On the sidelines of the annual "two sessions" of China's top legislature and political advisory body, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi held a press conference to address questions from Chinese and foreign journalists about the country's foreign policy and foreign relations. To break down some of the many issues addressed at the conference, the Shanghai-based media outlet The Observer interviewed Jin Canrong, renowned professor of International Relations at Renmin University.
In the interview, Prof. Jin explained that China has substantially shifted its diplomacy since the 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (2012), where it was proposed to create "major country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics." He stressed: "The mention of 'major power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics' represents a shift in our self-positioning from regional to global power... So, my feeling is that since the 18th National Congress, China has taken more responsibility in the international arena than before."
As a consequence of China's positioning itself as a global power, he said, Beijing is committed to "genuine" and "open" multilateralism. The Belt and Road Initiative is in line with China's policy on multilateralism, he added but the West's "narrow outlook" leads it to see the initiative as a "challenge."
Jin also accused President Joe Biden of pursuing "selective multilateralism," explaining that for the U.S., multilateralism is an expedient tool for forming alliances with like-minded countries from which it withdraws when the alliances are no longer needed.
He concluded that the shift in the U.S. attitude toward "multilateralism" from President Trump to President Biden "can be seen as another clear reflection of America's decline."
Below is The Observer's interview with Prof. Jin:
Professor Jin Canrong (Source: Sjtu.edu.cn)
China's Current Diplomatic Priorities: Major Country Diplomacy Relies on Russia, While Developing Country Diplomacy Relies on Africa
The Observer: "According to your observation, what is special about this year's press conference with Foreign Minister Wang Yi?"
Jin Canrong: "There were several distinct features in this year's format. To begin with, the order of the questions was alternated between Chinese and foreign journalists in a 50/50 split. Traditionally, international journalists were allowed to ask a higher proportion of questions at foreign minister press conferences, while local journalists were allowed to ask the majority of questions at premier press conferences. Second, the order of foreign journalists' speakers highlighted two current focus areas of Chinese diplomacy. A Russian journalist from TASS was the first foreign journalist to ask a question, and an Egyptian was the second (foreign journalist). This may represent China's current diplomatic priorities: major country diplomacy relies on Russia, while developing country diplomacy relies on Africa. Finally, there was more concern over vaccination and 'vaccine diplomacy.'"
'After The Outbreak Of COVID, I Believe China Has Outperformed The West'
The Observer: "Regarding the COVID vaccinations, China's cooperation is globally oriented, and has been highly praised by developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America in particular. Some European countries have also reached closer cooperation with China. How do you interpret China's diplomatic environment in the post-epidemic era in the context of the vaccines?"
Jin Canrong: "In my opinion, China's environment has become more complicated. For example, Western countries tend to be growing increasingly pessimistic, continuously splitting hairs and criticizing everything it does. To date, no Western country has ever publicly admitted that China has done a good job preventing the epidemic. The same can be said for vaccines, which are now considered to be a more effective solution for the pandemic. Only a few nations, including China, the U.S., Russia, and the United Kingdom, are objectively more mature in their vaccine production capabilities. France and Germany have historically had good immunization capabilities, but they are currently out of the race. Japan and Korea lacked sufficient capacity from the get-go.
"This has become an elementary fact. As a result, for many countries with weak public policy capacity and inability to effectively isolate patients, such as China, the willingness of the people to control their actions and the government's ability to mobilize them has become the only recourse. This is why so many people depend on vaccines. Vaccines have become a psychological cornerstone for many people, and although demand is particularly high, supply is currently extremely limited. At this point, the West has been fully engaged in vaccine nationalism, with the U.S. doing particularly well for itself. When Mexico was searching for vaccines, the U.S. responded that it would give them only after it had used [everything it needed]. The disparity between supply and demand stems from a lack of production capacity. In terms of distribution, the West was very clear: prioritize yourself, then give to others.
"China has said relatively early on that we are in support of making vaccines a public good. China has engaged in the WHO-sponsored COVAX (COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access Initiative) and is willing to actively promote international cooperation on top of improving its own epidemic prevention (including social distancing measures and advancing medical treatment).
"Most countries remain supportive of our efforts, but a few Western countries have become bitter toward us, dubbing our aggressive promotion of vaccine collaboration 'vaccine diplomacy' and declaring that they 'cannot lose the vaccine race to Russia and China.' This is odd because, given the current global situation, everybody should be doing their best to provide the vaccine as long as it is effective, and yet the West continues to place roadblocks in the way.
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"So, from last year to now, and after the outbreak of COVID, I believe China has outperformed the West, which has underperformed. As a result, the West's 'sourpuss' attitude toward China has become stronger, as has its defensive mentality. Non-Western countries have a more natural attitude toward China and believe that it can truly help them.
"As a result, China's foreign presence is a little complicated, with ups and downs in both Western and non-Western circles."
The Indian Vaccine? More Like, 'Cheap Knockoffs'; Since The Outbreak Of COVID-19, China's Global Influence Has Become Polarized
The Observer: "The EU's current attitude towards Chinese vaccines has wavered within the Western camp. How should we view this change of attitude?"
Jin Canrong: "The EU's attitude has also changed. At the beginning, the EU was also very skeptical and unwilling to use the Chinese vaccines, so when their supply did not meet demand because they were not producing, then went to the UK, who said, 'I don't have enough production capacity, so how about I give you the Indian vaccine?' Hahaha, more like, 'How about I give you these cheap knockoffs?' How embarrassing!
"Since the EU was experiencing a shortage of production resources, it recently began authorizing member states to import vaccines from China and Russia. However, progress varies by country; some Eastern European countries, such as Hungary and Serbia, have received some doses from the Chinese side. Recently, Czech President Miloš Zeman has asked China for assistance, but our netizens have voiced strong opposition following the head of the Czech Senate's visit to Taiwan with a delegation a few months ago. Eventually, since the Czech President made the offer, our government was more magnanimous and agreed to help.
"The EU has been boycotting us since the beginning, but that is just the zeitgeist. Indeed, the EU has not formally acknowledged the efficacy of Chinese and Russian vaccines to this day. The EU does not take a position, but individual member states can purchase them if they so choose.
"Western countries, it seems to me, are largely responsible for the issue of vaccine politicization. Since developing countries are in such a precarious situation, they don't care where the vaccine is produced as long as it works. This also demonstrates that since the outbreak of COVID-19, China's global influence has become polarized: our influence is increasing in most countries, but our reputation in the West has become complicated. It's also because the West is actively politicizing vaccinations, referring to China's genuine international collaboration in assisting others as 'vaccine diplomacy.' This is a classic example of 'measuring a nobleman's stature by small man's standards.'"
The Concept Of 'Major Power Diplomacy With Chinese Characteristics' Represents A Shift In Our Self-Positioning From Regional To Global Power
The Observer: "Second, I'd like to talk with you about the definition of 'multilateralism.' President Xi said at the Davos Dialogues agenda in January that we should remain committed to openness and inclusion rather than being closed off and exclusionary, and to international law and international rules instead of seeking one's own supremacy. Across the Pacific, newly elected President Joe Biden has declared himself a proponent of 'multilateralism.' Biden called for greater unity among democracies and announced that in his first year in office, he would hold a 'democracy summit.' What do you think the difference is between Chinese diplomacy's multilateralism and the Biden administration's 'multilateralism'?"
Jin Canrong: "Let's put it this way. China is a lot like Shi Chengren ('honest person') from the work unit. The multilateralism we support is a genuine multilateralism based on multilateral organizations, with the UN resolving political issues and the WTO resolving trade issues. We have a deep admiration for this multinational multilateral system. Americans, on the other hand, view multilateralism with an instrumentalist mindset: I'll use it if it works, and I'll discard it if it doesn't.
"This is different from us. We cherish multilateralism's values and keep multilateral institutions in high regard. We have been exemplary students, considering the fact that multilateralism was first proposed in the West and our country was only introduced to the idea in the 1990s. We not only acknowledge multilateralists, i.e. international organizations, but we also practice what we preach and look forward to developed alongside developing countries.
"This has to do with our country's positioning. We believe in the two pillars of peace and prosperity, and we have placed ourselves as a developing nation. Development is still the top priority for developing countries. Other problems can be solved if development is successful.
"As a result, we also want to foster growth through multilateralism, an approach that Western countries do not understand and that is tied to our own circumstances and historical experiences.
"Furthermore, China has made a substantial shift in its diplomacy since the 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (2012), stressing what it means to be a 'responsible major power' and proposing the creation of 'major country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics.' This is also a novel approach. China had only positioned itself as a regional force in East Asia prior to the 18th National Congress. The former Soviet Union and the U.S. were the only major world powers of which we were mindful.
"Therefore, the mention of 'major power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics' represents a shift in our self-positioning from regional to global power. The roles have also adjusted as a result of the shift in positioning. So, my feeling is that since the 18th National Congress, China has taken more responsibility in the international arena than before.
"Consequently, China's multilateralism is becoming more open, and we are willing to take more responsibilities in our neighborhood, such as the Belt and Road Initiative.
"From China's perspective, the country is the world's leading manufacturer, and its economy has reached a point of surplus production, necessitating the need for an outward expansion ('going out'). The world's corresponding demand is to address the fact that the vast majority of countries remain impoverished. There are only about 30 developed countries in the world, which means that 85 percent of the countries and 85 percent of the population still face development challenges. Infrastructure is the most essential requirement for growth. You won't be able to sell even the best goods if your family lives in the mountains with no infrastructure.
"Since infrastructure is needed for development, the Belt and Road Initiative meets the needs of other countries as well. Taking China as the starting point and heading west, most Asian countries are still poor, as are virtually all African countries, and half of Europe. So, half of Europe, 90% of Asia, and 100% of Africa are in need of development. If we look further, the whole Latin America, Southeast Asia and South Pacific countries also need development.
"That is why, through initiatives like the Belt and Road, we practice multilateralism at the developmental stage. It could act as a good case study for the rest of the world. Unfortunately, due to their narrow outlook, the West sees China's BRI as a challenge."
Biden Continues To Advocate Limited Multilateralism In Terms Of Specific Policies
Observer: "Since Biden's election, several international voices have anticipated that he would return to multilateralism. However, based on the Biden administration's current definition of multilateralism, the United States' 'multilateral' appears to be very 'small.' What is the reason for this?"
Jin Canrong: "I've been researching the U.S. for 37 years, since 1984, and it's become a country that is unrecognizable to me. The U.S. we used to research was very optimistic because it was the first to experience the IT revolution in the 1980s, and had eventually pulled ahead of the Soviet Union in the Cold War competition. It was a country on the rise. The self-assured U.S. was still very tolerant.
"The last few years have been different. Since the IT bubble burst, many countries now have access to a wide range of technologies. Consider microchips: In 1990, the U.S. produced 37% of the world's chips, [but now] it generates just 3%-12%, or a third of what it used to. According to the U.S., China used to produce 0%, but now it makes more than 13%. That's a change. The U.S. once had a distinct edge in high-tech, but that advantage is no longer evident.
"Domestic issues in the U.S. have also risen, and internal tensions have become more intense. This sparked a strong nationalist movement in the U.S., culminating in the election of President Donald Trump, who established a new American diplomatic tradition known as 'America First.' Following the start of this tradition, the U.S. has become more cautious about multilateral collaboration, using it when it is advantageous and discarding it when it is not, withdrawing from the community immediately.
"It's been almost a month and a half since Biden took office. It's worth remembering that Biden is now promoting selective multilateralism, but he's not quite as hardline as Trump in that he doesn't keep bringing up 'America First.' Biden assured European leaders that America is back. He, [Secretary of State] Blinken, and [National Security Advisor] Sullivan, among other key figures, have stated that the U.S. needs to return to multilateral organizations and reclaim its role as world leader. This stance differs from that of the previous Trump administration, but Biden continues to advocate limited multilateralism in terms of specific policies.
"The change in the U.S. attitude toward 'multilateralism' from Trump to Biden can be seen as another clear reflection of America's decline."
 Guancha.cn/JinCanRong/2021_03_10_583578_s.shtml, March 10, 2021.
 以小人之心度君子之腹, yǐ xiǎo rén zhī xīn dù jūnzǐ zhī fù – based on a story from the Annals of Mr. Zuo (400 BCE).
 News.cgtn.com/news/2021-01-25/Full-text-Xi-Jinping-s-speech-at-the-virtual-Davos-Agenda-event-Xln4hwjO2Q/index.html, January 26, 2021.
 This is a cultural reference to a famous skit from the 2006 CCTV Spring Festival Gala of the same name, suggesting that someone says what he feels. Baike.baidu.com/item/%E5%AE%9E%E8%AF%9A%E4%BA%BA
 "Going Out" strategy 走出去 zǒuchūqù, or "Going Global," was adopted by the Party Central Committee since the late 1990s in in order to complement and diversify capital, improve the competitiveness of Chinese enterprises abroad, and encourage the export of goods and labor services. The Belt and Road Initiative, initiated by Xi Jinping in 2013, can be seen as the next step in the development strategy's evolution.