After a long absence from major international gatherings, Chinese leader Xi Jinping is leaving his country’s COVID-19 bubble and venturing abroad next week into a radically changed world marked by growing confrontation.
Xi will attend the G-20 meeting of industrial and emerging countries in Indonesia, followed by the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Thailand. He will meet individually with other leaders, including US President Joe Biden on Monday in their first in-person meetings since Biden took office in January 2021.
The Chinese leader has mainly relied on video speeches to convey China’s message at the UN and other forums since 2020. The period has seen a sharp deterioration in China’s relations with the West in the during the COVID-19 pandemic, a civil rights crackdown in Hong Kong, military threats against Taiwan, and Beijing’s tacit support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
More broadly, China and the West are drifting apart. The United States and Europe are looking at China with a more critical eye, with Germany blocking investment in its companies, while Chinese leaders have shown their determination to go their own way.
Bruce Dickson, a China policy expert at George Washington University, described a “growing fear, concern and anxiety that China does not want to be a partner with other countries. It wants to push its own agenda, regardless of the opposition.
More moderate voices in Beijing and Washington advocating better relations are pushed aside. “It’s really an effort to figure out who can come up with the toughest policy to resist China’s efforts,” Dickson said.
After a state visit to neighboring Myanmar in January 2020, Xi stayed in mainland China for more than two years.
He first appeared during a brief visit to Hong Kong for the 25th anniversary of its return from British rule on July 1 and a short trip to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in September for a regional summit.
Xiong Zhiyong, a professor of international relations at China Foreign Affairs University, expects Chinese leaders to make more outbound trips as the pandemic eases globally.
“The current international situation is too complex and national leaders must have the opportunity to discuss,” he said. “Online exchanges are not enough. Meetings between leaders are important and irreplaceable.
Pakistani Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz traveled to Beijing to meet Xi earlier this month. But under China’s “zero-COVID” policy, it remains difficult to travel within China, while domestic travel is restricted wherever a serious outbreak occurs.
Besides Biden, other leaders Xi will meet on the trip include Indonesian President Joko Widodo, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, French President Emmanuel Macron, Senegalese President Macky Sall and Argentine President Alberto Fernández.
Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said on Friday he would ask Xi to lift billions of dollars in trade barriers if they meet, while Biden said earlier this week he planned to discuss growing tensions between the United States and China on trade, the self-governing island of Taiwan and China’s relations with Russia.
China did not condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and accused the United States and NATO of forcing Russia’s hand. It also fired missiles into Taiwan and appeared to repeat a military blockade of the island after US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in August.
China also halted talks with the United States on a range of issues following Pelosi’s trip, including climate, an area where cooperation between the world’s two biggest emitters of greenhouse gases is crucial to efforts being discussed at the ongoing UN climate talks in Egypt to limit the impact of climate change.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Friday that “the United States should work with China to properly handle differences, advance mutually beneficial cooperation, avoid misunderstandings and miscalculations, and put China-US relations back on the track of healthy and steady development.”
Xi is making the trip after cementing his grip on power in China last month at a major meeting of the long-ruling Communist Party. He was given a third five-year term as leader and the party’s top bodies were filled with his loyalists, signaling that his approach to foreign and domestic policy will continue.
China’s doubling of its defense budget over the past two decades and the militarization of islands in the South China Sea have raised questions about its declared policy of “peaceful rising”. Southeast Asian neighbors have had to walk a thin line between maintaining relations with the United States and angering China.
At the APEC meeting in Thailand, Xi will deliver a speech on China’s proposals to deepen Asia-Pacific cooperation and promote regional and global economic growth, Zhao said.
He is also expected to tout his global development initiative, a rebranding of his signature Belt and Road Initiative, which has been criticized for burdening poor countries with massive debt and giving the China potential control over crucial ports and other infrastructure from Southeast Asia to Europe. .
Although Xi has all but eliminated domestic political challenges, he faces growing threats on the economic front.
China’s growth slumped under the pressure of strict anti-virus campaigns that disrupted trade, travel and supply chains, as well as a massive debt crackdown in the real estate sector, which has been an engine of growth.
Dickson said the Xi-Biden meeting at the G-20 could help ease tensions. But, he added, “I have to say now that it’s hard to see any will coming from either country to try to stabilize things and stop the downward spiral from continuing.”
Associated Press researcher Yu Bing contributed to this report.
This story was originally published November 11, 2022 10:11 p.m.