China’s Xi Jinping turns pragmatic in his exchanges with world leaders

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In Indonesia, Chinese President Xi Jinping clasped President Biden’s hand and smiled warmly. He reminisced with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese about a visit to Canberra. In Thailand, he told Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha that the two should visit each other “as often as relatives” and assured Taiwanese envoy Morris Chang that he “looked good” after a hip operation.

After almost three years of staying cloistered within his own borders, Xi has been on a global charm offensive. In the six weeks since he secured a new term as the head of the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese military, paving the way for him to rule indefinitely, he has met formally with at least 26 heads of state or government from every continent.

The campaign continues even as Xi faces a wave of internal dissent not seen in decades, triggered by the “zero covid” policies that he personally championed to keep the coronavirus at bay within his borders.

Hours after protesters rallied in Beijing last week — some declaring “We don’t want a dictatorship!” — he held a welcoming ceremony several miles away for Mongolian President Ukhnaagiin Khurelsukh. And on Thursday, as police in numerous cities knocked on people’s doors and detained them for attending demonstrations, Xi met with European Council President Charles Michel and called for “peaceful coexistence” between China and the European Union.

This new posture departs from the combative “wolf warrior” style for which Xi’s nation became known during the pandemic. It is a sign that even China’s most ideological leader in decades can turn pragmatic, working to repair strained ties and improve a damaged international image.

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“The world is changing, and China is changing. How to prevent strategic misjudgment and unnecessary international tension and conflict is something Chinese diplomacy must now consider,” said international relations professor Liu Jiangyong of Beijing’s Tsinghua University.

Yet “Xiplomacy” — as state media calls his stewardship of the country’s foreign policy — is fundamentally about competing with the United States and its allies, shoring up his legitimacy at home, tamping down domestic turmoil and paving the way for China’s rise as a socialist superpower on a less hostile world stage.

At a welcoming dinner during the Group of 20 summit last month in Bali, Xi spoke with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in their first public exchange since deadly clashes between Chinese and Indian soldiers on the Sino-Indian border in 2020. Xi met with Albanese on the sidelines of the event after years of deteriorating ties marked by Chinese state media’s ridicule of Australia as “gum stuck to China’s shoe.”

Most notable was Xi’s three-hour meeting with Biden. That encounter was so closely watched that it almost became its own summit within the summit — with potential consequences to match. The two leaders showed an eagerness to prevent heightened tensions from leading to conflict. They agreed to restart stalled talks on issues including climate change, as well as prepare for a visit to China by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Xi traveled on to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference in Bangkok and in a one-on-one with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida urged that the two traditional rivals see each other as “partners, not threats.”

“Xi’s pragmatic turn is self-interested and meant to strengthen China’s hand in the pursuit of its long-term goals,” said Amanda Hsiao, the senior China analyst at the International Crisis Group. “China still sees itself as in a protracted struggle with the US, but easing tensions right now — perhaps temporarily — helps Beijing compete with Washington in the long run.”

During the many months that China physically closed itself off from the world because of the coronavirus, officials hit back aggressively against criticism over the country’s role in the pandemic, its suppression of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang province, its crackdown on pro-democracy supporters in Hong Kong, its escalating threats towards Taiwan and its support of Russia during President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine.

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Xi had spoken only by phone with his counterparts throughout this period. In September, he ventured abroad for the first time in almost three years to visit Kazakhstan, then attended the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.

In early November, Xi welcomed German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to Beijing and called for the two countries to seek common ground and work together in a time of “change and chaos.” He would repeatedly strike a similar tone in comments after his meetings at the G-20.

“Xi Jinping in Bali was not a wolf warrior. Wolf-warrior diplomacy is more bitter, angry and sharp. This seems to convey a responsiveness to a feeling that China is losing the global PR game,” said Neysun Mahboubi, a research scholar at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Study of Contemporary China.

The renewed focus on diplomacy is also a way for the 69-year-old Xi to strengthen his hand at home at a crucial time. His government faces potentially crippling US export restrictions targeting Chinese technology, an economic slowdown and the surge of public anger over draconian pandemic lockdowns.

Critics abroad and to a limited extent within China have accused him of taking his country backward. His high-profile meetings with world leaders are intended to help legitimize his hold on power. The images have filled Chinese front pages and trended on social media.

“It is the glorification and the confirmation of his third term,” said Yun Sun, the director of the China program at the Washington-based Stimson Center. “The goal was to show a grandiose return of China and itself to the world stage. China is back and Xi is back, stronger.”

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Meanwhile, there have been no mentions in state media of the demonstrations challenging his power — the largest such gatherings since the 1989 pro-democracy protests that ended in a massacre around Tiananmen Square. The rallies held in solidarity in cities outside of China, participants also denouncing Xi’s leadership, have been similarly ignored.

Neither Xi nor other top party officials have directly addressed the unrest. How much it could weaken his hand in dealing with other world leaders is unclear.

Regardless, the change in Xi’s tone while abroad is unlikely to truly reduce the potential for conflict unless it is accompanied by substantive policy changes. Unchanged are China’s positions on flash points including Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its own territory and says it will take over by force if necessary, and its territorial claims in the South China Sea.

“Xi’s view is really tit for tat. If you engage, they will engage. If you want to throw a punch, Xi is going to throw a punch,” said Jessica Chen Weiss, a China expert at Cornell University. “We may look back and see Bali as an inflection point, where it might begin to level off and not accelerate so rapidly toward confrontation.”

Xi’s friendlier image at the G-20 was undermined by a moment caught on camera as he talked to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Speaking through an interpreter, Xi told Trudeau it was “not appropriate” for him to have briefed Canadian media about an informal meeting between the two men. Trudeau interrupted Xi and defended himself, stressing the importance of free and open dialogue.

“Let’s create conditions first,” Xi replied curtly, then muttered one more word as he walked away: “Naive.”

The video was censored within China, but the impression Xi left on the international stage was that he will quickly turn critical and combative.

“The true test for whether wolf-warrior diplomacy still prevails is how China reacts when it feels poked,” the Stimson Center’s Sun said. “Beijing is more willing to repair or maintain good relations, but it doesn’t mean it will not bite when it feels threatened or offended.”

Vic Chiang in Taipei and Lyric Li in Seoul contributed to this report.

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