China has been in diplomatic overdrive, but has anything changed?

When Qin Gang was named as China’s new foreign minister in December, it raised expectations for post-Covid diplomacy after nearly three years of self-imposed isolation.

Qin appears to have met some of those expectations in his first 100-plus days in the job, as Beijing tries to relaunch its so-called major power diplomacy to help improve its tarnished image and salvage the country’s battered economy.

A scan of the foreign ministry website shows that, in less than three months, Qin has met nearly 60 foreign dignitaries, spoken by phone with 20 counterparts and visited 10 nations, including the Philippines on Sunday.

Qin – who at 57 is China’s youngest foreign minister – has also been busy giving speeches and unveiling policy documents, including on the Global Security Initiative and Beijing’s peace proposal for the war in Ukraine.

In February, he declared that world security would not be possible without the security of China. Last week he sought to push back against Western criticism of Beijing’s stance on Taiwan at a ministry event in Shanghai.

“Taiwan’s return to China is a component of the post-war international order, written in black and white in the Cairo Declaration and the Potsdam Proclamation,” Qin said, adding that “the established post-war international order will not be upended”.

Qin also accompanied President Xi Jinping on a high-profile trip to Russia in March. Meanwhile, state media reports have often sounded victorious as foreign delegations from Europe, Asia and Latin America visited China in recent months.

There is little doubt about China’s importance on the world stage amid a looming global economic crisis that has been compounded by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But while Beijing has been in diplomatic overdrive, there has been much more continuity than change since Qin took office.

There is more emphasis on ties with the Asian neighbours and Europe as China tries to counterbalance its tense relationship with the US. That has seen Qin travel to the Philippines, India, Indonesia and Uzbekistan, following his predecessor Wang Yi’s five-nation European tour.

Meanwhile, leaders and top diplomats from the European Commission, France, Germany, Spain, Belarus, Singapore, the Philippines, Cambodia, Japan and Malaysia have visited China in the last three months.

However, there has not been any substantive shift on the most important foreign policy relationship – the US-China-Russia triangle. And while Brussels has become more important for Beijing, its relationship with Moscow is a diplomatic priority.

Despite all the warnings of potential mishaps and miscalculation, China has refused to resume top-level diplomatic and military exchanges with the United States. Bilateral ties have deteriorated further since US Secretary of State Antony Blinken cancelled a planned China visit after Washington shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon in February.

Qin was in the United States as China’s ambassador when he was appointed foreign minister late last year and has not spoken to Blinken since he returned to China to take up the post in early January.

US affairs are instead apparently being handled by China’s top diplomat Wang Yi, a Politburo member. Wang has been in contact with Blinken and US national security adviser Jake Sullivan over the balloon saga as well as tensions in the Taiwan Strait. Qin clearly faces many challenges trying to navigate what he has called “stormy seas”.

But as foreign minister, he will also have to deal with challenges like how to deal with differences among China’s highest-ranking diplomats, including Friday’s comments by the Chinese ambassador to France. Beijing on Monday had to clarify envoy Lu Shaye’s remarks after he questioned the sovereignty of post-Soviet republics in a television interview. All such challenges will be met “head-on”, Qin vowed during his first press event in March. “We will … boldly take on responsibilities, foster an enabling external environment for building a modern socialist country in all respects, and write a new chapter in China’s distinctive major country diplomacy in the new era,” he said.

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