Foreign minister’s press briefing showcases Beijing’s balancing act

China Plus Published: 2018-03-09 17:29:57
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By Brady Fox

While the focus of the annual session of China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) is largely domestic, it also serves as a means for Beijing to signal its intentions and trajectory to the rest of the world. For this purpose, foreign minister Wang Yi hosted a press conference on China’s foreign policy on the side of the March 8th session.

Unsurprisingly, questions on the US-China relationship dominated the session. China has recently been a focus point for US President Donald Trump as he announced plans to introduce tariffs on steel and aluminum imports into the United States. He has also broadly criticized China as a threat to US economic and strategic interests.

The graphic shows the four events to be held in China this year, of which Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi introduced the main highlights at a press conference on the sidelines of the annual session of the National People's Congress in Beijing, China, March 8, 2018. [Photo: Xinhua]

The graphic shows the four events to be held in China this year, of which Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi introduced the main highlights at a press conference on the sidelines of the annual session of the National People's Congress in Beijing, China, March 8, 2018. [Photo: Xinhua]

While Wang positioned China strongly against US tariffs, stating that “choosing a trade war is surely the wrong prescription, in the end you will only hurt others and yourself,” his widely-quoted remark that “China will certainly make an appropriate and necessary response” is actually took a softer tone than previous Chinese government statements. Instead, he sought to emphasize the reciprocal benefits of US-China trade, and also cited a Gallup public opinion poll which suggested China’s standing among the American public is at a 30-year high. The choice to emphasize positivity and cooperation is consistent with Beijing’s stance.

China’s position is also consistent with much of the international community, as other stalwart US trade partners such as Canada and Mexico have grappled with US threats of harsh protectionist economic policies and zero-sum game approach to trade.

Washington’s threat of near-blanket tariffs on aluminum and steel is likely simply an opening salvo, and Trump will presumably aim to negotiate more favourable deals on a country-by-country basis. How China chooses to negotiate here will be telling for the relationship moving forward. While the emphasis on cooperation and mutual reciprocity may not be convincing from Washington’s current perspective, President Xi Jinping has displayed an ability to get Trump’s ear. The importance of the personal relationship between the leaders of the world’s largest economies again moves to the forefront.

Wang also downplayed broader concerns and maintained course Chinese senior officials’ stance on China’s rise and the US relationship. He directly dismissed the “China threat theory,” popular in some circles in Washington, stating “some Americans allege that China will displace the United States’ role in the world. This conclusion is fundamentally wrong.” He emphasized that some competition is natural between countries, and that “China and the United States can be competitors, or even partners, but not rivals.”

Beijing’s actions over the previous year support his statement, as they have sought to build a strong relationship with the Trump administration. Alongside a grand welcome to Trump in Beijing last year, China has sent several special envoys to Washington since Trump’s inauguration. China’s President Xi Jinping emphasized the importance of US-China cooperation on his own visit to the United States in April 2017.

Outside of the US-China relationship, Wang spoke on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The BRI is a critical piece in China’s grand vision for an international world order centered on shared economic growth, and Wang took the opportunity to emphasize that it also seeks to maintain international norms on transparency, standards and regulations. He also requested input from all parties on how to make the BRI a success. 

Still in its infancy, the BRI remains an initiative with tremendous potential and impact but many unknowns. Were there less urgency in the US-China relationship, the Belt and Road Initiative may have been a centrepiece of this press briefing. That is almost certainly what Wang would have preferred. For now, China’s goal moving forward will be to gain buy-in from participant and observer countries. Expect clarification on goals and methods to ramp up later this year.

On the Korean peninsula, Wang emphasized that the US and North Korea should take advantage of the current window of opportunity and try hold talks soon. While tensions have eased following the Olympics, and North Korea has thus far been uncharacteristically quiet about upcoming US-South Korea military drills, there is a sense of urgency over the current calm.

Wang also stressed the importance of building relationships with Japan, India, and ASEAN and spoke warmly about China’s relationship with Russia. It will be crucial for China to balance basic relationships with these countries and blocs alongside promoting its own transformative vision through the Belt and Road Initiative.

And so as Wang navigated the questions, one of China’s chief quandaries appears: as it takes on a larger share of global leadership, senior officials are enthusiastic about making contributions and changes to the international systems in terms of norms, centres, and trajectory. This is not a surprise. But at the same time, a shift to protectionism and revolt against major international commitments from the United States has forced China to take on a greater role in maintaining the status quo. 

Success will require being both a pillar of stability and an agent for change. Beijing, famous for its acrobats, must now showcase its balancing act.

(Brady Fox is a Canadian expert on Asia Pacific affairs.)

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