Grandstand. The global Covid-19 pandemic is currently the subject of a Chinese-American diplomatic fight, in which Beijing is making full use of its new offensive diplomatic style, breaking with its traditional approach.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian recently posted articles on a Canadian conspiracy website on Twitter, suggesting that the Covid-19 is from the United States and not from China. These messages were then relayed by Chinese ambassadors around the world, and of course by state media. Donald Trump wasted no time in launching a very personal response that was to be expected: he now speaks only of “Chinese virus”. This had the effect of irritating Beijing to the highest degree.
Donald Trump being the inventor of what is now known as “tweet diplomacy”, it is curious to see Chinese diplomats today use the same methods as him, on social networks banned in their country , to forcefully relay the official positions of their government. It is all the more alarming when they relay rumors and false information.
When Donald Trump was elected 45e President of the United States in November 2016, the world was crossed by a wave of uncertainty. As the United States’ allies and adversaries questioned the future of global strategic balances, the People’s Republic of China presented itself as the predictable and stabilizing actor of international relations against the American troublemaker.
Since arriving at the White House, Donald Trump has withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris climate agreement, the Vienna Iranian Nuclear Agreement (JCPOA) or the Nuclear Forces Treaty intermediaries with Russia. He has often treated his allies (both North Atlantic and Pacific) worse than his adversaries, pressuring them to take more responsibility for their own security. Putting “America first”, since then he has pursued a protectionist, if not unilateralist, policy.
Xi Jinping, meanwhile, presents himself as the greatest defender of free trade, multilateralism and globalization, in particular since his speech at the Davos forum in January 2017, which has remained famous ever since (President Trump took office a few days later). At the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, Xi Jinping reiterated his commitment – with France and the United Nations – to implement the Paris agreement. China, which was accused of being the “stowaway” of globalization during the two Obama administrations, seemed to take on, in the face of Trump, the costume of responsible international power.
However, in 2019, China marked an unprecedented diplomatic turn. It has clearly departed from the traditional “low profile” attitude it has maintained since Deng Xiaoping, and is gradually distancing itself from the principle of “non-interference in the internal affairs of other states”, inherited by Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. The new Chinese offensive diplomatic posture is paradoxically similar to that, much criticized, of Donald Trump.
Chinese ambassadors in Europe are relaying this new diplomacy. Chinese ambassador to Italy called Italian parliamentarians“Irresponsible” after they had a video conference with Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong. In Sweden, the ambassador said on public radio: “We treat our friends with good wine, but for our enemies we have guns”, in the context of the award of a literary prize to Gui Minhai, detained in China. The Chinese ambassador to Germany has threatened the German state with retaliatory measures if the latter does not allow private enterprise Huawei to enter the 5G market. Market which, it should be remembered, is not liberalized in China.
The use of Twitter by Chinese diplomats is a new phenomenon that is well received and even encouraged by Beijing. The promotion of Zhao Lijian, the most publicized diplomat, from the Chinese Embassy in Pakistan to the spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is an illustration of this. This is the new style of Chinese diplomacy, a more aggressive and less fact-oriented stance.
This is where we are. The two largest economic powers in the world compete by tweets interposed in the midst of a global pandemic. By using the same weapons as Trump, namely compulsive and deceptive communication, China is moving away from the constructive approach it sought to display a few years ago.
This diplomatic shift is both worrying for us Europeans in our relations with these two partners, but it is also an opportunity for the European Union to reaffirm that it remains a power of dialogue, cooperation and law in a world in need of leadership.
Marc Julienne researcher responsible for China activities at the Asia Center of Ifri