2020 is a watershed year in many ways. The still raging coronavirus pandemic has already plunged us into the worst crisis of global governance since the end of the second world war. And the escalating superpower rivalry between China and the United States has exacerbated the decline of multilateral diplomacy, leaving the world ever more fragmented. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi also admitted as much in his year-end speech at a government-linked think tank earlier this month. With no end to the pandemic in sight, the changes brought on by the coronavirus to China’s diplomacy are expected to last for many years to come. China strikes back at US diplomats after fresh national security law sanctions The coronavirus has transformed the way diplomacy is usually done in China. With global business travel largely ground to a halt and international gatherings moving online, Chinese diplomats also have to adapt to the changed realities. For one thing, virtual meetings are the new normal. Digital diplomacy has significantly cut travel budgets and brought down the cost of previously lavish meals and summits. The crisis that nearly brought diplomatic activities to a standstill in its first few months appears to have a positive side for many Chinese diplomats, who usually work substantial overtime. “I can leave the office on time for the first time in many years and that’s the biggest change for me,” a Chinese diplomat said privately in June. Coronavirus: can China recover from diplomacy missteps made during the pandemic? But holding talks in a digital environment is by no means easy. In the era of President Xi Jinping, China has put particular emphasis on leadership diplomacy, using face-to-face interactions and state visits to foster personal bonds among world leaders and diplomats. But the approach has been hit hard by the pandemic. Compared with Xi’s 13 overseas trips in 2018 and 14 trips in 2019, including a visit to Macau, his January visit to Myanmar was his only trip abroad this year. In his think tank speech, Wang nonetheless lavished praise on Xi’s personal role in China’s highly centralised decision-making structure and his “intensive head of state diplomacy”, referring to the dozens of phone calls and virtual meetings he had with international leaders this year. 2020 also saw US-China relations unravel, with talk of a new cold war turning into a self-fulfilling prophecy and leaving much of the world deeply polarised. In addition, this year ushered in a sea change in global perceptions of China, mainly over the country’s initial mishandling of the coronavirus as well as its aggressive blame-shifting campaign with the US. Even with the inauguration of a new US administration next month, there may not be much room for optimism in global diplomacy or a return of US-China ties to the pre-coronavirus days. Despite the setbacks, including the blows to the Belt and Road Initiative , Beijing has shown little willingness to change its assertive diplomacy, especially on how it handles disagreements and challenges.