President Xi Jinping revives interaction with world leaders after securing his third term of power at the communist party’s 20th congress last month. He makes it apparent that in full control of power internally, he now wants to bolster China’s image in the world as its tensions rise with the West.
Within days of the Congress, Xi had meetings with heads of government of Tanzania, Pakistan, Vietnam and Germany. Pakistan was important from Xi’s point of view as leverage against India as well as the United States.
But it was the visit of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz that gave Xi the rare opportunity to get back at the West in the perception game. Scholz came to Beijing on a quick trip to plead for economic reconciliation between the two countries. He was roundly criticized by his European partners for the trip. IN the process, he became the first leader of the European Union and the G7 to visit Beijing since the beginning of the pandemic three years ago.
Scholz put across his views to Xi over Ukraine, Taiwan and human rights. But it was Xi’s response that held sway. He said: “At present, the international situation is complex and changeable. As influential powers, China and Germany should work together in times of change and chaos to make more contributions to world peace and development.”
A statement issued by China referred to Xi feeling that “the international community would be ‘crossing a line’ by resorting to nuclear force”. Obliquely blaming the West for egging Russian action, Xi at the same time gave no indication that he was ready to get involved in the resolution of the conflict. He merely said “China supports the efforts of Germany and Europe to play an important role in promoting peace talks and promoting the building of a balanced, effective and sustainable European security framework.”
For good measure, he added the international community should “call on all parties concerned to exercise rationality and restraint, conduct direct contacts as soon as possible, and create conditions for the resumption of negotiations (and) jointly oppose the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons.” Scholz had to return with a vague promise of peace and nothing else.
These were Xi’s first physical interactions with global leaders after he assumed power for the third time and the second time since the pandemic began. In September, Xi Jinping had visited Kazakhstan and later to Uzbekistan to attend the SCO summit. That was his first visit abroad after the pandemic broke out. The visit showed the importance Xi gave to the Central Asian visits. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are China’s friendly neighbours, comprehensive strategic partners and important members of the BRI.
In the coming year, Xi proposes to attend several key international events to assert his country’s stand on common issues and hope for a thaw in the frozen ties with the West. Key among them is the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. India is among the frontrunners for hosting the summit.
Another important event Xi would not miss is the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) which will convene at the level of heads of state and government under the auspices of the UN General Assembly in September 2023. Such meetings take place every four years. The meeting in 2023 – also known as the SDG Summit – will be the second since the adoption of the 2030 Agenda.
Xi Jinping perhaps feels the criticism of China for the outbreak of the pandemic and China’s stringent zero-Covid policy led to the country’s isolation from the world community in the last two years. Though China continues to implement the harsh policy, the communist party appears to have decided to relax rules to allow diplomatic visits to Beijing.
The President hinted at his awareness of the world reaction to China when he told the 20th Party Congress about the growing challenges that
stem from “a grim and complex international situation,” with “external attempts to suppress and contain China” threatening to “escalate at any time”.
“(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 was quoted as saying by CNN. 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.
The CNN report says that 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”.
In fact, the CNN put the finger on the pulse when it quoted Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Washington-based think tank Stimson Center as saying that “he 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”. She added: “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.”