The Perfect Enemy | Xi Jinping aims to reassert China’s influence on first foreign trip since Covid began
September 25, 2022

Xi Jinping aims to reassert China’s influence on first foreign trip since Covid began

Xi Jinping aims to reassert China’s influence on first foreign trip since Covid began  Financial TimesView Full Coverage on Google News

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Xi Jinping will find the world much changed this week when he sets foot on foreign soil for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic started in Wuhan, central China, in early 2020.

Since the Chinese president all but closed his country’s doors in February of that year, Russia has invaded Ukraine and the US has rallied western nations and democratic allies to counter China’s rise.

But Xi will initially be among friends and allies — including Russian president Vladimir Putin — when he travels to Kazakhstan on Wednesday to attend a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, that begins on Thursday. India’s prime minister Narendra Modi, Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi and Pakistan prime minister Shehbaz Sharif are also expected to attend.

China’s foreign ministry confirmed Xi’s travel plans on Monday.

“Both Putin and Xi need a strong signal that the ‘anti-American front’ . . . stays strong, for both international and domestic audiences,” said Jakub Jakóbowski, a senior fellow with the China programme at the Centre for Eastern Studies in Warsaw.

Xi’s presence at the Eurasian political and security forum marks the first in a series of high-level diplomatic engagements expected in the coming months as the Chinese leader seeks to reassert Beijing’s influence.

This week’s trip will also demonstrate closeness between Beijing and Moscow after Xi and Putin touted a “no-limits” partnership following their last meeting, which took place in Beijing just 20 days before the invasion.

Since then, China has refrained from criticising Moscow’s military aggression, in stark contrast to western condemnation and isolation of the Kremlin.

Yun Sun, director of the China programme at the Stimson Center think-tank in Washington, said Xi’s trip to central Asia was intended to demonstrate China’s international partnerships.

“It means China is not isolated and still has solid partners. It means Xi is looking at the second decade of his global leadership,” she said, adding that a potential summit with Putin on the sidelines of the SCO also signalled “their shared threat perception about the US”.

The SCO meeting comes as the Biden administration ramps up efforts to formalise economic and security groups in response to what the US sees as China’s increasing military and economic dominance. Ministerial-level talks over one such initiative, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework involving 14 governments, started in the US last week.

Andrew Gilholm, head of China analysis at Control Risks, a consultancy, said Beijing might not show “huge urgency” in addressing the deterioration in its ties with many western governments, including the EU, which had accelerated since the pandemic began.

“I see many in Chinese policy circles speculating that this whole ‘re-galvanising of the west in response to Ukraine’ is a temporary phenomenon that won’t survive economic pressures . . . and the changes of government that will come from that, including in the US,” he said.

Instead, Xi would probably prioritise strengthening ties with governments it saw as less-aligned to the US.

“It lines up with that narrative that the non-rich, non-western world doesn’t want any part of this new ‘US-led hegemony’,” Gilholm said.

Xi and Putin will attend the G20 summit in Bali in November, Indonesian president Joko Widodo has said, setting up a possible meeting with Joe Biden. Foreign diplomats and businesspeople in Saudi Arabia and Thailand have also been briefed about possible trips to those countries by Xi this year.

Weiyi Shi, assistant professor of political science at the University of California San Diego, said Xi’s presence on the world stage would reinvigorate his foreign policy agenda after some “uncertainty” during the pandemic and the war in Ukraine.

That included the Belt and Road Initiative, Xi’s hallmark infrastructure investment and lending programme, she said.

The trend of China and the US “increasingly forming” separate spheres of influence had “been a long time in the making” but it was being “deepened by the pandemic and then war in Ukraine”, she added.

Xi’s decision to go abroad for the first time in more than two-and-a-half years is also viewed as a sign of self-assurance in his domestic political power.

The Chinese Communist party’s 20th congress will start in mid-October, at which the party will reappoint Xi as its leader and as head of its Central Military Commission, positions that will give him an unprecedented third term in power.

Xi’s travel will also take against a backdrop of a wave of citywide lockdowns and restrictions on travel in China as officials try to stamp out coronavirus outbreaks under the Chinese leader’s controversial zero-Covid policy.

Analysts, however, diverged over whether Xi’s trips should be seen as a signal that Beijing will change course on that strategy.

“For the domestic audience, the primary goal of these engagements is to demonstrate Xi’s third term and leadership have been accepted by the world. The goal is to strengthen his legitimacy,” said Sun.

Additional reporting by Maiqi Ding in Beijing, Eleanor Olcott in Hong Kong and Samer Alatrush in Riyadh