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After securing his iron grip on power in a leadership reshuffle late last month, Chinese leader Xi Jinping is now moving back onto the world’s stage – in person – in an apparent bid to bolster China’s standing amid rising tensions with the West.
A handful of state visits in Beijing last week, which included meetings between Xi and leaders of Tanzania, Pakistan, Vietnam and Germany, and expected travel to international summits later this month are a sharp change of pace for Xi, who has drastically limited his foreign guests and only left the country once since start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
For more than two years, Xi – who is the most important figure in China’s Communist Party by a long shot – hunkered down as China ramped up a stringent zero-Covid policy that seeks to eliminate the virus using border controls, mandatory quarantines, lockdowns and routine mass testing.
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China continues to restrict its citizens under that policy, but Xi’s recent and expected diplomatic schedule suggests he is no longer willing to forfeit his place alongside other world leaders after assuming a norm-breaking third term following the ruling Communist Party’s National Congress last month.
There Xi gave a stark assessment of external threats facing China. Those growing challenges stem from “a grim and complex international situation,” with “external attempts to suppress and contain China” threatening to “escalate at any time,” Xi told his party members and the nation in a work report delivered during the congress.
“(Xi) made it very clear … that the big challenges China will face (stem from) the less and less conducive international environment – and that is an area that China must contest,” said Steve Tsang, director of the University of London’s SOAS China Institute.
Xi’s apparent ramping up of foreign engagement is likely a bid to counter those headwinds, but also one based on a calculation: “He must have come to some kind of a conclusion that the risk of Covid is more containable than he had thought before,” according to Tsang.
For a leader whose aim throughout his decade in power has been to enhance China’s global stature, a diminished physical presence on the world’s stage – such as sending his foreign minister to last year’s G20 – threatens to hinder Xi’s personal diplomacy.
Even as other leaders resumed international travel and hosted dignitaries, Xi’s roster of diplomatic events remained largely dominated by remote engagements – speaking in online summits to the leaders of key partner countries, delivering addresses via video link, taking “cloud” group photos with counterparts at virtual events – in an apparent bid to minimize potential Covid-19 risk.
A handful of foreign leaders have met Xi in Beijing this year, marking his first in-person state meetings since 2020. But the vast majority who visited before the party congress were there for Beijing’s Winter Olympics in February. Then, China-friendly nations like Russia and Egypt attended, while the US and its allies launched a diplomatic boycott over China’s human rights record.
Xi made his first foray out of the country since the start of the pandemic in September to attend a meeting of the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Uzbekistan.
Xi’s foreign affairs priorities in the weeks and months ahead will likely continue to focus on shoring up relationships with friendly nations, experts say, as he finds himself operating in a very different world from the last time he was playing regular host or attending summits like G20 or the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders’ summit – both of which convene later this month and which he is expected to attend, though yet unconfirmed by Beijing.
Since then, Western concerns about China’s rising global power have been fanned by Beijing’s close rapport with Moscow, damning reports on China’s human rights record in its Xinjiang region and shrinking liberties in Hong Kong, as well as negative views of how China has handled the pandemic.
“The main challenge that China faces is the deterioration of relations with the US … With the US being hostile, China faces great headwinds in its relations with the West, especially in terms of decoupling of the economy,” said Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Washington-based think tank Stimson Center.
“China will not directly discuss the US as the competitor, but instead will try to rally support and solidarity from the rest of the world,” she said.
Xi’s meeting with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Friday, the first between Xi and a G7 leader in about three years, may be one aspect of that strategy, as a Germany that is more friendly toward China has the potential to hinder solidarity in an approach toward China from within the European Union, experts say.
During his visit, which also included talks with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, Scholz voiced support of economic partnership with China, “on equal footing,” but said he raised issues like human rights, market access and the future of self-governing Taiwan, while also stressing that China’s relationship with one EU member affects all.
Scholz brought up the responsibility to push for peace in Ukraine, and Xi used the meeting to release what may be his strongest comments about the escalation of the conflict.
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Xi called for the international community to “oppose the threat or use of nuclear weapons” and prevent a “nuclear crisis in Eurasia” – drawing an apparent red line, even as China has yet to condemn Russia’s invasion of its neighbor and as Xi maintains a close rapport with President Vladimir Putin.
Scholz, who came in for heavy criticism at home for taking the trip, which was seen by critics as an endorsement of Xi’s rule, said later those comments on nuclear weapons alone made the trip “worth it.”
Xi’s strategy in upcoming summits may fall along similar lines.
“He will try to demonstrate that China is still committed to the world, and is ready to assume its due leadership,” said Sun of the Stimson Center.
However, there will be challenges, nearly three years into the pandemic, as China’s top leader is only beginning to re-engage in person. Sun added: “There is a lot of catch-up to do.”