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Hong Kong CNN  — 

After three years of largely self-imposed isolation on the global stage, China is aiming to up its diplomatic offensive and win back lost ground – all while hardening its public stance toward its superpower rival, the United States.

Qin Gang, Beijing’s new foreign minister, on Tuesday declared that “China’s diplomacy has pressed the ‘accelerator button,’” citing the country’s recovery from the pandemic and its resumption of international exchanges.

That outreach will be boosted by a 12.2% increase in the Chinese government’s budget for diplomatic expenditure this year. It’s a drastic jump from the zero-Covid era that saw China’s borders mostly shut: In 2020, China slashed its diplomacy budget by 11.8%, before a mild 2.4% increase in 2022.

This year’s budget, pegged at 54.84 billion yuan (about $8 billion), remains below the pre-pandemic peak, but experts say it marks a significant increase for China to resume and expand its diplomatic engagement with the world. In comparison, in the US, the requested 2023 budget for “international affairs” listed on the State Department’s website was $67 billion.

And the money will be used not only to fund diplomatic trips. According to China’s Ministry of Finance, the umbrella term “diplomatic expenditure” covers a wide range of areas, from budgets for the Foreign Ministry, Chinese embassies and consulates, to China’s participation in international organizations, foreign aid and external propaganda.

Alfred Wu, an associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, noted that China is likely to increase its spending on propaganda efforts targeting foreign audiences to service Beijing’s diplomatic interests – including through Chinese social media apps.

“For example, they try to extend influence in different countries, such as Singapore and Malaysia, through WeChat, targeting those who speak the Chinese language,” Wu said.

Experts also question whether some of the increase is due to the debt stress and repayment problems faced by countries under Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s signature overseas development initiative, known as the Belt and Road.

The second plenary meeting of the first session of the 14th National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 7, 2023.

“Even if the interest and principal repayment is suspended, it still creates a large hole,” said Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Washington-based Stimson Center think tank.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Belt and Road, and Chinese leaders will likely travel the world to talk up its successes, Sun said. “That usually means more diplomatic expenditures such as aid and gift packages,” she said.

China is set to host the third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation this year, after a long delay due to the pandemic. It will also host the first in-person summit between Xi and leaders from five Central Asian countries.

“China wishes to catch up and do more to make up for the lost time and opportunities,” Sun said.

And China has a lot of catching up to do, at least in terms of stabilizing relations with developed countries.

Global surveys by the Pew Research Center have shown that public opinion toward China in advanced economies has turned “precipitously more negative” since 2017, due to concerns about Beijing’s human rights record and military buildup in the South China Sea, with the most dramatic declines between 2019 and 2020.

Since the pandemic, opinions have only deteriorated further, partly due to perceptions that China had mishandled the initial Covid outbreak in Wuhan, according to a Pew survey published last year.

Sharpening rhetoric toward the US

A notable shift in China’s diplomatic endeavors is a more forceful approach in publicly pushing back against the US – from the very top of the Chinese leadership.

In unusually direct remarks Monday, Xi accused the US of leading a campaign to suppress China and causing its serious domestic woes.

“Western countries led by the United States have contained and suppressed us in an all-round way, which has brought unprecedented severe challenges to our development,” Xi told a group of government advisers representing private businesses on the sidelines of an annual legislative meeting in Beijing.

China’s top leader usually avoids directly attacking the US in public even as bilateral relations have deteriorated sharply. He generally refers only to “Western countries” or “some developed nations” when making critical comments about Washington.

Xi’s blunt rebuke of US policy was echoed Tuesday by Qin, the foreign minister, who said US competition with China is in fact all about “containment and suppression” and “a zero-sum game of life and death.”

“If the United States does not hit the brakes, but continues to speed down the wrong path, no amount of guardrails can prevent derailing, and there will surely be conflict and confrontation,” Qin warned.

To longtime observers of Chinese politics, the sharpened rhetoric rings alarm bells for already tense US-China relations, with no off-ramp in sight for deescalation.

“It sure feels like the (Chinese) side has decided to level up in responding much more forcefully to what it sees as unfair US accusations and actions,” wrote Bill Bishop, author of the Sinocism newsletter.

Now that Xi – the most powerful Chinese leader in decades – has lashed out at the US directly, China’s entire officialdom and propaganda machine are expected to take note and rigorously follow.

Temperatures are not likely to cool in Washington, either, given the consensus across the aisle to be tough on China and hardening American public perceptions. According to a Gallup poll released Tuesday, a record-low 15% of Americans view China favorably in 2023, a 5% fall from last year and a 38% decrease since 2018. More than eight in 10 US adults now hold a negative opinion of China, the poll said.

“Expect US-China to get worse faster,” Bishop wrote. “I fear we are entering into a much more dangerous period in US-China relations.”

Chinese leader Xi Jinping attends a session during the G20 Summit in Nusa Dua on the Indonesian resort island of Bali on November 16, 2022.

‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomacy?

Since late last year, some observers have noted Beijing’s softening tone on foreign affairs as it upped its diplomacy with Western governments, following Xi’s flurry of meetings with Western leaders at the G20 summit in Indonesia.

The demotion of combative foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian and the promotion of Qin – a measured former ambassador to the US – to foreign minister had been seen by some as a signal China was moving away from “wolf warrior” diplomacy, the aggressive style adopted by Beijing’s envoys in recent years.

When asked about that perceived shift Tuesday, Qin criticized “wolf warrior” diplomacy as a “narrative trap.”

“Those who coined the term and set the trap either know little about China and its diplomacy, or have a hidden agenda in disregard of facts,” Qin said. “In China’s diplomacy, there is no shortage of goodwill and kindness. But if faced with jackals or wolves, Chinese diplomats would have no choice but to confront them head-on and protect our motherland.”

To Sun, the expert at Stimson Center, the tone of Qin’s remarks did not come as a surprise – it simply aligns with China’s established lines on foreign policy, she said. “I think it is assertive and spiky, but not as aggressive as wolf warrior diplomacy was.”

Wu, the expert in Singapore, meanwhile, said he hadn’t observed much of a mellowing in Beijing’s diplomatic outreach. “Qin Gang may be a bit softer than Wang Yi,” he said, referring to Qin’s predecessor who was recently promoted as Xi’s top foreign policy adviser.

“But Wang is the No.1 official in diplomacy. They are still following Xi’s instruction to show their ‘fighting spirits’ – to go out proactively to fight hostile forces against China.”