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As a foreign ministry spokesperson, Zhao Lijian was one of the most prominent official voices of the Chinese government for the past three years. He was also the unofficial poster-child for “wolf warrior diplomacy” — a sharp-tongued, combative approach that brought the rhetorical fight to China’s critics and rivals.
This week, Zhao was assigned a new job: deputy director of the Ministry’s Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs. It’s a lateral move to an obscure post that takes Zhao out of the spotlight.
The Foreign Ministry did not explain the shift, but some analysts think it is the latest in a series of tactical tweaks that China has been making to ease friction with other countries and soften its image on the global stage.
The changes come as Beijing wrestles with some of its biggest and most disruptive domestic challenges in decades.
So-called “zero-COVID” policies, in place for three years, kept the pandemic at bay, but created widespread public resentment and smothered China’s economy. Over the past month, authorities have unwound those policies, but in doing so unleashed a tsunami of COVID cases now overwhelming hospitals and crematoriums.
“My general sense is that the Chinese recognize they have an abundance of problems at home and would like to minimize their problems abroad in order to concentrate on the more pressing challenges that they face domestically,” says Ryan Hass, a China expert at the Brookings Institution.
A tactical shift
The shift ramped up in the wake of a Communist Party congress in October that cemented Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s grip on power.
Beijing has wooed European countries, with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz visiting in early November. There is talk of possible upcoming trips to China by French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.
And China has been taking advantage of a change in government in Australia to thaw relations with Canberra. Last month, Australian foreign affairs minister Penny Wong visited Beijing — the first government minister to do so in three years — and the two sides agreed to resume stalled dialogue on a range of issues.
Meanwhile, some also see a softer tone from China towards the United States.
China’s outgoing ambassador to Washington, Qin Gang, emphasized positives on social media and in a piece in the Washington Post early this month, as he left to take up his new job as foreign minister in Beijing.
“I leave the United States more convinced that the door to China-US relations will remain open and cannot be closed,” he wrote.
“I am also more convinced that Americans, just like the Chinese people, are broad-minded, friendly and hard-working. The future of both our peoples — indeed, the future of the entire planet — depends on a healthy and stable China- US relationship… The world is wide enough for China and the United States to both develop and prosper.”
People who have attended meetings with Qin say he often made a point of denying that he was a “wolf warrior,” even though he pioneered the approach when he was a foreign ministry spokesman years ago. Analysts say against the backdrop of trying to make nice with the United States, it’s no coincidence that one of the first things Qin has done as foreign minister is to take the mic away from Zhao Lijian.
The Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday that China’s new ambassador to the US may be Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng, a US specialist who “is regarded by both colleagues and foreign counterparts as a firm and evenhanded conduit between China and the US”
A more difficult international environment
Yu Jie, a senior research fellow at the Chatham House think tank in London, says there is more to the tonal shift under way in Beijing than just a focus on domestic concerns.
“China simply cannot afford to become a rival of every single country in the West,” she says.
The war in Ukraine — and China’s steadfast friendship with Russia — have hurt Beijing diplomatically, particularly with Western European countries, she says. Last year, a vice foreign minister linked to Beijing’s Russia policy was sidelined.
Xi, too, spent most of the pandemic in isolation, not meeting foreign dignitaries out of fear of contracting the coronavirus. In November, that changed when he attended a Group of 20 summit in Bali, Indonesia.
Yu says it was a turning point.
“After that, [he] realized how much the world has changed after three years [of the] pandemic,” she says. “China does not want to be seen as being completely isolated.”
Zhu Zhiqun, a professor of political science and international relations at Bucknell University, says Beijing’s tactical shift may create conditions for greater stability in the US-China relationship in the coming weeks.
“The window for improving relations is open now. But it’s very narrow, and very soon, that window will be closed,” Zhu says.
The Biden administration has said it wants to put “guard rails” on the US-China relationship, to keep it from sliding into conflict. China blames the US for the deterioration in ties, and says Washington needs to adopt a less hostile approach in order for the relationship to get back on an even keel.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken plans to travel to China in early February, and Xi is likely to visit the United States for an Asia-Pacific summit later this year.
In the long term, the United States and China have a structural conflict, Zhu notes: Washington wants to maintain supremacy in the international system while China is intent on becoming the dominant power in Asia.
“I think the Chinese are trying to strike a conciliatory tone … to present a more friendly image. But its fundamental policy is not going to change,” he says.
China’s 20th century revolutionary leader Mao Zedong once famously articulated a “fight fight, talk talk” strategy for maintaining negotiations while continuing to engage in conflict. That strategy may have relevance today, Hass says.
“In other words, there are times to fight and times to lower the temperature, to talk, to sort of restock, replenish, study the opponent, and then find a new angle of attack,” he says.
“We may be in one of those phases where the Chinese are sort of circling their wagons and sort of reorienting themselves to prepare for the long-term competition that they inevitably expect to have with the United States and others.”