western allies.

The appointment of the new Minister of Foreign Affairs, Qin Gang, would be part of this device to withdraw from the confrontational “Wolf War Diplomacy” deployed by Beijing in recent years. Born in 1966, Qin is a seasoned diplomat who has served as ambassador to the US and  as deputy foreign minister.

Another change of personnel at the top would respond to the same purposes. Keen observers suggested dwelling on the removal of Zhao Lijian, until now a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry. Who, in his role as “spokesperson”, was the visible face of assertive and combative diplomacy. His move to a technical position -deputy director for maritime and ocean affairs- was seen as a sign of a new tactic aimed at easing tensions, although this does not imply a substantial change in Beijing’s long-term ambitions.

Perhaps the leaders of the CCP would be responding to a prudent exercise of temporary restriction of their power. Without this meaning an abandonment of their plans to place China in the first rows of global events. Leaving behind the long century of humiliation that followed the Opium Wars at the beginning of the 19th century and that lasted until the 1949 Revolution.

This interpretation holds that the cunning Chinese rulers are masterfully manipulating sophisticated clockwork mechanisms to temporarily adjust their long-term policies. And that, strictly speaking, Qin is essentially a cadre loyal to Xi belonging to a generation of relatively young diplomats trained to convey the supreme leader´s message abroad and protect national interests according to the different modalities that the time demands.

Eternal readers of reality and facts, the Chinese leaders are not unaware that despite their spectacular economic rise in the last four decades, the country remains subject to persistent objective limitations.

China has troubled relations with most of its neighbors. A reality that is added to a fact that is impossible to ignore. Because unlike the US — perhaps the most geographically blessed nation in all of history — China lives in a tough neighborhood, surrounded by nuclear powers. And while the US has two simple borders with Mexico and Canada and enjoys undisputed hegemony in the Western Hemisphere — protected by two vast oceans that separate them from European and Asian conflicts — the Chinese must live with a decidedly adverse geography.

An Australian intelligence report, leaked in recent days, noted that Beijing is “trying to make new friends” and “regain influence” in some capitals of the developed world. And to do so, it must demonstrate its ability to project a less threatening image to counteract the negative economic impact of its draconian COVID-zero policy. A position that could have been insinuated in the conciliatory tone used by Xi in his meeting with Joe Biden at the G20 summit in Bali (Indonesia).

A similar vision was offered by a report from the Financial Times, according to which the “reset” attempt responds to a “confluence” of social, economic and diplomatic tensions warned by the country’s leadership. And that — once he consolidated his power at the XX CCP Congress — Xi has indulged in a policy of course correction.

The expectation of reaching six percent growth in 2023 — a figure higher than that estimated by the International Monetary Fund — is at the center of these aspirations. At the same time, in the diplomatic field, it will force Beijing to try to moderate the costs of the association with Russia from the support for the invasion of Ukraine.

It is at this level that questions — for now underground — to the alliance with the Kremlin begin to be noticed. Which in other words can be summarized in the idea that the costs of endorsing the “Special Military Operation” launched against Kyiv could exceed its benefits, forcing a “reassessment” of the “unlimited friendship” between Beijing and Moscow.

The truth is that whatever Beijing’s intentions, on the other side of the world, natural concerns about China persist. A nation that is pointed out — along with Russia — as the greatest threat to the security of what is still the most powerful country on Earth.

It is on this plane that the North American actions in the Indo-Pacific region, the most relevant in the world today, must be read. A geography where the US seeks to strengthen its ties with powers such as Japan, India and the nations of Southeast Asia.

A concrete expression of this policy took place in the second week of January when the US and Japan signed a defense agreement that reaffirms the alliance that has bound them since the end of World War II.

An eight-decade friendship that was ratified during Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s visit to the White House, in which the Japanese sought support for his new national security strategy. A policy that reflects Tokyo´s understandable unease at the rise of Beijing. Suddenly a demonstration of the limitations of the appeasement attempts tried by the People’s Republic.

About the Author
Mariano Caucino was Argentine ambassador to Israel (2018-2019) and to Costa Rica (2016-2017).
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