China’s foreign minister, Qin Gang, has been on a whirlwind diplomatic tour in recent weeks, with high-profile meetings in Europe, Myanmar, Pakistan — where he also met with Taliban officials — and back home in Beijing with the U.S. ambassador to China. With U.S.-China relations as frosty as ever, Qin’s meeting with Ambassador Nicholas Burns signals that both sides want to better manage their differences. In Europe, Beijing is promoting its peace plan for Ukraine despite European concerns that Beijing is decidedly pro-Moscow. Meanwhile, amid crises in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Myanmar, China is wielding its clout to advance its own interests in spite of the implications for long-term stability.

Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang addresses the U.N Human Right Council, Feb. 27, 2023. (U.N. Geneva)
Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang addresses the U.N Human Right Council, Feb. 27, 2023. (U.N. Geneva)

USIP’s experts analyze the key takeaways from Qin’s meetings and what they reveal about Beijing’s priorities amid its intensifying strategic rivalry with Washington.

1. Consistent, high-level U.S.-China engagement could be returning soon.

Carla Freeman: The Qin-Burns meeting was the highest-level engagement between U.S. and Chinese officials in months and appears to mark a return to high-level diplomacy. However, tensions between the two countries remain high, exacerbated by developments earlier this year affecting each sides’ national interests. 

Bilateral frictions intensified in February following the intrusion of a Chinese surveillance balloon into U.S. airspace. Secretary of State Antony Blinken indefinitely postponed his planned visit to Beijing in response. After the U.S. stopover of Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, in late March and early April, Beijing characterized her U.S. transit as part of a deliberate effort to support independence for Taiwan, an issue Beijing has deemed as an "uncrossable red line" that could provoke an armed response. Amid extreme bilateral tensions, these developments put plans for discussions between other high-level officials in suspended animation. 

The Burns-Qin meeting did little to address these tensions. However, given the virtual paralysis in the official relationship, the meeting itself marked a positive sign that the two sides might restart senior-level meetings. Burns reported that focus was on stabilizing the relationship and expanding high-level communication. According to China’s Foreign Ministry, Qin rebuked the United States, criticizing it for failing to “respect China’s bottom lines and red lines.” But Qin also said stabilizing the relationship was a top priority for Beijing.

Since the meeting, new U.S.-China diplomatic engagement suggests a concerted effort by both sides to improve communication. Burns also met with China’s minister of commerce, Wang Wentao, and China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, and U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan also held talks in Vienna, which both sides reported were constructive. Reports suggest that more high-level meetings may be on the horizon. U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai may meet with Wang on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation trade ministers meeting later this month. Blinken has expressed hope that he can visit Beijing in 2023 and U.S. Climate Envoy John Kerry has said that Beijing has invited him to visit “in the near term.” Other senior U.S. officials have also signaled interest in visiting China, including Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. 

If these meetings move forward, if nothing else, it suggests a resuscitation of diplomacy between the two sides — evidence Washington and Beijing can at least agree that they share a mutual interest in better managing bilateral frictions. 

2. China is gaining some traction in Europe in its push for a role as a mediator in the Russia-Ukraine war.

Mary Glantz: While the foreign ministers of France, Germany and Norway undoubtedly had an array of issues to discuss with their Chinese counterpart, significant attention must have been focused upon the war in Ukraine and China’s relations with Moscow and Kyiv. European leaders were outraged in late April when China’s ambassador to France, Lu Shaye, appeared to question the sovereignty of all countries that were former Soviet republics. While the Chinese embassy in France and the Chinese Foreign Ministry walked back those comments, they combined with China’s unwillingness to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to cement the impression in European capitals that China is taking Russia’s side in the conflict.

Such an impression is problematic for China as it seeks to present itself as a mediator in the Russia-Ukraine war. Indeed, both the German and French foreign ministers urged China to convince Russia “to return to full compliance with the U.N. Charter, in particular the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.”

Qin’s visit must have met with some success in changing European views, however. Beijing has now announced that it will be sending its Eurasian envoy to France and Germany (as well as Ukraine, Russia and Poland) this week on a mission to find a “political settlement” to the war in Ukraine. The choice of France and Germany for these meetings undoubtedly reflects their long-standing role in the Normandy Format negotiations to try to resolve the earlier war in the Donbas.  

3. China appears to have taken the army’s side in Pakistan’s tumultuous politics.

Daniel Markey: Official reporting on diplomacy between China and Pakistan is always shrouded in over-the-top rhetoric and little substance or candor, but circumstantial evidence suggests a connection between a slew of recent high-level China-Pakistan meetings and a major escalation in Pakistan’s domestic political drama. On April 27, Pakistan’s army chief, General Asim Munir, met China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, in Beijing. On May 6, he met Qin in Islamabad. On May 8, Pakistan’s Navy chief met with Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu in Beijing.

Then, on May 9, Pakistani paramilitary forces arrested former prime minister turned opposition leader Imran Khan. This set off a wave of often violent street protests and deepened what now appears a near-unbridgeable divide between Khan’s PTI party on the one hand, and Pakistan’s ruling government (which enjoys the army chief’s support) on the other.

At the very least, outside observers can infer that China did not press the Pakistani military to reconcile with or yield to the demands of Khan’s opposition party. Had Beijing sent that message, the army would almost certainly have avoided escalating Pakistan’s political crisis for fear of endangering relations with China, now the country’s most important diplomatic backer, arms dealer and lender of last resort.

China’s support to the current Pakistani government and army is consistent with past history, as it seems to have enjoyed greater comfort dealing with the governments of sitting Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif (and his brother, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif) than with Khan. Civilian differences aside, Pakistan’s army has always been China’s closest partner.

The tantalizing and as-yet-unanswered question is whether Beijing promised to back and bankroll the army chief and his preferred government, and if so, what China's leaders expect to get in exchange.

4. China is no longer hedging in Myanmar’s civil war.

Jason Tower: Qin’s visit to Myanmar represents China’s highest-level interaction with Myanmar military leader Min Aung Hlaing since the February 2021 coup. The visit followed a flurry of moves targeted at influencing the trajectory of the conflict and moving the center of gravity of the policy response away from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs released five communications around Qin’s visit, further articulating China’s approach and preferences vis-à-vis Myanmar’s ongoing crisis. These statements indicate four clear trendlines:

  1. Qin proclaimed China’s intention to move forward with the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, signaling a green light for Chinese companies to move full speed ahead in Myanmar.
  2. The Chinese Foreign Ministry publicly indicated its willingness to engage all “departments” of the junta’s State Administration Council (SAC), but also noted that China will advance interactions with “localities” — a clear reference to territories controlled by the ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) on the China border. This extends a trend seen over the past three months, with China increasingly engaging and openly supporting the consolidation of a block of seven of the most powerful of Myanmar’s EAOs. Growing Chinese pressure on these groups aims to limit their support to pro-democracy forces, to consolidate Chinese style authoritarian governance models in their territories, and to push them toward cooperation with the military in stabilizing parts of the country where China has significant interests.
  3. With the influence of transnational crime growing dramatically since the military coup, China has faced growing threats to its nationals from kidnapping and cross-border cyber-crimes, but also growing international pressure from more than 40 countries who have seen their nationals trafficked into Myanmar by Chinese-affiliated criminal groups. A Foreign Ministry statement on this issue used particularly strong language and China pledged support, which it has already offered in the form of enhanced police cooperation with the military junta through a tripartite mechanism established with Thailand. How China follows up with this will be of particular significance, especially given that the Myanmar army’s two most critical border guard forces are among the key perpetrators and beneficiaries of these crimes.
  4. Qin announced Chinese interest in picking up the pace of a Bangladesh-China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, which sends a signal to India of China’s intentions to consolidate its economic and strategic position in the Bay of Bengal. This announcement comes following revelations of the SAC’s involvement in constructing new facilities on the Coco Islands — long a point of confrontation between India and China.

While China is clearly no longer hedging between the military and the country’s pro-democracy forces, growing Chinese “demands” of the military send an indication that Chinese support comes with considerable costs. China’s moves to support an “authoritarian tilt” of Myanmar’s EAOs indicates its desire to use its influence to shape the future of the country in a direction amenable to China’s geo-political interests. With the population still highly resilient in its support for a return to democracy, this could prove to be an extremely risky strategy. Meanwhile, China’s deepening interference in Myanmar’s civil war sends a clear signal that it no longer sees ASEAN as leading the international response.

5. China remains cautious of the situation in Afghanistan but will expand investment in the country.

Andrew Watkins: Amid Qin’s recent regional travel, China’s engagement with Afghanistan has repeatedly made news. Speculation on China’s interests in Afghanistan percolated in mid-April after the Taliban’s ministry of mines and petroleum announced talks with a Chinese company, over a potential $10 billion deal to extract lithium (though experts and the Taliban themselves voiced skepticism; the announcement may have been intended primarily to spark wider investment interest).

During the quadrilateral foreign ministers meeting in Uzbekistan in April, addressing regional security with a focus on Afghanistan, the foreign ministry put out an 11-point position statement on Beijing’s approach to the country. It may be the most detailed statement from any regional or foreign donor state on what they expect from Afghanistan’s de facto authorities. Among the points were familiar refrains, including calls for the United States to “live up to its commitments and responsibilities” precipitated by the military withdrawal in 2021, along with warnings against any future foreign “military interference and democratic transformation.” But the statement also supported “moderate and prudent” governance, called for an “open and inclusive” political structure in the same language used by the United States, and expressed hope that “more effective measures” would be taken on counterterrorism, “fulfilling [Afghanistan’s] commitment in earnest.”

On May 6, Qin participated in trilateral dialogue with Pakistan and the Taliban’s unrecognized government in Islamabad. It was the fifth iteration of talks at this level since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan. A resulting joint statement highlighted “hard” (infrastructure) and “soft” (trade standards) regional connectivity, and confirmed for the first time that Afghanistan will participate in the Belt and Road Initiative, an open question since discussions began in 2017.

However, these new inroads on regional interconnectivity are more likely meant as reassurance for Pakistan in a moment of multiple crises. Taken in tandem with Beijing’s pointed language on what it still expects from the Taliban, China’s extremely prudent position on investment in Afghanistan appears likely to hold in the foreseeable future.

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