China's Rising Foreign Ministry
Practices and Representations of Assertive Diplomacy
Dylan M.H Loh



Why China’s Foreign Ministry and Diplomats Matter (More Than We Think)

Quotidian, routine, and, perhaps, somewhat boring. These are qualities not typically associated with diplomacy and diplomats (e.g., Sharp, 1999, pp. 41–42; Kleiner, 2008). Indeed, diplomacy, viewed popularly, tends to play out as public spectacles: Donald Trump’s Singapore summit with Kim Jong Un in 2018 and Xi Jinping’s meeting with Ma Ying-jeou in 2015 are a couple of examples. Whether one understands diplomacy as the “application of tact and intelligence to the conduct of official relations between governments” (Satow, 1979, p. 3), the mediation of estrangement (Der Derian, 1987), or the “management of frontlines between different political entities” (Cooper & Cornut, 2018, p. 300), diplomacy does not usually evoke images of mundanity. Yet diplomats often associate it with tedium, as one Chinese diplomat says plainly: “Actually, this involves a lot of hard work. This is a tough job. What we do every day consists of repeated meetings and paperwork. Most things and times are unexciting, even boring” (Interviewee 1, personal communication, November 20, 2016). In contrast, international relations (IR) as a discipline is often fixated on visible and major events of international life such as wars, crises, and revolutions that serve as “benchmark dates” (Buzan & Lawson, 2012). What is more, IR sometimes underestimates diplomacy’s relevance in that states and structures become “unproblematic and unproblematized entities” that “play out their games in ways that admit little attention to diplomats and diplomacy” (Sharp, 1999, p. 34). Thus diplomacy has been observed as being “epiphenomenal or redundant” to IR theory (Pouliot & Cornut, 2015, p. 298), despite being the “engine room” of international affairs (R. Cohen, 1998, p. 1).

Addressing this issue head on, scholarship motivated by the “practice turn”—analytical inquiry focusing on human/institutional “doings and sayings”—has made important inroads in highlighting diplomacy’s importance to a wide range of IR phenomena such as international hierarchy (Pouliot, 2016), power in multilateral arenas (Adler-Nissen & Pouliot, 2014), politics of knowledge production (Neumann, 2012), and international humanitarian interventions (Autesserre, 2014). Even as diplomatic studies have made important progress in studying diplomats and foreign ministries in the West (e.g., Neumann, 2012; Cornut, 2015; Bicchi & Bremberg, 2016), little has been said regarding Chinese diplomacy. This presents a gap in our understanding of international diplomacy, particularly as Chinese diplomats and diplomacy become more consequential in world politics. Running parallel to this gap is IR’s tendency to theoretically minimize China’s rise, which, despite its importance, “has yet to systematically appeal to the core IR theoretical community” as “a potentially theory generating event” (Pan & Kavalski, 2018, p. 291). How do we make sense of China’s consul-general in Brazil insulting the Canadian prime minister by calling him a “running dog of the US” (Ceco, 2021), People’s Republic of China (PRC) diplomats allegedly beating up Taiwanese representatives during a reception for Taiwan’s national day in Fiji (Hille, 2020b), or the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) insisting that the US deputy secretary of state meet with China’s foreign minister under the downgraded diplomatic nomenclature of huijian (diplomatic meeting 会见) instead of huitan (diplomatic talk 会谈) (Xinhua, 2021)? In words and in deeds, a more assertive “wolf warrior” shift has been observed in Chinese diplomacy (D. Loh, 2020b). Even so, relatively little is known about how MOFA and its diplomats contribute to foreign policy and the reasons for, and effects of, this more muscular diplomacy.

Against this backdrop, this research seeks to extend the insights of the practice turn in IR to investigate Chinese diplomacy—particularly its assertive diplomatic shift from 2009 to 2020.1 Prevailing interpretations of China’s assertiveness often describe this phenomenon in terms of China’s military rise (J. Zhang, 2013), ascendant nationalism (Carlson, 2009), President Xi’s strategic intent (Mastro, 2015, pp. 155–156), or a combination of these factors (see Friedberg, 2014). I argue instead that Chinese assertiveness has increasingly come to be represented by Chinese diplomats and MOFA—so much so that MOFA is now the central driver and representation of the “assertive China” meme.

China’s Rising Foreign Ministry and Its Representational Role

The research questions motivating this book include: How is China’s assertiveness (defined as the tendency to use its power and influence to impose costs on others to extract compliance and/or police behavior) represented, and what are its concrete manifestations? Why is Chinese behavior on the international stage increasingly evaluated by different international actors and publics as assertive? How do other state actors construct and understand Chinese foreign policy behavior? As I will demonstrate, these questions can be answered only by investigating MOFA’s representational role (acting/speaking on behalf of the state/Party and expressing its interests, values, and ideologies) and its diplomatic practices. Indeed, President Xi asserts that China’s diplomacy now “represents the will of the state” (Xinhua, 2018), underlining MOFA’s representational significance. What is more, China has “bolstered the political clout” of MOFA and further invested in its diplomacy since 2008 (Thomas, 2021, para. 14). This is evinced in the promotion of foreign minister Wang Yi, in 2018, to one of only five state councillor positions and the elevation of former foreign minister Yang Jiechi to the Politburo in 2017—the apex of political power, which “restores the top diplomat’s status to the level once enjoyed by his former mentor Qian Qichen” (Y. Wang, 2017, p. 11). Wang Yi himself was, subsequently, promoted to the twenty-four-member Politburo in October 2022 (Kaneko, 2022).

Besides, China’s assertiveness is one of the biggest foreign policy debates in recent times, so it needs to be more accurately assessed. Currently, much of this discussion centers on China’s purportedly assertive behavior since 2009 and the factors that gave rise to this phenomenon (e.g., Y. Shi, 2013; I. Chen & Hao 2013). Some argue that it is a result of competition between China and the US due to America’s rebalance to Asia (Buszynski, 2012). Others maintain that China is practicing “proactive assertiveness,” like the staging of maneuvers in the South China Sea to reinforce future claims (J. Zhang, 2013). The popular charge of “creeping assertiveness” describes China as making slow and seemingly harmless advances to score consolidated gains over time (Storey, 1999). Finally, some scholars claim that China’s foreign policy assertiveness is “new” and denotes greater willingness to flex its military and diplomatic muscle, especially over its territorial claims (Yahuda, 2013; Thayer, 2011). Conversely, others have identified the post-2008 period as one in which China has become more cooperative and responsible (Zheng et al., 2010). Through an analysis of seven major foreign policy events in 2010—often touted as cases of Chinese assertiveness—Johnston argues that extant literature on China’s assertiveness has not properly accounted for assertive behavior before 2010, while also suffering from flawed “selection on the dependent variable; ahistoricism; and poor causal specification” (2013, p. 31). Jerdén (2014) questions the assertive characterization itself and insists that there has been no change in China’s foreign policy behavior. G. Chan et al. add that China has “adopted an increasingly cooperative approach to working with major international institutions” and that it has played a bigger regional role in the wake of the 2007–2009 economic crisis (2012, p. 61). Others acknowledge China’s assertiveness but also explain how Beijing is positively contributing to the international order (Godement, 2012, pp. 231–232). Finally, some scholars aver that the most obvious feature of Chinese foreign policy is its fluidity and inconsistency (M. Li & Loh, 2015; Shambaugh, 2013, p. 14; Goldstein, 2012, pp. 55–57).

Intervening in this debate, I assess Chinese foreign policy in Southeast Asia from 2009 to 2020 and catalog “assertive” and “cooperative” behavior (Appendix A). The data indeed shows that assertive practices can be empirically documented across the military, diplomatic, and economic realms. Nevertheless, cooperative and “positive” Chinese practices are also regularly identified, underlining the sometimes contradictory character of China’s foreign policy (see Rühlig, 2022). While the presence of assertiveness or inconsistencies in foreign policy is not unique to China, what is more interesting is to understand why international actors are increasingly making such appraisals of China and to flesh out specific instances of assertive practices. It is not an understatement to stress that perceptions matter in international politics because they elicit significant political (re)actions (see Jervis, 1976). In the context of China’s rise, this is all the more important because countries’ China policies are informed by their evaluations and perceptions of the PRC. As Shambaugh reminds us, mischaracterizations of China will “contribute to an inexorable action-reaction cycle” that will make it “increasingly difficult to cooperate with China internationally” (2011, p. 25).

Relatedly, IR theorists of different persuasions have engaged in discussions on China’s rise anchored in its assertive behavior. Realists contend that China’s forceful international behavior mostly derives from its burgeoning might (e.g., Bisley, 2011; S. Zhao, 2013a). Nevertheless, they cannot satisfactorily explain why this assertiveness is seen now, given that the growth of China’s economic and military prowess precedes it. Liberal institutionalism, like constructivism, underlines Beijing’s dissatisfaction with the existing normative world order and points out how the government is harnessing China’s economic vitality to advance national interests. This, they argue, will take place not through conflict but through jostling for international leadership positions and bargaining power (Ikenberry 2011, p. 57). Growing international trade, according to institutional liberalism, will make China’s rise peaceful since its economy has become inextricably embedded in global trade relations (Ikenberry, 2011, p. 62). Furthermore, it is claimed that participation in international life will curb the PRC’s worst impulses (Qin, 2010, p. 247). Indeed, China’s limited role in shaping global norms and rules and its reputed role as a “price taker” are often presented, by constructivist and liberalist scholars (e.g., Breslin, 2010; Christiansen, 2016), as key reasons for China’s global push for the Belt and Road Initiative. Still, it is important to note that China has emerged as a staunch defender of multilateralism, free trade, and climate mitigation efforts (Guo, 2019)—normative packages that it played only a modest role in shaping. China has also proven that it can conduct assertive and even belligerent activities while deepening economic integration with other nations and partaking meaningfully in international life (see Appendix A). He and Feng (2013, p. 215) pointedly observe how, “like liberals, constructivists also face difficulties when accounting for China’s ‘assertive turn’ of foreign policy since 2009.” In short, liberalist and constructivist IR scholars offer few explanations for China’s truculent diplomacy. Revealingly, they have also shown little interest in understanding China’s diplomacy within the context of China’s emergence. By contrast, this book underlines how diplomatic assertiveness is, in fact, integral to the trope of China’s assertiveness more broadly because of MOFA’s representational role. Getting a more accurate grip on Chinese foreign policy and how assertiveness is “made” will give us better indications as to the course China will take. Why has China’s diplomacy experienced an emphatic uptick in assertiveness? Why do international actors, across different geographies, increasingly perceive Chinese practices as such?

With the above in mind, this book identifies three main gaps in the current literature on China’s foreign policy. First, dominant analyses remain rooted in state-centric epistemologies (Nathan & Scobell, 2012, p. xvi) that largely disregard the lived experiences of actors.2 China’s foreign policy has, for example, been studied through the lens of global governance (Chin & Thakur, 2010); intergovernmental organizations and institutions (Ikenberry, 2008); China’s relationships with major powers (C. W. Hughes, 2009; J. Wang, 2011; Coker, 2015); its security and territorial interests (Nathan & Scobell, 2012; Holslag, 2010); nationalism (Carlson, 2009; Zhao, 2013b); and soft power (Breslin, 2009; Shambaugh, 2015). The lack of attention to lived realities and practices is surprising when one considers how diplomacy is “an everyday activity that has been an aspect of social life wherever there have been distinct political entities” (Neumann, 2013, p. 14). If we believe that the social world is constituted in and through the doings of people who populate it, we must pay greater attention to the actual “doings” themselves. As Pouliot warns, if we disregard this, “dominant IR theory cuts itself short from a key generative force” (2016, p. 12).

This parallels the problem of traditional foreign policy analysis, where “most accounts . . . take for granted the existence of the state and see foreign policy as its actions” (Laffey, 2000, p. 430). Furthermore, since 2008, China has seen an increase in the number and variety of its foreign policy voices (Lanteigne, 2017, pp. 1–3). This development, according to Lequesne (2020, p. 2), has exacerbated neglect in the study of foreign ministries, as “the demonopolisation of the MFAs’ role leads scholars to consider too quickly that they have become marginal institutions in the making of diplomacy.” Such neglect is further compounded by confidentiality safeguards inherent in foreign ministries, which create an “accessibility problem” for academics studying Chinese politics: gaining access to policymakers for interviews or observation is difficult because of secrecy and the opacity of the Chinese policy apparatus. Nonetheless, scholars working on Chinese politics have relied, fruitfully and extensively, on interview data for their analyses (e.g., A. Barnett, 1985; Lu, 2000; Goldstein, 2001; Weiss, 2014; Ding, 2022; Rühlig, 2022) despite increasing difficulties in conducting academic research under Xi (Taber, 2018). This study adds on to this body of work by adopting an ethnographically sensitive approach in its investigation of Chinese diplomacy.

Another gap in the literature’s interpretations of Chinese foreign policy is a tendency to study either agents (e.g., key leaders, People’s Liberation Army [PLA]) or structures (e.g., nationalism, domestic politics), independently. The distinction creates the problem of empirical separation: existing explanations of China tend to examine, in isolation, either the structure or the agents. My investigative approach, leaning on practice theory, is conscious of structural constraints but also attuned to the game-playing potential of agents. In other words, the practice-theoretical approach gives us the tools to examine the agents involved in producing diplomacy and assertiveness while also accounting for structural limits present in the diplomatic field.

Finally, accounts of Chinese international politics often consider MOFA briefly and superficially in their analyses (see Sutter, 2012, p. 27; L. Jones & Zeng, 2019, p. 1416). The literature tends to sideline MOFA in favor of other foreign policy actors and forces (such as nationalism or domestic politics). As a result, the empirical and theoretical importance of MOFA and Chinese diplomacy is not precisely captured. Thus, there is a need for systematic analyses of MOFA considering its increasing visibility and its growing representational role for the Chinese state and the Party (Chhabra & Haas, 2019). Indeed, MOFA has occupied a leading role in China’s foreign policy and diplomacy across a range of issues big and small, from successfully weakening and hampering the issuance of statements by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on the South China Sea to managing the release of detained Singaporean armored vehicles. Seen in this light, mainstream accounts of MOFA’s weakness do not correspond with the evidence that points to its role in contributing to and intervening in assertive evaluations of contemporary Chinese behavior. A sociologically sensitive analysis of China’s diplomatic practices can provide better explanations for the “how” and the “why” of China’s contemporary foreign policy behavior and can better document, in concrete terms, Chinese assertiveness and the process through which other international actors view it.

Directly addressing the aforementioned gaps, this book advances four interrelated arguments. First, I suggest that China’s assertiveness is progressively guided by and represented through MOFA and its diplomats rather than military actors, though the latter have traditionally been considered the key component of Chinese assertiveness (cf. Zhao, 2013a; Pugliese, 2015). Diplomatic assertiveness accelerated under Xi Jinping in 2013 as incentives in the field of diplomacy shifted to reward and discipline particular diplomatic practices and became the main route through which China presented itself to others. It is telling that the label “wolf warriors”—inspired by the eponymous film featuring a fictitious Chinese military hero—is used to signify diplomats rather than soldiers. A critical analysis of Chinese diplomatic practices illustrates the rapidity with which MOFA took on a representational role, and the expansion of its prominence that gave rise to assertive diplomacy. As I will detail in subsequent chapters, MOFA is consistently speaking on behalf of other Chinese actors (such as the PLA, the Chinese Communist Party [CCP], and the Ministry of Commerce), and as an attendant effect, it generates acts of assertiveness directly and vicariously for the state.

Second, I nuance claims made by some scholars about the limited role that PRC diplomats and MOFA allegedly play. For example, Stenslie and Gang note that MOFA holds a “relatively low rank” (2016, p. 130) and that they have had to occupy a “middle position” in foreign affairs (2016, p. 129). Brown writes how MOFA “has very little power to articulate fresh positions on foreign-policy issues” (2017, p. 44). And others have claimed that MOFA’s top diplomats are relatively powerless (e.g., Breslin, 2013, p. 1280; Jakobson, 2016, pp. 141–143). Some Southeast Asian diplomats also point to MOFA’s weak domestic position and claim that it translates into weakness internationally (Interviewee 2, personal communication, May 9, 2014; Interviewee 3, personal communication, February 10, 2015). In contrast, this book argues that MOFA’s influence has expanded considerably since 2009, as evinced by two main factors: top political leaders’ increased reliance and confidence in diplomacy, indicated by an increase in the apportionment of material resources to MOFA, and MOFA’s higher profile domestically and internationally. Indeed, Chinese leaders today are relying much more than previous ones on the nation’s diplomatic apparatus by investing heavily in MOFA and its diplomats (e.g., W. Hu, 2019; B. Smith, 2019). As the main interface of China’s foreign policy, MOFA often communicates Chinese positions in various domains such as foreign policy, security, finance, and even domestic politics. As the only official institution that holds daily press conferences,3 it is the main vehicle through which “China” is articulated and (re)presented to international audiences. Taken together, all of this elevates MOFA’s capacities since it now has both the official mandate and the appetite to do more by showing “fighting spirit” and “attack[ing]” any affronts to China (J. Shi, 2020). To be clear, this does not mean it has the power to operate independently or the wherewithal to resist and overturn Party leaders or the president’s wishes. My more modest claim, vis-à-vis MOFA’s influence, is that Chinese envoys (compared to diplomats before 2009) are more incentivized and entrusted to practice and represent assertiveness.

The leadership’s endorsement of MOFA is also supported by concrete and symbolic support. For instance, there has been a significant material increase to MOFA, with its diplomatic budget doubling to RMB $60 billion in 2018 from RMB $30 billion in 2011 (Clover & Ju, 2018). Additionally, the Lowy Institute’s 2019 Global Diplomacy Index revealed that China overtook the United States, for the first time, in having the largest diplomatic presence in the world—276 diplomatic missions compared to America’s 273 (Meredith, 2019). The reorganization and renaming of China’s Leading Small Group on Foreign Affairs to the institutionally more important Central Foreign Affairs Commission (CFAC) in 2018 (Xinhua, 2018) is another politically consequential move, as a “commission” (zhongyang waishi gongzuo weiyuanhui 中央外事工作委员会) ranks higher than a “leading small group” (Zhongyang waishi gongzuo lingdao xiaozu 中央外事工作领导小组). Notably, MOFA is now able to extend its purview to areas outside diplomacy. For example, in a press conference during China’s “two sessions” (Lianghui 两会) in 2020,4 China’s foreign minister enumerated how MOFA had helped Hubei and Wuhan weather the crisis when the Covid-19 pandemic first emerged. Strikingly, he added that MOFA would take on a critical role in supporting Hubei’s economic recovery efforts and would coordinate with other national agencies to help the province rebuild and renew itself (CGTN, 2020). This demonstrates how the coordinating and facilitating functions and work duties of MOFA have extended, in a substantive manner, into other areas. To be clear, I am not proposing that MOFA has policymaking powers in those fields; I am simply stating that MOFA is representing various domains of China to international audiences. That is to say, MOFA is discursively and practically speaking on and intervening in a myriad of issues that it previously did not. This suggests that MOFA’s domestic and international profiles have risen, with significant effects in terms of how other international actors view China and how other domestic institutional actors relate to MOFA.

Thus the second reason behind MOFA’s growing influence lies in its higher profile. Since 2019, the proliferation of Twitter accounts and the diplomatic activities there have raised public awareness of MOFA. Interviews with Chinese diplomats indicate how their online presence and activities, specifically through Twitter, are now part of performance appraisals. In a direct way, Chinese envoys are compelled to spend time on Twitter to react, respond, and critique as they often try to outdo each other (Brandt and Schafer, 2020). It must also be underlined that China’s Twitter diplomacy has produced counterintuitive results, costing Beijing some reputational points. For instance, in November 2020, MOFA’s spokesperson tweeted a falsified image of an Australian soldier smiling while slitting the throat of an Afghan child (British Broadcasting Corporation, 2020). The doctored photo sparked outrage and prompted demands by Canberra for Beijing to apologize. France, the United States, and New Zealand swiftly joined Australia in condemning China (Reuters, 2020). Nevertheless, MOFA’s spokesperson Hua Chunying defended her colleague, questioning Australia’s (over)reaction (Chappell, 2020, para. 2). As China increasingly takes to Twitter for its forceful brand of diplomacy, perceptions of diplomatic assertiveness and intransigence form and deepen.

Segueing to the third argument in this book, I submit that the Chinese example provides key insights into how power manifests as functional capacities, complicating what constitutes “power” in international politics. I highlight three functional abilities of MOFA at play: advising, implementing, and facilitating/coordinating. None of these processes, exclusive to MOFA in China, have been theorized, even though they have important political repercussions. For logistical and practical purposes, MOFA provides expert advice on matters big and small in leaders’ foreign policymaking. Despite MOFA’s limited policymaking powers, it can, in the words of a Chinese diplomat, influence policies, as its advice is often taken as authoritative. Often the “diplomats-as-implementers” meme is invoked in the literature to highlight the limited role PRC envoys perform. In contrast, I found that envoys could exercise considerable influence through the process of implementation. For instance, in multilateral events and conferences, Chinese diplomats’ extension of courtesies to visiting dignitaries (e.g., the type of meals, the hotels, the rank of Chinese politicians receiving guests) signifies their “importance.” On the flip side, withholding or downgrading these courtesies, which PRC diplomats gate-keep as implementers, sends important political messages. Such was the case with one Filipino contact, who told me that MOFA had disinvited him at the last minute from an ASEAN-China event because of the arbitral case that the Philippines brought against China. Bode and Kalsrud correctly observe that practitioners’ implementation is not purely “technical or apolitical,” as practitioners can introduce “meaningful instances of agency” (2019, p. 461). As for MOFA’s facilitating functions, these foreground its representational role explicitly. In my investigations, I found PLA personnel—traditionally seen as one of the most important foreign policy institutions in China—ceding facilitating powers to MOFA in specific security domains. Thus, in the South China Sea, MOFA is increasingly coordinating and facilitating Beijing’s response (Qi, 2019). MOFA was also playing the leading role in managing disputes, delivering threats, and articulating Chinese positions in the 2017 Doklam standoff5 and the 2020 Galwan Valley clash with India, rather than the PLA (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2017).

Last but not least, I illuminate how China’s diplomats construct perceptions of China for external audiences. I explain how China’s foreign ministry and its officials generate significant identity effects. Indeed, a key task for foreign diplomats stationed abroad is to produce reports and briefs for political leaders back home (Yun, 2014, pp. 20–21), and a considerable part of their analyses derives from their interactions with Chinese diplomats and MOFA-endorsed texts (D. Loh, 2020b). Through these exchanges, PRC envoys mediate and construct “China” for consumption at others’ national capitals.6 Phrased differently, MOFA and its personnel are indispensable purveyors of China’s image in international politics, highlighting its representational roles.

These arguments are advanced through a multiyear and multisited fieldwork study of MOFA, involving extensive interviews, participant observation, and artifact analysis, to investigate the practices and politics of diplomacy. This research is, therefore, the first study of contemporary Chinese diplomacy and its foreign ministry (2009–2020). Specifically, I conducted a mixed-qualitative investigation through 102 interviews with eighty-four Chinese diplomats/secondary diplomatic actors and non-Chinese diplomats from 2016 to 2020, together with case studies and primary text analysis. Adding to that, I made use of participation observation data drawn from my experience working in a Singaporean think tank from 2013 to 2015, principally through involvement in track-1.5 and track-2 diplomatic forums involving Chinese interlocutors. I elaborate my research design in greater detail in chapter 1. Additionally, through field analysis, I mapped out the relationships between key foreign policy actors within China. This mapping produced a topographical visualization of the most significant local diplomatic players.

The Practice-Theoretical Approach and Chinese Diplomacy

This project draws on Bourdieu-inspired practice theory (PT), an approach that devotes full analytical regard to practices—understood as the doings and sayings of actors in the world. I promote the methodological and theoretical claim that PT is best suited to study China’s diplomacy, as it pays attention to (micro) practices and processes that are overlooked in traditional analysis of China’s IR in at least three specific ways. First, PT pays attention to the lived realities of diplomats and grounds its analysis in these experiences and practices. As mentioned, existing Chinese studies do not take diplomats and MOFA seriously enough in their scholarship, let alone their lived realities. Yet these practices are important if we are to accurately understand the representational role MOFA has assumed. On a theoretical level, it further implies that we train our analysis of international relations through a logic of practicality. As Pouliot explains: “World politics as in any other social field, does not derive from conscious deliberation or thoughtful reflection—instrumental, rule-based, communicative, or otherwise. Instead, practices are the result of inarticulate, practical knowledge that makes what is to be done appear ‘self-evident’ or commonsensical. This is the logic of practicality” (2008, p. 258). A logic of practicality insists that “commonsensical” and everyday practices are key drivers of diplomacy and foreign policy.

Second, PT’s sensitivity to practices and its constituent role in constructing structures mean that analysis is not ontologically determined prior to analysis at either the individual, state, or systemic level. Instead, the notion of practices (by diplomats, the foreign ministry, or the state) dissolves these distinctions, since there is no inherent quality or unique significance attached to larger international phenomena. Thus, for PT, global phenomena are the same as local ones, as they are all rooted in social practices (Schatzki, 2011, p. 2). In other words, for PT, small/micro political practices are constitutive of large international political phenomena. This theoretical commitment, in turn, requires us to refocus our analysis on the processes and practices that traditional paradigms such as realism and liberalism consider irrelevant or epiphenomenal. While the literature on the performative nature of diplomacy is rich (see McConnell, 2018; Visoka, 2018; A. Jones & Clark, 2019), it often omits the role of objects and technologies in enabling diplomatic performances. I show how material objects and arrangements (such as books and MOFA’s architecture) and technological tools (such as WeChat and Twitter) are constitutive of and fundamental to contemporary Chinese diplomacy and its representational role.

Finally, the Bourdieusian approach to research demands that concepts unfold only in the course of one’s research—“a permanent reminder that concepts have no definition other than systemic ones, and are designed to be put to work empirically in systemic fashion” (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992, pp. 95–96). This openness gives us flexibility in selecting the method that best suits the question at hand, rather than adjusting the puzzle to suit one’s methodological conviction (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992, p. 28). The upshot of this is that the researcher is less inhibited by theoretical strictures—in which empirics serves merely to either validate, refine, or reject a theory—and can instead focus on uncovering what is interesting and unseen. Hence, seriously engaging with practice theory for the analysis here is not a methodological whim but an analytical requirement.

Beyond the empirical and theoretical advantages, this research is important because of the sheer political, economic, and cultural weight of China. As its heft increases, so too will its impact on the region and the world. How and in what way it chooses to wield its diplomatic influence will prove instructive, especially as claims multiply regarding China’s more activist leadership role in the face of purported decline in the liberal international order (Pillsbury, 2015). The PRC has grown more confident and has both the desire and the capacity to play a larger role in the world: the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in 2016, the Belt and Road Initiative,” and the articulation of the “Major Power Diplomacy” discourse are manifestations of this ambition and self-belief. Furthermore, with Xi Jinping taking the helm in 2013, China has one of its most powerful leaders since Mao Zedong (Campbell, 2017). The full effects of his power consolidation and demands for the realization of the “China Dream” and the “Twin Centenaries”7 have yet to be understood. Most significantly, little is known about MOFA’s role in China’s rise or the extent to which MOFA intervenes in contemporary Chinese foreign policy behavior. This research therefore examines Chinese diplomatic practices from 2009 to 2020 to understand MOFA’s evolution and its contemporary function in instigating and representing China’s foreign policy and its assertive dimensions.

Research Scope

The geographical focus on Southeast Asia in this research is meant to provide empirical grounds for the theoretical application. Hence, while the empirical analyses are frequently nested within Southeast Asia, the empirical findings are designed to go beyond the region as Chinese diplomacy’s effects are felt globally. At any rate, from the period identified (2009–2020), Southeast Asia is, and continues to be, the space where Chinese diplomacy is most visible and active as part of Beijing’s renewed focus on its periphery diplomacy (zhou bian wai jiao 周边外交) (Swaine, 2010). Furthermore, Southeast Asia is where the change from a passive to a more robust diplomacy is clearest (I. Chen & Hao, 2013; see also Appendix A). The year 2009 was chosen as the starting point for this analysis, as it is the year that scholars generally demarcate as reflecting “greater” or “increased” assertiveness (Swaine, 2010; Yahuda, 2013; Kao, 2014; Rozman, 2012, p. 157). It is also from 2009 that academic works and media reports on China’s assertiveness saw a spike compared to previous years (Johnston, 2013, pp. 10–12). The next key touchstone date that anchors this analysis is 2013 because this is the year that Xi Jinping formally took over as president. Finally, 2019 saw a flurry of official Chinese diplomatic Twitter accounts established, which paved the way for diplomats’ very active and robust presence online. In that way, the period spanning 2013–2019 showed significant impact on MOFA as a result of Xi’s assumption of power, while the period before that (2009–2013) serves as an important prelude to point out that significant changes in MOFA and Chinese foreign policy were a result of evolution (rather than a sudden break with established diplomatic practices), instigated by greater control from the top leadership.

Organization of the Book

The book is organized into six chapters. In chapter 1, I delve into the literature on Chinese foreign policy and unpack it thematically. By doing so, I elaborate in greater detail important gaps in the scholarship, while carving out a space where this research locates itself. The chapter also explains my methodological approach and how the empirics will be performed. This entails a short review of PT and how this approach offers an alternative and updated view of China’s assertiveness, its foreign policy, and MOFA’s representational role. Moving to the data collected, chapter 2 zooms in on an analysis of MOFA and the practices of diplomats. Here, I argue against traditionalist views in the scholarship that relegate MOFA to the sidelines. In contrast, I show how Chinese diplomats and MOFA have been increasingly empowered as their representational function has been given prominence, particularly since Xi Jinping assumed the presidency. From this perspective, I identify how diplomatic assertiveness is constructed through MOFA’s communicative and embodied practices.

Suturing habitus to the field and vice versa, chapter 3 pans out to the international level to give an account of how diplomatic influence is brought to bear in transnational fields, creating conditions for change and disruption. In that connection, I offer a field-theoretic account of change in the bilateral and multilateral spaces where Chinese actors operate, while providing the first visual charting of the diplomatic field in China. Through an examination of Chinese multilateralism, I specify how Chinese interlocutors modified both the formal and informal field rules according to their own operative logic and how non-Chinese actors viewed such practices. In chapter 4, I use the concept of institutional habitus as a heuristic tool to study China’s foreign ministry by examining how institutional scripts, dispositions, and history impel diplomats to adopt, internalize, and perform assertive diplomatic practices. I empirically document how non-Chinese diplomats construct China’s identity and behavior from these diplomatic practices, hence underlining MOFA’s role in generating identity effects in international relations. Through this interrogation of contemporary Chinese foreign policy, the book complicates commonly held notions of Beijing’s foreign policy and diplomacy as being completely procedural and rigid. In contrast, my investigation shows that while the top leaders hold undisputed authority over foreign policy, MOFA has significant say over foreign policy knowledge production, policy implementation, and coordination.8 Significantly, I contend that MOFA is critical in forming perceptions of China among other diplomats and their countries.

In chapter 5, I examine the effects of China’s “Twitter diplomacy.” This relatively new form of diplomatic practice emerged in the early 2010s but only truly caught on from 2019 onwards in China. My findings suggest that leveraging social-technological tools for diplomatic signaling is now a key prong of Chinese diplomacy and an increasingly important work activity for diplomats. Concretely, I outline how Chinese diplomats use Twitter to advance bureaucratic interests and delegitimize non-Chinese diplomatic actors. I argue that this form of diplomacy is critical to our understanding of China’s bid to increase discourse power, while illustrating how this can also prove detrimental to PRC’s standing. The book ends with a chapter where I summarize my findings while underlining the role of material objects and arrangements in enabling assertive diplomatic practices.


1. The terms assertive diplomacy and assertive foreign policy is often used by scholars to refer to the same phenomenon. See Ross (2013).

2. The vocabulary used in such analysis (“core interests,” “national strategy,” and so forth) reflects this penchant (e.g., J. Wang, 2011; Zeng et al., 2015).

3. The first MOFA press conference was held on March 1, 1983, with Qi Huaiyuan 齐怀远 as the first spokesperson (Baijiahao, 2023).

4. The “two meetings” are meetings of the National People’s Congress and the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.

5. This references the military border dispute between India and China over China’s construction of a road in Doklam in June 2017 (Blanchard, 2017).

6. A similar process can be traced back to the Qing dynasty in the late nineteenth century, when political reformers and revolutionaries actively constructed others’ visions of “China” (Hayton, 2020).

7. This refers to the twin goals of a “moderately well-off society” by 2021 (coinciding with the one-hundredth year of China’s Communist Party) and of a “fully developed nation” by 2049 (coinciding with the one-hundredth year of the People’s Republic of China).

8. The top leadership is embodied by the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), in which Xi Jinping is the “core” leader. The number of people in the PSC was nine before 2012 and had been as low as five members in the ninth PSC in 1969.