Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

| Jan. 23, 2023

Why Beijing's foreign-policy reset will—or won't—work out.

One of the alleged advantages of autocracies is their supposed ability to turn on a dime in response to changing conditions. If one person has supreme power and doesn't have to worry about bureaucratic rigidity, a pesky press, domestic opposition, influential interest groups, an independent judiciary, and all those other messy appurtenances of democracy, then in theory they can just issue a new edict and set the ship of state on a new course.

This image of agile and adaptive autocrats is probably mistaken, or at least incomplete. Even seemingly unchallenged dictators usually worry about potential rivals, competing power centers, and whether distant officials will implement directives effectively. Tyrants sometimes get stuck with failing policies because underlings won't tell them what is really going on, or they refuse to change course because they don't want to appear weak. Moreover, those supposedly sloth-like, dysfunctional democracies can sometimes act with surprising vigor and swiftness, especially in an emergency.

These caveats notwithstanding, the scope and speed of the changes recently undertaken by Chinese President Xi Jinping are still impressive. Having consolidated his hold on power at the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in October 2022, Xi responded to an unexpected outbreak of public protests by suddenly abandoning the rigid and costly zero-COVID policy he had championed. He has partially moderated his statist, Leninist approach to the Chinese economy and tried to reassure and reinvigorate China's private sector in the face of anemic economic growth and his past efforts to clip the wings of high-flying Chinese companies like Alibaba. (For a fuller description of these steps, see this useful paper from the Asia Society.)

Most important for our purposes, China is now trying to mend fences with the outside world as part of a broader effort to improve its global image, reignite economic growth, and disrupt U.S. efforts to unite several key countries into a loose anti-Chinese coalition. Will this latest "charm offensive" work?

It doesn't take a genius to figure out why Xi is acting this way: His basic approach to foreign policy simply wasn't working. It was a mistake to openly proclaim the goal of becoming a (if not the) leading world power by the middle of this century. It might be a worthy goal, but such a bold boast was certain to alarm the United States and put a number of other countries on their guard as well. It was a mistake to combine a major military buildup with militarized "island-building" in the South China Sea. It was short-sighted to reject the ruling of an international tribunal that dismissed Chinese territorial claims in this crucial waterway, and counterproductive to threaten Taiwan and Japan by sending planes and ships into contested areas. It made little sense for Chinese troops to clash with Indian forces in the remote Himalayas. And it was surely a mistake to align China so closely with Russia on the eve of its invasion of Ukraine. Either Xi got duped (if Russian President Vladimir Putin didn't tell Xi what he was planning), or he chose to tacitly back a brutal partner who turned out to be less capable and competent than Xi thought. Either way, it's not a good look. Worst of all, these worrisome policies have been pursued and defended through aggressive, hyper-combative "wolf-warrior" diplomacy, based on the odd idea that repeatedly bullying and belittling foreign diplomats and government officials was going to win them friends and enhance Chinese influence....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:

Walt, Stephen M. "Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?" Foreign Policy, January 23, 2023.

The Author

Stephen Walt