Editor’s Note: A version of this story appeared in CNN’s Meanwhile in China newsletter, a thrice-weekly update exploring what you need to know about the country’s rise and how it’s affecting the world. Register here.
After three years of largely self-imposed isolation on the world stage, China is looking to ramp up its diplomatic offensive and regain lost ground – while hardening its public stance on its superpower rival, the United States.
Qin Gang, Beijing’s new foreign minister, stated on Tuesday that “China’s diplomacy has pressed the accelerator,” citing the country’s recovery from the pandemic and the resumption of international exchanges.
That reach will be bolstered by a 12.2% increase in the Chinese government’s budget for diplomatic spending this year. It’s a drastic jump from the zero-Covid era when China’s borders were largely closed: in 2020, China cut its diplomacy budget by 11.8%, before slightly increasing it by 2.4% in 2022.
This year’s budget, pegged at 54.84 billion yuan (about $8 billion), remains below its pre-pandemic peak, but experts say it represents a significant increase for China to resume and extend its diplomatic engagement with the world. to expand. By comparison, in the US, the requested 2023 budget for “international affairs,” listed on the State Department’s website, was $67 billion.
And the money will not only be used to fund diplomatic trips. According to China’s Ministry of Finance, the umbrella term “diplomatic spending” covers a wide range of areas, from budgets for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Chinese embassies and consulates to China’s participation in international organizations, foreign aid and external propaganda.
Alfred Wu, an associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, noted that China is likely to spend more on propaganda efforts targeting a foreign audience to serve Beijing’s diplomatic interests, including through Chinese social media apps.
“For example, they are trying to expand their influence in different countries, such as Singapore and Malaysia, through WeChat, targeting those who speak the Chinese language,” Wu said.
Experts also question whether part of the increase is due to the debt burden and repayment problems faced by countries under Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s signature overseas development initiative, known as the Belt and Road.
“Even if interest and principal payments are suspended, there will still be a big gap,” said Yun Sun, director of the China program at Washington-based think tank Stimson Center.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Belt and Road, and Chinese leaders are likely to travel the world to talk about its successes, Sun said. “That usually means more diplomatic expenses like aid and gift packages,” she said.
China will host the third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation this year, after a long delay due to the pandemic. It will also host the first face-to-face summit between Xi and leaders from five Central Asian countries.
“China wants to catch up and do more to make up for lost time and opportunity,” Sun said.
And China still has a lot of catching up to do, at least in terms of stabilizing relations with developed countries.
Global surveys by the Pew Research Center have shown that public opinion of China in advanced economies has become “suddenly more negative” since 2017, due to concerns over Beijing’s human rights record and the military buildup in the South China Sea, with the most dramatic declines between 2019 and 2020.
Opinions have only worsened since the pandemic, in part due to a perception that China mishandled the initial outbreak of Covid in Wuhan, according to a Pew survey released last year.
A notable shift in China’s diplomatic efforts is a more forceful approach in pushing back against the US publicly – from the top of the Chinese leadership.
In unusually direct remarks on Monday, Xi accused the US of leading a campaign to suppress China and cause its grave domestic woes.
“Western countries led by the United States have comprehensively restrained and oppressed us, which has put an unprecedented threat to our development,” Xi told a group of government advisers representing private companies on the sidelines of an annual legislative meeting in Beijing. .
China’s top leader usually avoids directly attacking the US in public, even as bilateral relations have deteriorated sharply. He generally refers only to “western countries” or “some developed countries” when making critical remarks about Washington.
Xi’s blunt rebuke of US policy was echoed on Tuesday by Qin, the foreign minister, who said US competition with China is really about “containment and suppression” and “a zero-sum game of life and death”.
“If the United States does not apply the brakes, but continues to go down the wrong path, no guardrail can prevent a derailment, and conflicts and confrontations are sure to arise,” Qin warned.
For longtime observers of Chinese politics, the sharpened rhetoric is sounding alarm bells for already tense US-China relations, with no sign of de-escalation in sight.
“It certainly feels like the (Chinese) side has decided to take it to the next level in responding much more forcefully to what it sees as unfair US allegations and actions,” wrote Bill Bishop, author of the Sinocism newsletter.
With Xi – the most powerful Chinese leader in decades – lashing out directly at the US, China’s entire bureaucracy and propaganda machine is expected to take notice and strictly follow suit.
Temperatures aren’t likely to cool in Washington either, given the consensus across the aisle to be tough on China and harden the perception of the American public. According to a Gallup poll released Tuesday, a record low of 15% of Americans are positive about China in 2023, down 5% from last year and down 38% since 2018. More than eight in the 10 American adults now have negative views of China, the poll said.
“Expect the US and China to deteriorate faster,” Bishop wrote. “I fear we are entering a much more dangerous period in US-China relations.”
Since late last year, some observers have noted Beijing’s softening tone on foreign affairs as it ramped up its diplomacy with Western governments following Xi’s spate of meetings with Western leaders at the G20 summit in Indonesia.
The demotion of belligerent foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian and the promotion of Qin – a distinguished former ambassador to the US – to foreign minister were seen by some as a signal that China was moving away from the diplomacy of the “wolf warrior,” the aggressive style of Beijing’s envoys in recent years.
When asked about that perceived shift Tuesday, Qin criticized the “wolf warrior” diplomacy as a “narrative trap.”
“Those who coined the term and set the trap either know little about China and its diplomacy, or have a hidden agenda without regard to facts,” Qin said. “In China’s diplomacy, there is no lack of goodwill and kindness. But if they come face to face with jackals or wolves, Chinese diplomats have no choice but to confront them head-on and protect our motherland.”
To Sun, the Stimson Center expert, the tone of Qin’s comments didn’t come as a surprise — it just aligns with China’s established lines on foreign policy, she said. “I think it’s assertive and prickly, but not as aggressive as the wolf warrior diplomacy.”
Wu, the expert in Singapore, meanwhile, said he had not seen much softening in Beijing’s diplomatic outreach. “Qin Gang may be a bit softer than Wang Yi,” he said, referring to Qin’s predecessor who was recently promoted to Xi’s top foreign policy advisor.
“But Wang is the No. 1 official in diplomacy. They are still following Xi’s instructions to show their ‘fighting spirit’ – to proactively go out to fight enemy forces against China.”