Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China. Pool/Getty Images

One of the alleged advantages of autocracies is their supposed ability to turn on a dime in response to changing conditions. If one person has supreme power and doesn’t have to worry about bureaucratic rigidity, a pesky press, domestic opposition, influential interest groups, an independent judiciary, and all those other messy appurtenances of democracy, then in theory they can just issue a new edict and set the ship of state on a new course.

This image of agile and adaptive autocrats is probably mistaken, or at least incomplete. Even seemingly unchallenged dictators usually worry about potential rivals, competing power centers, and whether distant officials will implement directives effectively. Tyrants sometimes get stuck with failing policies because underlings won’t tell them what is really going on, or they refuse to change course because they don’t want to appear weak. Moreover, those supposedly sloth-like, dysfunctional democracies can sometimes act with surprising vigor and swiftness, especially in an emergency.

These caveats notwithstanding, the scope and speed of the changes recently undertaken by Chinese President Xi Jinping are still impressive. Having consolidated his hold on power at the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in October 2022, Xi responded to an unexpected outbreak of public protests by suddenly abandoning the rigid and costly zero-COVID policy he had championed. He has partially moderated his statist, Leninist approach to the Chinese economy and tried to reassure and reinvigorate China’s private sector in the face of anemic economic growth and his past efforts to clip the wings of high-flying Chinese companies like Alibaba. (For a fuller description of these steps, see this useful paper from the Asia Society.)

One of the alleged advantages of autocracies is their supposed ability to turn on a dime in response to changing conditions. If one person has supreme power and doesn’t have to worry about bureaucratic rigidity, a pesky press, domestic opposition, influential interest groups, an independent judiciary, and all those other messy appurtenances of democracy, then in theory they can just issue a new edict and set the ship of state on a new course.

This image of agile and adaptive autocrats is probably mistaken, or at least incomplete. Even seemingly unchallenged dictators usually worry about potential rivals, competing power centers, and whether distant officials will implement directives effectively. Tyrants sometimes get stuck with failing policies because underlings won’t tell them what is really going on, or they refuse to change course because they don’t want to appear weak. Moreover, those supposedly sloth-like, dysfunctional democracies can sometimes act with surprising vigor and swiftness, especially in an emergency.

These caveats notwithstanding, the scope and speed of the changes recently undertaken by Chinese President Xi Jinping are still impressive. Having consolidated his hold on power at the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in October 2022, Xi responded to an unexpected outbreak of public protests by suddenly abandoning the rigid and costly zero-COVID policy he had championed. He has partially moderated his statist, Leninist approach to the Chinese economy and tried to reassure and reinvigorate China’s private sector in the face of anemic economic growth and his past efforts to clip the wings of high-flying Chinese companies like Alibaba. (For a fuller description of these steps, see this useful paper from the Asia Society.)

Most important for our purposes, China is now trying to mend fences with the outside world as part of a broader effort to improve its global image, reignite economic growth, and disrupt U.S. efforts to unite several key countries into a loose anti-Chinese coalition. Will this latest “charm offensive” work?

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why Xi is acting this way: His basic approach to foreign policy simply wasn’t working. It was a mistake to openly proclaim the goal of becoming a (if not the) leading world power by the middle of this century. It might be a worthy goal, but such a bold boast was certain to alarm the United States and put a number of other countries on their guard as well. It was a mistake to combine a major military buildup with militarized “island-building” in the South China Sea. It was short-sighted to reject the ruling of an international tribunal that dismissed Chinese territorial claims in this crucial waterway, and counterproductive to threaten Taiwan and Japan by sending planes and ships into contested areas. It made little sense for Chinese troops to clash with Indian forces in the remote Himalayas. And it was surely a mistake to align China so closely with Russia on the eve of its invasion of Ukraine. Either Xi got duped (if Russian President Vladimir Putin didn’t tell Xi what he was planning), or he chose to tacitly back a brutal partner who turned out to be less capable and competent than Xi thought. Either way, it’s not a good look. Worst of all, these worrisome policies have been pursued and defended through aggressive, hyper-combative “wolf-warrior” diplomacy, based on the odd idea that repeatedly bullying and belittling foreign diplomats and government officials was going to win them friends and enhance Chinese influence.

The results of Xi’s handling of foreign policy have been all too plain: a bipartisan consensus in the United States in favor of countering the “China threat”; an increasingly intense high-tech trade war, including export controls intended to hamstring China’s tech sector; the consolidation of the so-called Quad coalition of the United States, Japan, India, and Australia; a Japanese decision to double its defense spending by 2027 and collaborate even more closely with the United States; South Korean hints that it might acquire nuclear weapons, which are partly a response to North Korea’s actions but also a reflection of concerns about China; and a dramatic deterioration of China’s public image in the European Union, Australia, and several other places.

The need for a reset was obvious, and so China has been making nice of late. Xi and U.S. President Joe Biden held a reasonably cordial meeting at the Bali G-20 summit. Xi has welcomed German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to Beijing for a state visit, and Xi himself has met with heads of state in Southeast Asia and traveled to Saudi Arabia for a series of summit meetings orchestrated by Saudi leader Mohammed bin Salman. Chinese Vice Premier Liu He told a Davos audience that “China is back” and “open for business,” and the Party’s Central Economic Work Conference has been issuing business-friendly guidance intended to spur greater economic growth. Liu also appeared with U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and invited her to visit Beijing, signaling an interest in Sino-American economic coordination for the first time in years.

Will all this work? That depends.

In the short term, abandoning wolf-warrior diplomacy and reiterating China’s desire for close economic ties with other countries will find a receptive audience in many regions. China’s status and influence in the world today is due to the size of its economy and growing technological sophistication. Its growing military power, by contrast, makes others nervous. Even close U.S. allies do not want to sever their economic ties with China (and to be clear, neither do many U.S. businesses), despite their objections to China’s human rights practices and efforts to challenge the regional status quo. As Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte told a Davos audience last week, “China is a ‘huge economy with huge potential and a huge innovation base,’ even if ‘legitimate security concerns’ exist.” French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire echoed this view, saying, “The U.S. wants to oppose China, we want to engage China. … I strongly believe that in the world game, China must be in, China cannot be out.”

What this tells me is that China should stop trying to force the pace of change and adopt a policy of strategic patience instead. Its primary focus should be on domestic economic development—especially in critical areas of advanced technology—which will reinforce other states’ desire to maintain close ties with it and discourage them from participating fully in U.S. export controls and other measures Washington has deployed to slow China’s growth. China should also continue its efforts to build influence within existing global institutions, an endeavor that is more likely to succeed if other states are not worrying about how Beijing might use its enhanced influence in the future.

This approach would also take advantage of China’s strong (if not entirely consistent) commitment to Westphalian-style national sovereignty. China’s own political model is not universally appealing, but it rarely tells other countries how to organize their internal politics and explicitly embraces the idea that each country should determine for itself how it wants to be governed. The United States, by contrast, loves to lecture others on how they should govern themselves and keeps trying to get other countries to embrace our liberal values. Other things being equal, Beijing’s less intrusive approach to bilateral relations is likely to be especially appealing to other non-democracies. Here it is worth remembering that non-democracies outnumber true democracies by a considerable margin in today’s world.

If China cannot return to something akin to its previous strategy of a “peaceful rise,” however, then the reset it is now attempting is going to fail. It may fail because Xi remains fully committed to achieving certain goals (such as reunification with Taiwan) while he is still alive and in office, even though a military assault on the island would be a risky proposition and drive fears of China to new heights. Or it may fail because China’s leaders think its power may be peaking and that necessary changes in the status quo need to be achieved and consolidated before a combination of demography, economic stagnation, and regional balancing put them out of reach.

There is a broader lesson here, one that the leaders of all major powers (and some minor ones, too) should ponder. States in the international system rarely react strongly and negatively when a foreign country’s economy is growing rapidly; on the contrary, they often welcome it because they can benefit from expanded economic opportunities. This policy may be short-sighted if it enables challengers to arise more rapidly than they might otherwise have done, but it still seems to be a widespread tendency. It is only when a rising power starts throwing its newly acquired weight around—and, in particular, by trying to alter the status quo by force, as Russia is now attempting in Ukraine—that other states become fully alarmed and start taking direct action to contain the problem.

Here the United States was very lucky: Its rise during the 19th century didn’t trigger a hostile reaction because it was distant from other major powers, they were more worried about each other, and the United States could expand across North America without having to fight any of them directly. China’s position today is not as favorable, and the population of Taiwan remains strongly opposed to being governed by Beijing and could only be compelled to reunify through military action. The success of Beijing’s latest charm offensive will depend primarily on whether Xi and his associates recognize this problem, keep their nationalist ambitions in check, and focus their efforts on continuing to build economic power at home.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
A Panzerhaubitze 2000 tank howitzer fires during a mission in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.

Lessons for the Next War

Twelve experts weigh in on how to prevent, deter, and—if necessary—fight the next conflict.

An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
An illustration showing a torn Russian flag and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It’s High Time to Prepare for Russia’s Collapse

Not planning for the possibility of disintegration betrays a dangerous lack of imagination.

An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.
An unexploded tail section of a cluster bomb is seen in Ukraine.

Turkey Is Sending Cold War-Era Cluster Bombs to Ukraine

The artillery-fired cluster munitions could be lethal to Russian troops—and Ukrainian civilians.

A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol  January 8, 2009 in Washington.
A joint session of Congress meets to count the Electoral College vote from the 2008 presidential election the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol January 8, 2009 in Washington.

Congrats, You’re a Member of Congress. Now Listen Up.

Some brief foreign-policy advice for the newest members of the U.S. legislature.