China’s ‘Look the US in the Eye’ diplomacy

opinionChina’s ‘Look the US in the Eye’ diplomacy

The ‘look the world in the eyes diplomacy’ has replaced the ‘bide your time and hide your capabilities’ paradigm of the yesteryears.

On 10 November, Hua Chunying, the spokesperson of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that “At the invitation of U.S. President Joe Biden, President Xi Jinping will be in San Francisco from November 14 to 17 for a China-U.S. summit meeting and the 30th APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting”. As could be discerned, the emphasis is on the summit meeting, not the APEC. This is in sync with Chinese scholars arguing that it is the US officials who are streaming to China to seek out China, not the other way around. It started with Secretary of State Antony Blinken in June, followed by Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and the presidential climate envoy John Kerry in July, and the Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo in September. These visits, according to Jin Canrong, professor of international relations at the Renmin University, were “tactical” (战术性) rather than strategic (战略性) aimed to “ease off” (缓和) tensions and preventing the “spiralling down” (螺旋下降) of the China-US relations. The “easing off the tension” meetings, nonetheless, resulted in Wang Yi’s US visit in late October, the precursor to President Xi Jinping’s US visit.

According to the White House readout of President Joe Biden’s meeting with President Xi Jinping, both sides expected to “manage competition responsibly to prevent it from veering into conflict.” Some of the takeaways from the summit included the cooperation to combat global illicit drug manufacturing and trafficking, including synthetic drugs like fentanyl, the resumption of high-level military-to-military communication, addressing the risks of advanced AI systems through intergovernmental talks, and expansion of educational, student, youth, cultural, sports, and business etc. people to people exchanges. 

The differences in the readout far outweigh the cooperation, which could be gleaned through the US’ ironclad commitment to defending its Indo-Pacific allies, concerns regarding PRC’s human rights abuses, including in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong, opposition to any unilateral changes to the status quo in Taiwan, PRC’s unfair trade policies, and preventing advanced US technologies from being used to undermine US national security. Xi Jinping, on the other hand, was looking at US-China on an equal level when he said that “great power competition will not solve the problems China, the US, and the world face. This planet is big enough for both China and the US…”; nevertheless it also revealed his sensitivities as regards China’s path, system and theory when he said China’s doesn’t engage in ideological confrontation with any country, and emphasised the importance of mutual respect, peaceful coexistence, and win-win cooperation—Xi’s three points for building a new type of great power relationship. 

The Chinese sensitivities are pointer to the structural contradictions between the US and China that sprawls into areas such as relative force structure, political system, civilizational and racial identity. Chinese scholars like Jin Canrong maintain that China-US relations have entered the protracted “game of the century” (世纪博弈) and the fundamental reason for this is that the US cannot digest the rise of China, for the US has the Darwinist mind-set and thinking that the US is capable of halting the rise of China. It is under such a thinking that China has formulated “Look the US in the Eye” diplomacy (平视外交) since early 2021. 

We may recall CPC General Secretary Xi Jinping declaring on the sidelines of the “Two Sessions” in March 2021 that “China can now look the world in the eye.” Soon after these remarks, on 19th March during the US-China meeting in Anchorage, Alaska, Yang Jiechi, Director of the Office of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission bluntly told the US that the “United States is not qualified (没有资格) to speak to China from a position of strength (居高临下). The Chinese do not accept such a trick (不吃这一套).” On 23 April 2021, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, during a video exchange with the US Council on Foreign Relations reiterated that “Some in the United States claim that China does not respect the United States any more. As a matter of fact, it is China that values mutual respect and equality the most. When we stress ‘looking at each other on an equal level’ (平视) , we mean nothing but equality. It is neither looking down (俯视), or looking up (仰视). Stronger muscles and bigger fists should not be the decisive factor. There is no superior country in this world, and we do not accept that any country can dictate to others from a position of strength.” 

Yan Xuetong, one of the authorities on international relations in China, reciprocated the above formulations on 11 July 2021 in an interview when he said that China’s diplomatic style in the New Era has changed to “look the world in the eyes diplomacy” and countries need to gradually adapt to it. He said the “look the world in the eyes diplomacy” has replaced the “bide your time and hide your capabilities” paradigm of the yesteryears. He posits that after 2017 there was no way for China to hide its national strength, but to take initiative and take centre stage to compete with the US and Western countries, especially when they positioned China as their biggest strategic competitor. 

The Anchorage outburst has been deemed as a necessary sermon to the US to change its “old habit” (老毛病). Huawei CFO Meng Wangzhou’s release was also termed as a major victory for “look the US in the eye” diplomacy. The same has also been portrayed as making China discourse power better heard globally. For example, on 7 March 2023, Qin Gang, former Foreign Minister of China said to the youths of China that “Our 5,000-year civilization and our achievements in modernization are the source of such confidence. I hope that young people will foster greater ambition, grit and determination through practice. I hope you will look the world in the eye (平视这个世界) and have dialogue with the world on an equal footing to share your unique perspectives, make your voices heard, and tell the world who you are.”

Yan Xuetong, like most of the Chinese scholars, believes that the US has increasingly become a complex external variable affecting China’s future development. The strategic game between China and the United States has increased in intensity and breadth. In view of this, China will continue to maintain strategic initiative, forge ahead, and unswervingly guide China-US relations to evolve in the direction of no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation, a part of the “new security concept” that evolved during the reform period. 

The confidence to “look the US in the eyes” according to Yan, emanates from the development China witnessed in the last four decades. He upholds that in terms of human development, the past 40 years have been the best period in the 4,000 years of Chinese history. Since the 2008 financial crisis, China has contributed more than one-third to world economic growth. Ruan Zongze, executive vice president and researcher of the China Institutes of International Studies, echoes Yan’s view and argues that with this kind of economic strength “China will have an increasingly important voice in the global economy and the right to formulate global trade and investment rules. This has laid a more solid foundation for national rejuvenation and provided an important guarantee for China to lead (引领) the world’s major changes and shape the external environment (塑造外部环境).” 

Ruan reciprocates Yan’s argument by maintaining that China’s attitude towards the world is inevitable due to the great changes of a century, and the great historical leap it has taken. He says this demonstrates the global significance of the Chinese Dream and provides the confidence for China’s “look the US in the eye” diplomacy. Echoing what Yang Jiechi spelled out at the Anchorage meeting, he insists that the “American ‘leadership’ of the world is a fictional narrative (虚构叙事).” In fact, the US has never “led” the world, therefore, there is no question of the US “leading it again.” The “hemispheric hegemonic order” (半球霸权秩序) according to Ruan, is limited to the US and its allies. Even if the entire population of Western countries is added together, it would be about 1 billion people. They are a minority in the world and are not qualified to “represent” the world at all. He believes the American soul is sick (灵魂已病), and to “heal” it would not be easy. Therefore, rather than harping on the so-called “democracy and human rights” and to arbitrate on Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Taiwan etc., affairs, the US must be worried about its own “civil war situation” (内战状态).

The last thing the US wants to see is China’s peaceful and stable development, which could be discerned from Trump’s “maximum pressure” (极限施压) to Biden’s “containment through alliances,” (联盟围堵), argues Ruan. In future too, the US is more likely to further interfere in China’s internal affairs and engage in strategic blackmail (战略敲诈). Ruan posits that since China-US relations have entered a stage of strategic stalemate (战略相持), therefore, equal treatment and mutual respect is the key to ameliorate the situation. Since the path, theory, system and culture is deemed important to realise the “Two Centenary Goals” and the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, any challenge to these would be fought resolutely until the final victory. The “Emperor’s New Clothes” of the United States and the West should have been exposed long ago, says Ruan. It is in the backdrop of such strategic stalemate with the US that China has unfolded its “Look the US in the Eye” diplomacy on the one hand and initiated a powerful power discourse by rolling out concepts such as “Building of community with a shared future for mankind” and the “New Type of International Relations”—the two pillars of Chinese diplomacy in the new era on the other. 

B.R. Deepak is Professor, Center of Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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