Since late March, the list of international dignitaries visiting China has included the national leaders of Singapore, Malaysia, Spain, France, Brazil and Gabon, plus leaders of international organizations, including the IMF managing director, European Commission president and ASEAN secretary-general. Other high-level government officials came, too — the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Japan, New Zealand, Honduras and Equatorial Guinea. In fact, the Saudi and Iranian FMs visited Beijing twice in one month.
It may simply be a natural rebound after three years of the COVID-19 pandemic. But from the perspective of international politics and Chinese diplomacy, the following four factors may explain the phenomenon better:
• changes in the international order;
• countries’ emphasis on diplomatic autonomy;
• different countries’ needs for pragmatic cooperation with China;
• growing Chinese diplomatic influence against the backdrop of “dual circulation.”
Changes in the international order
According to my research, an outstanding characteristic of our time is that competition between civilizational entities is replacing major power political games as a new trend in a multipolar international order. It’s a long cycle of competition and cooperation among multiple civilizations, which may continue until the end of the century.
In this long cycle, the momentum of globalization will slow economically; supply and value chains will reorganize; and globalization will be replaced by bloc action. In the high-technology field, economic issues are increasingly treated as security issues, and the notion of strategic economy will the place of market economy.
Global economic connections and industrial division of labor will be reflected mainly at the middle and low ends of industrial chains and through low-sensitivity products. Culturally, individual civilizational circles will, on one hand, enhance their own cultural identification, while on the other hand highlighting their competitive differences from other civilizational circles.
Politically, relations between the United States and other Western nations will grow increasingly close based on values and outlooks on civilizations. They will form a new alliance of Western nations to suppress rising Asian countries. Militarily, the confrontational thinking of the U.S. and the rest of the West will intensify. They will attempt to expand their new alliance to suppress countries they dislike.
Diplomatic autonomy and pragmatism
The main reasons for the emergence of a pattern of multi-polarization centered on civilizational competition include the following:
• developing countries have surpassed developed ones in their proportion of the global economy;
• emerging economies represented by China have become major contributors to world economic growth and ask for a greater say in international affairs;
• as America’s overall strength declines, relatively speaking, neo-isolationism rises.
The willingness and capacity of the United States to lead the world has weakened, and it is turning from its status as a leading power in international affairs to an ordinary major power. Therefore, at home, the U.S. is bent on its domestic interests, while abroad it is carrying out so-called layered diplomacy — the core layer of which is composed of Anglo-Saxon nations. The next layer is Protestant-Catholic nations and the last is close-partner countries.
The pursuit of diplomatic autonomy has become a universal phenomenon, especially in core countries in each civilizational circle. They seek independent cultural identification and self-interest, or they strengthen diplomatic relations with countries in their own civilizational circle. India is typical of the former; Turkey is typical of the latter.
However, at a time of civilizational competition, conflicts and wars will be regional. The likelihood of a world war will be low, as countries are focused on economic and social progress. As COVID-19 comes to its end, the importance of the Chinese market and economy will become even more prominent in the global economic landscape. Therefore, enhancing economic cooperation with China has become a significant subject no country can afford to neglect. This is obvious not only in the historic high of China-U.S. trade in 2022 but also in the large number of agreements on economic cooperation that large business delegations — brought to China by Emmanuel Macron and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva — have taken home. Even the evidently pro-U.S. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock have stated that decoupling the European Union from China is neither feasible nor desirable. Baerbock said straight out that Germany would not decouple.
Chinese diplomatic influences
In more than four decades, Chinese comprehensive strength has risen rapidly; its global influence has expanded conspicuously. China’s economy has grown to become No. 2 globally. Facing a drop in external demand, which ordinarily dampens growth, China has proposed a new development pattern highlighting mutual promotion between domestic and international circulations. It emphasizes the role of domestic consumption in growth, and has increased its investments in high technologies of strategic significance.
In industrial and value chains, the middle and low-end industries continue to retain advantages. Meanwhile, Chinese technologies and businesses of global competitiveness in high-end industries (such as e-commerce, new-energy vehicles and 5G technologies) have mushroomed. Economic globalization is in China’s interest and conducive to other countries sharing the fruits of Chinese economic growth. China has therefore become a main driver and a contributor to global economic growth.
The rise of China means the rejuvenation of Chinese civilization. Realizing the Chinese dream inevitably demands carrying forward the tradition of harmonious co-existence with different cultures, enhancing cultural self-confidence, assimilating the fine achievements of other civilizations and building global mechanisms and a regional order that both have China’s own civilizational characteristics and are compatible with the international regime.
Therefore the Chinese government in the new era takes “a community with a shared future for mankind” as its core diplomatic philosophy. It strives to expand the Belt and Road Initiative and global partners network. It has proposed the Global Development Initiative, Global Security Initiative and Global Civilization Initiative to dovetail with the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to cope with new challenges in global security while promoting exchanges and mutual learning between civilizations.
Unlike the United States, which concentrates on forming many exclusive mechanisms characterized by “small yards and high walls,” China is dedicated to building a new type of international relations based on win-win cooperation. Chinese diplomatic initiatives and practices don’t exclude any country. They don’t intensify conflict, which is especially obvious in its efforts to promote peace in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, and in its openness when it comes to AIIB membership expansion.
Since the beginning of this year, with the pandemic ebbing, the Chinese economy has shown a conspicuous rebound. During the May Day holiday, the prosperity index of service industries — including tourism, transportation and catering — surpassed that of the same period in 2019. Multiple major international institutions have upgraded their projections for Chinese economic growth in 2023. IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva expressed confidence at the 2023 Bo’ao Forum for Asia that the Chinese economy’s contribution to world economic growth will rise above one-third this year.
To many countries, China has been an important driver and stabilizer of the world economy; it is therefore important to strengthen political and economic relations with China. This is another obvious aspect of the large-scale business entourages that presidents Macron and Lula brought to China for a visit.
Given the general blueprint of present-day Chinese diplomacy, “major countries are the key, neighboring countries are foremost, developing countries are the foundation and multilateral organizations are important.” At a time of competition between civilizations, all countries attach great significance to diplomatic autonomy. They have increasingly felt the inherent charm of Chinese diplomacy and the need for pragmatic cooperation with China. This has resulted in the post-pandemic tide of visits. Visitors have included people from such “major countries” as France, Germany, Brazil, and Spain; “neighboring countries” such as Laos, Singapore and Malaysia; developing countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Uruguay, Honduras, and Slovakia; and from multilateral institutions such as the BRICS group, the New Development Bank, the EU and ASEAN.