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How will China’s New Foreign Minister Shape Foreign Policy? Four Trends to Watch

China's Foreign Minister Qin Gang speaks during a press conference at the Media Center of the National People's Congress (NPC) in Beijing on March 7, 2023. NOEL CELIS / AFP

Qin Gang, China’s incoming Foreign Minister, held his first press conference in early March. Coming during the Communist Party of China’s crucial Two Sessions gatherings, Qin’s debut outing was a high-profile event. It immediately drew attention to his warning that: “If the United States does not hit the brake but continues to speed down the wrong path, no amount of guardrails can prevent derailing, and there will surely be conflict and confrontation.” Together with President Xi Jinping’s comment on Chinese’s difficult external environment in the past five years and his rare direct naming of the United States-led Western countries as “implement[ing] all-round containment, encirclement and suppression against us,” Qin’s comments were quickly framed as proof of worsening great power competition, though he stated that “getting the relationship right is not optional, but something we must do and must do well.”

While Western press coverage tended to focus on U.S.-China competition, Taiwan, and Ukraine, Qin’s press conference also provided important clues as to broader directions in China’s foreign policy. In his words: “China’s diplomacy has pressed the ‘acceleration button’, and sounded the ‘assembly call’.” ( 中国外交已经按下“加速键”,吹响“集结号”). The latter is a reference to Chinese military life, where different bugle calls represent different military orders. While most reporters missed the reference, it signals that Qin’s debut can be viewed as a starting point for China’s diplomacy in the post-COVID era. This press conference clearly indicates that China is ready to use different forms of diplomacy to engage with various nations and regions including the global south. Four trends are emerging:

First, global development, global governance, and a peaceful international order were emphasized throughout this press conference. China’s vision of these issues was developed separately from the post-World War II Bretton Woods system. While it produced new global economic institutions that promoted international cooperation in reconstruction and recovery, the Bretton Woods system also ensured the political dominance of Western powers through the institutionalization of neoliberal approaches. An isolated China constructed both its own economic path to growth and ideological alliances with the Global South. Qin’s comments signal that Beijing sees China’s economic success and its alternative development path as a possible model for countries in the Global South that are still struggling with both economic and human development. His emphasis on international peace functions as China’s call for developing countries to support what it frames as its vision for a peaceful international environment over Western counter-narratives.

Second, Qin’s comments reflected concerns about how the international order will affect whether China can stick to its “One Central Task and Two Basic Points” (一个中心,两个基本点), which puts economic development at the core of the CPC’s work, flanked by reform and opening up. China’s success depends on maintaining economic ties with both developing and developed countries. This has been a long-time preoccupation for the Party. For example, in 1992, faced with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Revolutions of 1989 in Eastern Europe, Deng Xiaoping, often called China’s economic master, visited cities in South China. In his famous South Tour Speech when he advised the country to: “Stick to Party’s basic line for one hundred years. Take economic construction as the center, adhere to the four basic principles and adhere to open and reform policy.” (坚持党的基本路线一百年不动摇。坚持以经济建设为中心,坚持四项基本原则,坚持改革开放). Qin’s public commitment to “pursue coordination and sound interactions among major countries, seek friendship and cooperation with other countries, and promote a new type of international relations” fits into this context.

Third, Qin made clear that to expand China’s global economic outreach, high-quality development and high-standard opening up will be China’s next key focus: “China needs to make more and more new friends and strengthen ties with old friends.” (新朋友越来越多,老朋友越来越铁). This includes signaling that China is and wants to be a reliable international partner. Multi-level political and economic outreach is key to this work. A recent example was the China-Central Asia (C+C5) Industry and Investment Cooperation Forum in Qingdao, Shandong Province in February 2023.

This deepening industrial and investment cooperation between China and its neighboring countries in Central Asia will stabilize regional supply chains, but it is also arguably an example of the continued relevance of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). From a network perspective, the BRI is an international development strategy to connect different nodes (i.e., countries, and regions) through infrastructural links such as railroads and ports as well as through trade links such as agricultural and energy trade. Qin’s reiteration (following Pres. Xi’s comments at the APEC summit in November) that the Third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation will be held in 2023, shows that the BRI remains key to China’s vision of the revival of the Asia-Pacific economy and global development and prosperity.

The last global south highlight of Qin’s press conference relates to China-Middle East relations. In early January 2023, during Qin’s Africa tour, he visited the Arab League headquarters in Egypt. China has become Middle East’s largest trading partner in recent years. China’s imports from the Middle East were $130 billion versus $34 billion for the U.S. in 2021 while China’s exports to the region were $129 billion compared with the U.S. at $48 billion. In this press conference, a journalist from Egypt asked Qin a question about the significance of Chinese-style modernization to the world. His answer drew a distinction between two forms of modernization: Chinese and Western. This implies different approaches to the pursuit of global development and global governance. China’s rise to the world’s second-largest economy contributed to a relatively peaceful regional and global environment, but it also raises questions about geopolitically-influenced norm competition in development and beyond.

At the end of the press conference, a China Daily journalist asked Qin how young Chinese people can contribute to China’s diplomacy with the world. Her question reminded me of the words of the famous American sociologist, Ezra Vogel, in the midst of U.S.-China tensions in 2020 before his passing. Vogel said how the U.S.s-China relations will move forward will be largely determined by young people from both countries. Qin’s answer framed the issue in terms of the right to speak on the international stage: “Our voice is not loud enough. Some are still hogging the microphones, and there are quite many noises and jarring notes about China. When it comes to making China’s voice heard loud and clear, young Chinese have an important role to play.”

The youth of the Global South also frequently feel that their voices are drowned out. It is time that young people, not only young Chinese and Americans but also their counterparts across the globe, participate in diplomacy because we are living through history, and most importantly, we are writing history. Qin’s comments show that the right to define history, development, and governance lies at the heart of current geopolitical disputes.

Grace Yuehan Wang, PhD, former South African National Research Foundation grant holder. She is recently appointed as a Senior Research Fellow at the Department of Journalism at Stellenbosch University ( South Africa) and a research fellow at Cape Town-based think tank Research ICT Africa.

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