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China seeks to tone down assertive diplomacy that ‘backfired,’ US official says

A health worker prepares to take a swab sample from a woman to test for COVID-19 in Shanghai. (Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)
December 09, 2022

China’s assertive diplomacy in recent years has “backfired” and Beijing now seeks a more predictable relationship with the U.S. as the country’s economy slows and the government tries to loosen its strict COVID-19 curbs, the Biden administration’s top Asia official said.

Elements of China’s aggressive “wolf warrior” diplomacy have clearly been unsuccessful, while efforts to challenge Japan over islands in the East China Sea and engage in military confrontations with India in Himalayas have hurt Beijing’s standing in the world, said Kurt Campbell, who is the White House coordinator for the Indo-Pacific.

“They’ve taken on and challenged many countries simultaneously — whether it’s, you know, Japanese waters around the Senkakus, issues associated with India’s border areas, other exploits that suggest perhaps a more ambitious China,” Campbell said at the Aspen Security Forum in Washington on Thursday. “I think they recognize that that has, in many respects, backfired.”

Campbell’s comments are some of his most detailed since Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Joe Biden met on the sidelines of a Group of 20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, in November. He said that Washington and Beijing want to stabilize ties, especially with the two countries’ militaries operating in close proximity in Asia.

“As our forces rub up against one another, we want a greater degree of predictability and communication between Beijing and Washington,” he added. “The last thing that the Chinese need right now is an openly hostile relationship with the United States. They want a degree of predictability and stability, and we seek that as well.”

Campbell said that the coming months will see the “resumption of some of the more practical, predictable elements” of great-power diplomacy.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who was part of the meetings in Bali, is set to head on an official diplomatic visit to China in early 2023 — a trip that was announced after Xi and Biden met.

‘Enormous’ challenges

Campbell said it was clear that Xi had a “very commanding presence and position in China” after emerging from the 20th Communist Party Congress, where the Chinese leader stacked the country’s top decision-making body with loyalists and secured an extremely rare third term as president.

But Campbell also said that China’s more aggressive actions in recent years have encouraged countries that “would have been more ambivalent” to engage much more deeply with the U.S., and that China’s ability to project soft power — including cultural influence — around the world has been hurt.

He said China faces “enormous domestic challenges” as a result of a slowing economy that has been hit hard over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic by strict protocols that have seen major cities and factories locked down repeatedly.

After these COVID-19 measures prompted the most serious coordinated national protests against the government since the Tiananmen rallies in 1989, Chinese officials have begun loosening pervasive curbs, prompting warnings from some health experts that China could see a tsunami of new cases.

Asked about how China’s relaxed COVID restrictions would change China politically or economically, Campbell said US officials have reached out to China to engage on those issues and that the White House remains “deeply focused” on how the situation unfolds.

“There is a degree of uncertainty here that frankly no one knows,” Campbell said. “And those questions that are being asked in Washington are probably also being asked in Beijing.”


© 2022 Bloomberg L.P

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