Are we witnessing the end of the golden age of Chinese diplomacy?

Andrei Lungu | 20 May 2020

Over the past 40 years, China’s economic rise has been powered by the work, sacrifices and creativity of hundreds of millions of citizens. Yet its rise as a global power has come about thanks to many unsung heroes: its diplomats.

There are no movies, memorials or patriotic recruitment clips dedicated to them, but some of China’s greatest international achievements, from its admission to the United Nations and World Trade Organisation, to the normalisation of relations with the United States and Japan, were the product of strenuous and interminable behind-the-scenes negotiations, conducted by brilliant diplomats.

These well-trained, highly skilled and soft-spoken envoys made possible China’s reach, winning friends and opening markets in the process. They carefully took time to build personal connections and trust, listen to interlocutors and dispel misunderstandings, address concerns and find workable compromises. That was the golden era of Chinese diplomacy, where professionalism and discipline were at their highest.

Today, things are changing. Chinese diplomacy is dying, in full public view. It is starting to no longer focus on external audiences, cultivating friends and opening doors, and is instead becoming an appendix of China’s propaganda apparatus, focusing on domestic audiences.

Diplomats should prevent or defuse conflicts, not amplify them. While they promote and defend their country’s interests, they are not supposed to publicly fight their host government. If really necessary, that is the job of the government or other political or non-governmental actors, with diplomats conveying messages behind the scenes while being open and trustworthy partners, proposing alternatives and working out a compromise. If the government or other politicians have to be the “bad cop” to placate the domestic public, diplomats should be the “good cop”.

But Chinese diplomats are now publicly fighting foreign governments, politicians and other stakeholders, from companies to the media, simply to put on a nationalist show for audiences at home.

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This article has been published by Andrei Lungu, President of RISAP, in the South China Morning Post. You can read the full article on the SCMP website.

Photo Credits: The Chinese Embassy in Australia (Flickr/David Burke)

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Andrei Lungu​

Andrei Lungu is president of RISAP. His research interests include China’s foreign policy and its domestic politics, Sino-American relations and the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific.

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