​Diplomacy, cooperation high on China's foreign policy agenda in 2021

By Tom Fowdy
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China.org.cn, January 7, 2021
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A new year brings the promise of a fresh start, and never has the world hoped more to wipe the slate clean. The year 2020 proved to be once-in-a-century historical disruption which has upended people's lives all across the globe. It is not surprising that with the arrival of 2021, people are hoping for a return to normality, optimism and some good news. This applies on a political level too, with COVID-19 having unleashed political shockwaves including tensions from the United States towards China and the rise of "blame game" politics from the Trump administration which sought to scapegoat Beijing, and subsequently used this to push a policy of confrontation.

However, 2021 brings new hope not only because it is a new year, but also because the Trump administration is in its final weeks. Related to this, what does China do from here? How does China plan to interact with the Biden administration? And what will China's priorities be this year? The answers may be found in a speech made on New Year's Day by the country's State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, where he pledged the country would "continue to build a new type of international relations" and "strengthen international cooperation." 

What do these remarks mean and what are their significance? In 2021, China will continue to utilize diplomacy, multilateralism and international cooperation to overcome global challenges, and uphold its goals of economic coordination, engagement and integration with other countries. Contrary to media hysteria, it will also seek to downplay confrontation with the U.S. and stabilize relations with the incoming administration. Although this does not mean it will relent on matters of national sovereignty and territorial integrity, rhetoric of a "new cold war" is deeply overblown.

In raising the prospect of a "new cold war" and dividing countries along geopolitical and economic lines, the Trump administration has advocated a nostalgia for 20th century thinking. However, Beijing has never bought in this kind of zealous, simplistic rhetoric. Rather than engage in confrontation with the U.S., as some journalists like to try and spin it, China has continued to promote the continuation of the multilateral international order and the idea that diplomacy is not a "zero-sum" game as it has been framed by Trump. China understands that growth, success and prosperity stem from interdependence and cooperation, or as Wang Yi styles it, "A community of shared future for mankind." 

China is setting out to continue this form of engagement. In 2020, Beijing concluded two huge economic agreements: the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the European Union-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI). These represent two of the largest multilateral deals ever concluded, and show what countries can achieve when they work together instead of engaging in geopolitical confrontation. They are the perfect answer to those who seek to divide and carve up the global economy and force others to take sides.

Therefore, Wang Yi stated that China will continue to emphasize diplomacy in 2021 and promote economic engagement with other countries, be it through the promotion of free trade mechanisms or programs such as the Belt and Road Initiative. 

However, the only way out of the COVID-19 crisis is through cooperation, as opposed to an "every country for itself" mentality as the United States has followed. China will accelerate efforts to promote vaccine cooperation, offer aid and assistance to other countries, as well as work with multilateral institutions such as the World Health Organization. The idea that humanity is the top priority is being emphasized, in contrast to selfish political point scoring and attributing blame to cover up for one's own failures.

As such, China is likely to try and re-engage with the new administration in 2021. Although President Donald Trump is pushing hard to solidify his legacy, Beijing is likely to be optimistic that there can be room to stabilize the relationship despite the two countries' differences, and the incoming president must surely understand that many of the incumbent's decisions and policies have been counterproductive, destructive and detrimental to U.S. interests. China seems set to pursue goodwill and room to negotiate with the United States, and will look to avoid escalating tensions or confrontation. 

On the whole, 2021 is going to be a year of diplomacy. There is much that needs to be done in order to bring a world which has been derailed by an unprecedented disaster back on track, but the only way forward from here in China's view is diplomacy, multilateralism and cooperation. The divisive and unpredictable politics which plagued the previous year have not and will not eradicate the virus nor will it help the economy recover. Because of this, China will continue to emphasize stability, dialogue and engagement over the coming 12 months.

Tom Fowdy is a British political and international relations analyst and a graduate of Durham and Oxford universities. He writes on topics pertaining to China, the DPRK, Britain and the U.S. For more information please visit: 


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