Hong Kong — Xi Jinping has had a hectic few weeks.
Since late last month, the Chinese leader has hosted heads of state and government from Spain, Singapore, Malaysia, France, and the European Union, an unusual pace of diplomatic activity that comes as the global economy sputters in the aftermath of the pandemic and war in Ukraine.
On Friday, that list swelled to include Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who is set to sign a slew of bilateral agreements with Xi and, like several other leaders before him, arrives with expectations of bringing Russia’s war in Ukraine to a conclusion.
However, for Xi, the revolving door of visiting leaders – who are making the journey despite China’s refusal to denounce the Russian incursion – is also an opportunity to underline his vision for a global order not governed by American standards – and to counter perceived threats.
According to experts, this is very important for the Chinese leader right now.
Three years of reduced diplomacy as a result of China’s tight Covid-19 regulations, along with economic issues, entrenched competitiveness with the US, and mounting European concerns about Beijing’s foreign policy, have put Xi under pressure to act.
“(Chinese leaders) believe it’s now time for China to make its strategic plans,” said Li Mingjiang, an associate professor of international relations at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.
“A potentially positive effect is the weakening of American partnerships… As a result, we’re seeing Beijing make strong measures to stabilize and enhance relations with European countries, as well as to develop and strengthen collaboration with emerging economies,” he said.
Using a wedge
Xi has used the opportunity to thread his conversations with a veiled criticism of the US and keywords that signal Xi’s view on how to reshape global power as world leaders return to Beijing, despite international concerns about the growing China-Russia relationship and Beijing’s intimidation of Taiwan.
Late last month, Xi told Singapore’s Lee Hsien Loong that Asian countries should “firmly oppose bullying, decoupling, or severing industrial and supply chains,” while urging Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim to “resolutely resist the Cold War mentality and bloc confrontation.”
He warned that day, according to readouts from the Chinese side, that “the EU must uphold strategic independence” if relations between China and the EU are to proceed positively.
Beijing has watched warily as the conflict in Ukraine has drawn the United States and its European allies closer together. Analysts now believe that playing up its economic connections and exploiting contrasts between countries on both sides of the Atlantic is critical.
When French President Emmanuel Macron came to Beijing last week, Xi emphasized parallels between China and France: both are “major countries with a tradition of independence,” Xi remarked, and “firm advocates for a multi-polar world” – a world without a dominant superpower.
Following a day of talks in Beijing, Xi met Macron in the southern business city of Guangzhou to have an “informal” conversation while sipping tea and listening to traditional Chinese music before a state supper.
Macron, who has long urged Europe to build its own geopolitical policy and defense capabilities independent of Washington, appeared amenable.
He issued a 51-point joint statement with China outlining cooperation on issues ranging from nuclear energy to food security, and he told reporters accompanying him that when it comes to the US-China rivalry, Europe must not be “caught up in crises that are not ours, which prevents it from building its strategic autonomy,” according to a Politico interview.
Macron’s remarks prompted outrage in Europe and the United States, but observers say they were likely viewed as a victory in Beijing.
“Everything that can weaken the US, divide the West, and move countries closer to China is good for Xi,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a political science professor at Hong Kong Baptist University. “As a result, Macron’s visit is viewed as a major victory in Beijing.”
Lula has returned
When Xi meets Lula on Friday, he may be prepared for another potential diplomatic victory.
The leftist Brazilian president, who ushered in a boom in China-Brazil trade ties during his first term in office nearly two decades ago, is traveling with a delegation of business leaders, state governors, congressmen, and ministers and is expected to sign a slew of bilateral agreements ranging from agriculture and livestock to technology.
Lula’s return to office has already altered the dynamics of the China-Brazil relationship, which had been strained under previous President Jair Bolsonaro’s anti-China rhetoric.
Lula began his state visit in Shanghai with a nod to Brazil-China cooperation, attending the inauguration of former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff as head of the BRICS New Development Bank, a bloc of emerging economies led by Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa that serves as an alternative power bloc to the Western-centric G7.
“Xi will find in Lula a BRICS enthusiast, openness to global governance system reforms, and a desire to avoid automatic alignment with the US,” said Luiza Duarte, a research fellow at American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies in Washington.
Meanwhile, Lula’s projected warm reception in Beijing “raises comparisons with his frustrating less than a 24-hour visit to Washington,” she said, referring to the Brazilian leader’s visit to the White House on February 10.
The encounter was viewed at the time as an important outreach from the freshly inaugurated Lula to the United States.
However, Beijing may use the “lack of deliverables” from the conference “to position itself as a more appealing alternative for bilateral cooperation,” according to Duarte.
The Ukraine issue
The Russian assault on Ukraine looms over diplomacy in Beijing.
Some politicians, like Macron, see Xi, a longtime friend and diplomatic partner of Russian President Vladimir Putin, as a potential ally who can push Putin toward peace.
However, their closeness has created concerns, with US officials warning earlier this year that China was considering sending lethal weapons to the Kremlin – a claim Beijing has denied.
While France and China agreed on several matters connected to the war during their discussion, including opposition to nuclear power plant strikes and the protection of women and children, Macron ultimately did not press Xi to commit on paper to any position China had not already publicly stated.
Brazil, in anticipation of Lula’s visit, has offered another perspective: forming “a group of mediator countries,” including China, as the country’s foreign minister described it.
However, experts believe that how Beijing navigates these projects boils down to a bottom line that is inextricably linked to Xi’s global ambitions and world vision.
“It will be difficult for China to respond positively to some of the requests made by either the Americans or the Europeans because doing so would risk upsetting the Russians,” Li said in Singapore.
“Russia is the only major power that shares many of (China’s) views on how the world and global system should look, as well as how various political issues should be addressed.” “Russia is indispensable to China,” he remarked.
the point was emphasized in another recent diplomatic event: Xi’s March journey to Moscow for his state visit, the first since assuming a third presidential term the same month.
While China’s diplomacy – and transactions – in the last week may not have been significantly influenced by the optics of that relationship, observers say how Beijing manages the disagreement will continue to influence global perceptions of China.
Perceptions of Xi’s possible influence over Putin have offered “leverage that allows (Xi) to get a lot of attention, and perhaps mileage and support that he would not otherwise have,” according to Chong Ja Ian, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore.
“Ultimately, the test will be whether Xi can exert any real influence on Putin, particularly in terms of ending the war,” he says.