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Xi Jinping’s Diplomacy Is Shifting from Offense to Defense

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China Power | Diplomacy | East Asia

Xi Jinping’s Diplomacy Is Shifting from Offense to Defense

In the face of strong diplomatic headwinds, Xi seems to be deciding his time is better spent focused on shoring up regime security at home.

Xi Jinping’s Diplomacy Is Shifting from Offense to Defense
Credit: Depositphotos

While U.S. President Joe Biden has repeatedly expressed his willingness to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping, there has been no definitive response from Beijing. On September 4, however, China’s Ministry of State Security (MSS) published an article laying out the conditions for a Biden-Xi meeting.

In part, the MSS stated that in order “to truly achieve ‘from Bali to San Francisco,’” the United States must “show enough sincerity.” (“Bali” refers to the meeting between Biden and Xi that took place on the Indonesian island during last October’s APEC summit, while “San Francisco” refers to the widely speculated possible meeting between Biden and Xi at this year’s APEC summit to be held in San Francisco in November.)

The unusual move by China’s MSS has so far gone largely unnoticed by the international media. In general, it is normal for a government agency of any country to make statements regarding the diplomatic affairs in which it is involved. What is unusual is for a security or intelligence agency, even if it is involved in diplomatic affairs, to interfere in decisions on such high-level matters as the conditions for meeting with the head of state of a very important foreign nation.

Given that under Xi Jinping’s political leadership, Chinese officials dare not act recklessly, let alone overstep their bounds, it is even more unusual for the MSS to publicly comment on the most critical current international affairs of China’s most important international relations. Given these dynamics, we can infer that Xi instructed his long-time confidant, Minister of State Security Chen Yixin, to lead the security department’s involvement in diplomatic affairs.

This move reveals certain changes in Xi’s diplomatic approach.

Allowing the high-profile involvement of the national security apparatus in diplomatic affairs means that Xi Jinping is placing national security at the center of his foreign policy. In other words, he is integrating diplomacy into his national security framework. For Xi, the concept of national security primarily encompasses the security of his personal power, followed by the security of the Chinese Communist Party’s rule, and what he perceives as the security of China’s core national interests in international relations.

We have seen how deeply obsessed Xi Jinping is with a security-conscious approach. Even when he realized that the most important pillar of the CCP’s legitimacy – economic prosperity – was under strain, he continued to implement security policies that curtailed market freedoms, targeted Chinese private entrepreneurs and international investors, and actually had a negative impact on economic recovery. For example, he launched a nationwide anti-spying campaign that has made every Chinese citizen who interacts with foreigners, including ordinary people, feel insecure.

At its core, national security is a defensive concept, and embedding diplomacy within the framework of national security almost certainly suggests that Xi Jinping’s foreign policy approach may shift from an offensive to a defensive posture in the foreseeable future.

There are signs that Xi increasingly feels that the current diplomatic environment poses a threat to his and the Chinese Communist Party’s political security. About a decade ago, Xi, in conversations with then-U.S. President Barack Obama, spoke of China being the target of “color revolutions.” More recently, at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Uzbekistan last September, he called on Russia and other members of a regional grouping to help each other prevent foreign powers from instigating “color revolutions.” By blaming American containment for China’s faltering economy, Xi is trying to prevent the dire economic situation from undermining his rule and is attempting to reignite nationalism to consolidate his power.

Xi’s ongoing struggle to consolidate power and defend against “color revolutions” and economic collapse orchestrated by the West, especially the United States, are inextricably intertwined. Repression at home and aggressiveness in overseas affairs have been two sides of the same coin. Likewise, thwarting the infiltration of Western ideas, information, and “bad” money from the U.S. within China, and defeating the U.S. in a global struggle between the superpowers have been two sides of the same coin in Xi’s strategy for China-U.S. relations. But now, at least for the time being, Xi may find it more important to focus on the former than the latter.

This assessment is supported by Xi’s recent diplomatic actions. For instance, he chose not to attend the important G-20 summit in India from September 9-10, instead sending Premier Li Qiang to represent him. During the same period, Xi visited flood-hit areas in northeast China for an inspection.

He also did not attend the 8th Eastern Economic Forum hosted by Russian President Vladimir Putin in the southeastern port city of Vladivostok on September 12; instead, Xi sent Vice Premier Zhang Guoqing on his behalf. It remains to be seen whether Xi will attend the APEC summit in San Francisco this autumn and meet with Biden.

Indeed, so far this year Xi Jinping has made just two trips abroad, far below his pre-pandemic average. This may mark the beginning of Xi’s shift away from the active diplomacy that characterized his first decade in power.

Recently, Xi Jinping has faced difficulties in diplomacy and encountered numerous challenges that he has been unable to overcome. For example, the United States has been actively expanding and strengthening its alliances with Indo-Pacific allies and partners, including Japan, South Korea, India, Vietnam, the Philippines, Australia, and even Mongolia. In Beijing’s eyes, this amounts to a containment strategy against China’s expansion, making it difficult for China to break through. China’s longstanding strategic engagement with ASEAN has also been strained by the publication of a new national “standard map,” which drew heightened attention to China’s maritime disputes in the region.

Xi’s flagship international project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has also faced setbacks. Italy decided to withdraw from its BRI agreement with China, and a new U.S.-backed trade route linking India, the Middle East, and Europe was launched at the recent G-20 summit, challenging China’s global ambitions.

In terms of diplomacy over the Russia-Ukraine war, China’s support for Russia has been slow to yield the results Xi expected. Arguably, even Xi’s proudest diplomatic achievements, such as the BRICS expansion, have been overshadowed by India’s increasingly visible success in competing with China for leadership of the Global South.

A series of diplomatic roadblocks and difficulties may have led Xi to realize that the marginal returns of his diplomatic offensive efforts are too low at the moment, and that it may be more important to focus on consolidating existing positions to make China stronger. This does not mean, however, that he intends to abandon his global ambitions. As a student of Mao Zedong, Xi is well aware of Mao’s strategic approach of “retracting before striking [in order] to make the blow more powerful.”