China’s new diplomatic moves put US on the back foot

After the lukewarm results of Xi Jinping’s visit to the US in August, Beijing has been on a tour de force to change the outlook of its diplomacy and, in a few weeks, managed to put in a different perspective possible attempts by Washington to surround China economically or militarily.

Xi went to the UK and scored a major success there by establishing for the first time a “complete and global alliance” with that country

Xi scored a huge success in the UK by establishing for the first time a ‘complete and global alliance’ with that country

Shortly after Xi’s visit, the US ominously announced the establishment of a large free trade zone in the Pacific area that would exclude China, something that could look as the basic architecture for an economic siege on Beijing.

Xi went to the UK and scored a major success there by establishing for the first time a “complete and global alliance” with that country which enjoys the best relations with America. This would inevitably put Washington’s advocates of a tough stand against China in an awkward position.

Then, in October, just at the end of the yearly Party Plenum, an American destroyer challenged Chinese claims on the South China Sea, disputed by six neighboring nations, by cruising 12 miles from the coast of a Chinese islet.

This move would have caused a major nationalist upheaval in China in the past, but this time it was met with little more than a scoff. This was a sign that Xi is able to control nationalist flare-ups, something that looked impossible for his predecessor Hu Jintao while trying to find a compromise with Japan on the disputed Senkaku islands.

On November 1, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang met with his Japanese colleague Shinzo Abe at Seoul and the two decided to mend strained ties. At the summit, China, Japan and South Korea announced a free trade agreement that could put in jeopardy the architecture of the US-sponsored Pacific free trade agreement.

China’s talks with Japan, so far its major adversary in the region, could also put a different spin to belligerent attitudes in America, although we don’t know the concrete results of the summit and how far China is willing to go on the Senkaku.

In the same hours, Catholic news service leaked a story of the success of a Vatican mission to China. The mission, reportedly made of six people (previous ones were smaller delegations), was allowed to meet the bishop of Beijing, chosen with Rome’s approval, and the controversial head of the Catholic Patriotic Association Ma Yinglin, unilaterally appointed bishop by Beijing.

This result could be particularly important as Xi’s visit to the US was outshone by Pope’s tour and the global influence of Pope is growing.

Finally came the news on Nov. 4 that for the first time since the end of the civil war in China, the leaders of the communist and nationalist parties Xi and Ma Yingjiu are going to meet Saturday in Singapore.

The  official Beijing news agency called is a “milestone” in relations between Beijing and Taipei. This might also have an impact on Japan, the US and the South East Asian countries vying with Beijing over the South China Sea.

This streak of successes does not mean that in a few weeks, Beijing was able to repair ties with the countries concerned. But it proves that it can be difficult to box Xi and that he is willing and capable of going out of the way to repair frayed relations.

This creates a new situation for China. To nurture and groom these fledgling relations could prove difficult as many of these nations might be less inclined to overlook China’s possible blunders. If Beijing were to fail, its long-term credibility would be badly marred.

Here, one common complaint about some Chinese officials is that they are arrogant, callous and dismissive of other people’s interests. This is not taken as a personal attitude of the officials concerned but as  a reflection of China’s political attitude to other countries.

Still these results, whether obtained by scattering money around or by careful political preparations, may cast a different light on some American thinking about China. This, in turn, might lead to some deep re-thinking.

On the other hand, the recent flurry of Chinese diplomacy may have been caused by the cooling of the US attitude towards Beijing. This last element can be seen as a success of the US diplomacy and the need for a deep rethinking of Chinese foreign policies.

But at least looking at it today, it seems that neither China nor the US is what the other side thinks it is.  Both are changing into something that the other has difficulties in gauging. This may be the biggest future problem for everybody.

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