China and the glass ceiling of diplomatic sophistication

China and the glass ceiling of diplomatic sophistication

The diplomatic sophistication of the People’s Republic of China has been evident from the innovative approach taken by senior Chinese officials in their repartee with other countries — but recent incidents demonstrate that this outward appearance is not all-encompassing.

In recent years, China’s rhetoric and increasingly sophisticated diplomatic efforts have received positive reception around the world. From State Councillor Yang Jiechi’s tacit communication to Vietnam over maritime disputes in 2014, to Vice Premier Wang Yang’s humorous opening speech at the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue the week after, China’s diplomatic outreach was beginning to show genuine signs that China’s increasing willingness to ‘play the game’ of international politics, demonstrated they were a great power proficient in both explicit and implicit forms of communication.

However, Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s recent explosive comments to a Canadian journalist when pressed on Chinese human rights underpin the reality that this façade only goes so far, and that China refuses to be lectured on its internal affairs. The outburst was a clear message to other countries that — if they want to engage productively with Beijing and reap the benefits offered by China’s booming economy — they should understand certain topics are taboo.

These remarks show Beijing is still unable to maintain the bravado of sophistication when it comes to sensitive issues that fall under the expanding term of Chinese internal affairs — or indeed any of their “core interests.”

The increasing sophistication of Chinese diplomacy

Diplomacy is often seen as the vehicle of foreign policy. The drivers of foreign policy and the principles upheld by nations should be borne in the minds of all diplomats when commenting on behalf of their respective countries.  

In China, one key driver of foreign policy is “buganshe” — or “non-intervention” — a policy which was originally one of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, the bedrock of relations between China and India agreed in 1954. Along with mutual respect for sovereignty, mutual non-aggression, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence, the principle of non-intervention has since come to form the cornerstone of overall Chinese external affairs.

Understanding the significance of this dynamic is imperative for any country or indeed investor wishing to engage and benefit from dialogue with 21st century China.

Nuanced diplomacy in action

In June 2014, two events acted as testament to this nuanced evolution in Chinese diplomatic efforts. The first was State Councillor Yang Jiechi’s comments in the heated Sino-Vietnam dispute over oil rigs. The second was Vice Premier Wang Yang’s comments made at the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in the same year. Together these examples marked the height of China’s new attempts to utilize the plethora of communicative tools available in international diplomacy and join the ranks of nations whom understand and exploit them.

Against the backdrop of an allegedly “assertive” China, and amidst a dispute over the Paracel Islands, State Councillor Yang Jiechi described Vietnam as a “prodigal son” that should “return home.” 

This reference initially appears charming. The use of “son” implies a compassionate, familial relationship between China and Vietnam. The specific use of the term “prodigal son,” an expression deriving from a famous idiomatic expression in Chinese, emphasizes a reading of kinship and respect in Yang’s remarks.

Despite this initial reading however, the true nature of the language is deliberately patronizing and insolent. Careful dissection reveals the use of “prodigal” — the semantic field of which includes words such as “improvident” — implies Vietnam’s behavior has been injudicious. This is coupled with the reference to Vietnam as China’s “son,” reiterating China’s control over Hanoi. Reinforcing this, the latter reference to “returning” is equally guised, denouncing Vietnam for straying from where they belong.

The use of implicit modes of communication meant that not only would Vietnam understand precisely what China wanted them to, but that the reception in the media portrayed Yang’s remarks as both a diplomatic and moral victory for China.

The second significant event was Vice Premier Wang Yang’s use of humor at the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in 2014. Humor is traditionally uncharacteristic for a Chinese official, yet in a meeting with U.S. Treasure Secretary Jacob Lew, Wang opened his speech with a joke: “Although the U.S. law permits same-sex marriage, this is not what Jacob Lew and I want.” The creation of a light-hearted atmosphere pleasantly surprised the American delegation and also took the sting out of subsequent, more serious, remarks.

Wang went on to say that the U.S. and China cannot divorce ‘like Wendi Deng and Rupert Murdoch have done’ as ‘it would be too big a price to pay.’ Wang also made further comical remarks in his uncertainty at what to expect before returning to the U.S. a decade after his first visit. ‘Well, in the past two days, I can see that the Americans are still taller than the Chinese and still have a stronger body and longer nose than the Chinese.’

Wang’s humor enabled the dialogue to begin productively, with both sides able to relax somewhat before discussing issues of no small importance. Wang’s comments received a largely positive reception – both at home and abroad. His rhetoric countered a rigid and serious manner often associated with Chinese leaders, which Qiao Mu of Beijing Foreign Studies University commended, stating “his style also suits the calls for officials to be more personable at home.” 

Additionally, Wang’s tactics were received positively in the U.S. where an unnamed senior U.S. official praised Wang’s ability to bridge the cross-cultural barrier: “Sometimes humor doesn’t translate into a foreign language, but I thought he showed a good sense of humor.”

Both of these examples – Yang in sending a clear message through tacit means and Wang’s strategic use of humour for mutual benefit – demonstrated China’s increasingly sophisticated proficiency in the art of diplomacy.

The glass ceiling – an unwillingness to discuss core interests

Two years on, in June 2016, when Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited recently elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Canada, a very different diplomatic style from a senior Chinese official was evident. During the question and answer session following the main address, a journalist directed a question to Canadian Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion that made references to concerns about China’s treatment of human rights. Following Dion’s initial reply, Wang weighed in with his own blunt and stern response directed at the journalist,  stating: “I have to say that your question is full of prejudice against China and arrogance… I don’t know where that comes from. This is totally unacceptable.”

This was not an accidental loss of temper on the part of the Chinese Foreign Minister, but in keeping with a broader communications strategy employed by Beijing where “good offense is the best defense.” It is in adherence with a more assertive foreign policy rhetoric which not only seeks to assert China’s “great power” status but also demonstrates that China’s core interests are strictly off the table in bilateral discussion. Certainly, although willing to engage in talks on a number of issues, Wang’s comments as a microcosm of Chinese foreign policy strategy wish to convey the reality that China will not listen, let alone budge, on certain internal affairs such as human rights.

Engagement with China on their terms

If other countries wish to engage with China, and reap the benefits Beijing is offering, they need to understand China’s core interests are matters of top priority.  The Chinese, ever since the early 1950s, have fronted the policy of non-intervention in others affairs as the centerpiece of their diplomacy and, in light of China’s development, a stalwart refusal to be lectured on their internal affairs will only grow stronger.

Engagement with China, as the US, UK, EU, and indeed many others have learned, is increasingly becoming a tightrope between securing economic benefit and voicing disapproval with Chinese behavior. In order to successfully engage with China, nations are going to have to find increasingly novel ways to raise their concerns with Beijing without being hammered in the media for keeping quiet for economic benefits.

At the same time, China’s ability to break through the glass ceiling of diplomatic sophistication on sensitive issues truly hinders China’s advancement in being able to ask things of others which — if its economy continues to slow — it may need to do so. If things stay as they are, diplomatic stalemate may be the only feasible outcome for China’s international relations.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Politics

About Author

James Tunningley

James Tunningley is a GRI Associate Analyst. He is the Director of the Young China Watchers in London having previously held positions at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies and the China-Britain Business Council. He is on the Young Leaders Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies Pacific Forum, a Fellow at the Royal Asiatic Society and a Junior Member of the Royal Society for Asian Affairs. He is a graduate of the University of Oxford.