Chinese Foreign Ministry Shakeup Suggests Thaw in Relations with the West

Zhao Lijian, the combative Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, has been moved to a far less visible position within the ministry’s Boundary and Ocean Affairs Department, a move many observers believe signals a softening of Beijing’s diplomatic rhetoric and a desire to repair ties with the West.

Diplomatic de-escalation

Zhao was emblematic of China’s “wolf warrior” style of diplomacy, with his hawkish and sometimes strident social media posts popular with nationalist audiences back home. But he also peddled conspiracy theories on the origins of COVID-19, making him controversial internationally and rankling more moderate voices within the Chinese government. Removing him from his foreign ministry post is interpreted as part of an overall effort to restore China’s international image, especially as the country faces strong economic headwinds after prolonged COVID-19 lockdowns and rampant outbreaks of the virus.  

Exploiting EU-U.S. divisions

Other personnel changes within China’s foreign ministry also suggest a taming of the wolf-warrior approach, including the appointment of Qin Gang, a more traditional and conciliatory voice within the foreign policy establishment, as the country’s new foreign minister. Beijing could be laying the groundwork for a broader stabilization of relations with Washington. But China is also focused on repairing ties with the European Union (EU) in hopes of convincing the 27-member bloc to reject Washington’s push to reduce commercial ties and technological interdependence with China.

Beijing has made some progress in this regard, but EU-China relations are still damaged over the latter’s failure to pressure Russia to end its invasion of Ukraine. According to reporting by the Financial Times, Chinese officials have been privately trying to create more daylight between Beijing and Moscow on the issue, with some even expressing mistrust of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Only time will tell whether this moderated diplomatic tone pays dividends in terms of Beijing’s international standing.