Richard McGregor is a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney.
With Beijing out of sorts with the U.S., the U.K., Japan, Canada, India, Australia and other countries too numerous to list, are senior Chinese leaders starting to question a fight on so many fronts?
There are few signs, in public at least, that the leadership is recalibrating, or, to put it more accurately, that Xi Jinping has decided to take any steps back from the ambitious foreign policy goals he has set for his country.
One prominent official spokesman for Beijing on the world stage, Senior Colonel Zhou Bo, writing in the South China Morning Post on July 27, depicted the confrontation with the U.S. as mere "headwinds" to China's "peaceful" development. "The most profound change the world is experiencing is China growing ever stronger," said Zhou, who is an honorary fellow at the People's Liberation Army's Academy of Military Science.
Zhou's approach allows Beijing to deflect the sharpest critiques of China, such as last week's speech by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum saying the U.S. would no longer tolerate attempts to usurp the global order. Xi has always had his critics among China's liberal scholars who blame him for provoking the U.S. with his assertive diplomatic and military policies.
Beijing's interests would have been far better served, they believe, by sticking with the low-profile policy counseled by Deng Xiaoping when China began emerging from the post-Mao era in the early 1980s, of "hiding its strength, and biding its time." In truth it has long been impossible for a country as large as China, with an economy growing as quickly, to maintain a low profile in global affairs. But by citing the doctrine of a revered political leader like Deng, the liberals gave themselves political cover to criticize Xi, without mentioning him by name.
In recent weeks, however, there have been signs of a debate stirring in hard line circles in Beijing as to whether China has overreached. "Wolf warrior" diplomacy, the term used to describe the more aggressive posture taken by Chinese diplomats to push back against foreign criticism, seems to have taken a back seat for the moment. The wolf warriors in the Foreign Ministry sparked an intense backlash in many countries after China began to emerge from the COVID-19 crisis. For the moment, they seem to be keeping their heads down.
Another straw in the wind was an article by Dai Xu, a PLA general and one of China's most prominent hawks. In a recent article, titled "Four Unexpected Things and Ten New Understandings About the United States," Dai advocates China taking stock of its relative weaknesses compared to the U.S. and behaving accordingly.
Noticing that China's confrontation with the U.S. has won it no friends, despite widespread disapproval of the Trump administration's erratic, unilateral foreign policy, especially on trade, Dai argued that no countries have come forward to establish a unified anti-U.S. alliance together with China.
"China has provided assistance to so many countries, benefiting them in so many ways, but at this critical moment, none of them has taken any unified action with China," Dai writes. Warning that China should never "knock on (America's) door and make a loud announcement that 'I shall surpass you, replace you and be the world's number one'," Dai seems to concede that China has gotten ahead of itself.
China should instead look to Japan, which Dai argues has a much better understanding of America's anxiety at being overtaken as a world power. Dai's invocation of Japan is particularly telling. Chinese officials under pressure from Washington on trade have often gone to their Japanese counterparts for advice in recent years about how to handle American pressure.
On top of all the ideas that Tokyo had used to keep Washington at bay in their own bilateral disputes, from special buying missions to export restraints, Japan's overriding advice to China could be boiled down to four words: "Don't make America angry!"
Of course, Japan and China are very different. Japan was a virtual U.S. protectorate during their trade wars, and therefore at a great disadvantage. China, by contrast, has no such constraints. Much bigger than Japan, it has a more powerful military and a political system with a profoundly adversarial mindset toward the West.
Those factors alone, along with Xi's ambitions for China and his iron discipline in executing them, make it difficult for China to set a new course. They have already "made America angry" and it will be hard to turn that around. Similarly, these factors have also ensured that the more concerted global pushback against China will be sustained for some time yet, and not just in the U.S.
Despite the misgivings among even China's hawks about how friendless their country has become, whether the pushback impacts China, and Chinese behavior, remains an open question.