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China Security and Risk Tracker
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MERICS China Security and Risk Tracker 01/2024

Chinese Forcasts for 2024: Beijing doubles down on its geopolitical ambitions

2024 is set to be a challenging year for China. Russia’s war in Ukraine and the conflict in the Middle East will complicate its relations with liberal democracies. China’s economic downturn and the socioeconomic consequences will demand difficult adjustments. And upcoming elections in Europe and in the United States will inject uncertainty and instability into China’s international environment. 

Despite all this, China’s leaders seem optimistic about the country’s international position and the outlook for its geopolitical ambitions. Preparing for the 75th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic, Beijing seems satisfied with its foreign policy approach and sees no reason to change course. 

At the December 2023 Central Foreign Affairs Work Conference, President Xi Jinping noted the world has entered a “new period of turbulence and transformation” in which “major-country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics will enter a new stage where much more can be accomplished”.  The government’s work report to the National People’s Congress (NPC) in March had a similar tone, outlining Beijing’s grand ambitions to reform the global governance system.

For Western analysts and forecasters, the key China-related risks facing the world this year include China’s sputtering growth model, its close ties with Russia and its response to the upcoming US elections. 

Chinese think tanks and analysts see China’s key risks differently. 

For a fuller picture of the year ahead, this briefing will look at risk forecasts for 2024 from three Chinese organizations – 1) the Center for International Security and Strategy (CISS) at Tsinghua University;  2) the Center for National Security Research at Renmin University;  and 3) the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) . Their analyses are essential to understand what China’s top foreign policy thinkers expect, and to contextualize leaders’ statements about their agenda and priorities in the year ahead.

Washington is seen as the top risk

The 2024 US elections in November feature among China’s top security risks in all these forecasts. Chinese analysts expect to see a tougher line on China from the Republican and Democratic parties during the campaign. They worry it will undermine what Beijing calls the “San Francisco Vision”, referring to a pathway to stabilize relations which Beijing says Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden agreed at their November 2023 summit. It is questionable whether such a consensus exists as the US side has not mentioned this vision. 

Chinese experts expect the negative impact of election rhetoric to spread beyond bilateral relations. But they have contradictory views about the impact on China’s international environment. Some forecasts fear the United States will become more reluctant to get actively involved in issues of global concern in 2024, leading to more global instability. Others zero in on what they see as Washington’s very proactive role in other risks and crises that China faces, from the worsening conflict with the Philippines in the South China Sea, to rising tensions in the Korean Peninsula. 

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a new addition to the list of upcoming risks. Here too, the US is central to China’s concerns. Washington is accused of using its AI dominance to preserve its global hegemony. Examples include US restrictions on tech exports to China that are intended to curb China’s technological development. 

Few Chinese forecasts delve into what might happen after election day. However, CISS dedicates a few lines to a Donald Trump victory. Recalling the 2016 phone call between Trump and then-Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, it warns that any more such calls would harm the situation in the Taiwan Strait.

US-China geopolitical competition remains top of mind for Chinese analysts, who see Washington as the main driver behind many of the challenges China is facing today.

The EU’s de-risking agenda has become a top concern

Chinese experts share a negative view of the global economy this year. However, they identify Western countries’ policy choices as the source of the major risks to China. They pinpoint the problem as the politicization and securitization of economic and commercial ties. This, they say, is driven by the shared desire of the United States, European nations and others to preserve their competitive advantage at the expense of a global economic recovery.

For this reason, Europe features – unusually – among of China’s top risks this year. The EU’s de-risking strategy is portrayed as an excuse to pursue discriminatory trade practices against China and for Brussels to politicize commercial relations. Some forecasts worry that Europe will make further progress towards de-risking this year, regardless of any pause caused by elections to the European Parliament. Their key issues of concern include new anti-dumping investigations (on top of the current EU investigation into Chinese EVs), an agreement to set up an outbound investment-screening mechanism, or a potential critical raw materials partnership with likeminded partners to compete with China.

Chinese forecasts see China as being better placed than most countries to weather the global economic situation, a view that contrasts with Western analyses. China’s economic upturn is likely to continue, they say, despite the difficulties caused by Western policies.

Global conflicts are expected to escalate

The ongoing war in Ukraine and the conflict in the Middle East are top priorities for most European policymakers this year. Chinese analysts share this assessment. They warn of a growing risk that war in Ukraine may spill over into a wider confrontation between Russia and NATO, though not necessarily a war. They also express concerns that the “situation” will continue to affect regional stability and China’s chances for cooperation with Europe. However, none of the forecasts openly criticize Russia’s actions or question Beijing’s partnership with Moscow. All remain in line with official policy priorities. For the same reason, most reports use the word “situation” rather than “war” to describe the Ukraine conflict.

Chinese experts are also concerned that the conflict in Gaza may escalate this year. Attacks by the Houthis and other groups against Israeli and US targets are thought likely to accelerate Washington and Tel Aviv’s drive to strengthen regional military deterrence. The impact of an escalating conflict on trade routes and energy markets at a time of economic difficulties is seen as posing a severe risk to China’s interests in the Middle East.

The way forward: China’s priorities in 2024

The forecasts examined here also outline Beijing’s way forward in 2024. Chinese experts expect US-China relations to worsen in the run-up to the November 2024 elections: they advocate for preserving stability, for continued engagement with the Global South and for the promotion of Xi Jinping’s new global initiatives to achieve China’s strategic objectives. 

These views echo Beijing’s official 2024 foreign policy priorities, as expressed at the Central Foreign Affairs Work Conference;  in foreign minister Wang Yi’s review of his ministry’s work;  and at the March 2024 National People’s Congress. 

The policy areas and issues to watch this year are:

  • Stability in US-China relations: Beijing will try to keep relations stable in the run-up to the November 2024 elections and prevent tensions from escalating. But competition will remain the main logic of action.
  • Continued support for Russia: China-Russia relations will remain strong. Beijing has committed to deepening its cooperation with Moscow, even as the war in Ukraine enters its third year. 
  • Attempts to derail the de-risking agenda: Creating obstacles to the EU’s de-risking agenda will be a priority for Beijing, as it is seen as a key risk to China’s economic and technological ambitions. Europe should expect a diplomatic charm offensive in member states to reduce support for the Commission’s work on de-risking. 
  • Outreach to developing countries: Beijing will continue to focus on deepening ties with developing nations. It will leverage its Global Development, Security and Civilization Initiatives (GDI, GSI and GCI) alongside the revamped Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to build a network of countries to support its ambitions for global governance reform. China-friendly multilateral formats like BRICS or the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) will be prioritized and reinforced.

Chinese leaders are not blind to the challenges facing the country and the difficult international environment ahead. However, the party’s top echelons seem confident in the party-state’s international work and ability to weather geopolitical storms.