News Analysis

Xi Jinping pushes China's global rise despite friction and fear

Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers a speech at the opening session of the Chinese Communist Party's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Oct 18, 2017.
Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers a speech at the opening session of the Chinese Communist Party's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Oct 18, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING (NYTIMES) - No part of the world seems too small, too near or too far for China's globe-trotting president, Mr Xi Jinping.

He has travelled to the tiny Pacific islands of Fiji, toured the neighbouring nations of Central Asia and signalled his interest in Antarctica with a visit to Tasmania, off Australia's southern coast.

This month (October), he sent Chinese warships to dock in London, a reminder of how much has changed since British gunboat diplomacy humiliated China in the 19th century.

Mr Xi is pushing a vision of national rejuvenation during the current Communist Party congress, which is expected to give him a second five-year term by Wednesday. And central to his ambitions is a far-reaching drive to restore China to what he considers its rightful place as a global power.

"Xi's aggressive diplomacy largely comes from his own aspirations, beliefs and strategic requirements," said Professor of International Relations Shi Yinhong at Renmin University.

Mr Xi has already enjoyed remarkable success expanding Chinese influence, not only in Asia, but also in Africa, Europe and as far away as South America. He has benefited from US President Donald Trump's election, which has made it easier for him to present China as a stable, responsible alternative to an erratic, inward-looking United States.

Yet, signs of friction in different parts of the world raise questions about how long China's winning streak can continue, and point to the challenges that Mr Xi faces in a second term as he presses the assertive brand of foreign policy he favours.

In Australia, the government is vexed by what it sees as Beijing's interference in domestic politics. In Europe, politicians are raising an alarm over heavy-handed trade tactics aimed at acquiring foreign technology. In South-east Asia and Africa, there are complaints about a new era of Chinese colonialism.

China's ties with two regional heavyweights - Japan and India - remain strained, and Mr Xi faces an unusually precarious situation on the Korean Peninsula, with both the North and the South defying him, one building a nuclear arsenal and the other deploying American missile defences.

Still, in a marathon opening speech last week, Mr Xi showed no sign of retreat and hinted at even bigger spending to vault China to world greatness: more for the military to make it a first-class fighting outfit with global reach, and more for his overseas infrastructure program, the Belt and Road Initiative, which he sees as a way to win friends around the world.

The architect of China's economic reforms Deng Xiaoping set a policy of keeping a low profile in international affairs and biding time. But more than his predecessors, Mr Xi is abandoning that approach - and encountering pushback.

In Germany, a sharp increase in Chinese investment has prompted complaints that China is closing its markets even as it goes on a buying spree abroad, especially of valuable technology companies. Policymakers are considering options for retaliating.

There are also concerns that China is trying to divide the European Union by cultivating poorer countries such as Hungary and Greece and using them to block policies supported by richer countries that hurt Beijing.

Rising powers always face resistance. But in China's case, that pushback comes not just from the West but also from neighbours who remember the tributary system of its imperial past - or are wary of its Communist political system despite its embrace of capitalism decades ago.

Mr Xi has made inroads in South-east Asia, gaining influence in Myanmar, Malaysia and Thailand. But improving ties with Myanmar's civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi have been offset by the deep popular mistrust of China in that country.

In Malaysia, Beijing's investments in infrastructure have been met with accusations that the nation is selling off its sovereignty. And in Thailand, a rail project important to a new trade route from southern China has been delayed.

Even in the Philippines, where the strongman president Rodrigo Duterte has cozied up to Beijing and distanced himself from the US, Mr Xi has not enjoyed a complete victory. American drones and spy planes have been more decisive in Mr Duterte's battle against Islamic militants than the rifles donated by China.

Mr Xi has sometimes succeeded in positioning China as a responsible power by stepping up when Washington has stepped back - speaking up for globalisation at Davos, or in favour of the Paris climate change accord.

"People are paying far more attention to China's influence operations than I have seen before," said Mr Dan Blumenthal, director of Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

Beijing has struggled to sway global opinion without resorting to heavy-handed methods or threats that can be counterproductive.

In Australia, which China has sought to use as a kind of pilot zone to test methods that could be adopted in the US and Europe, Mr Xi has already encountered a backlash.

China has encouraged Chinese businessmen to give to political campaigns, recruited Chinese students to press its policies in classrooms and mobilised local Chinese-language news media.

In a thinly disguised warning this month, Australia's intelligence chief, Mr Duncan Lewis, described such activities as "a threat to our sovereignty, the integrity of our national institutions and the exercise of our citizens' rights".

Analysts say Australia has been a tempting target because China is its biggest trading partner, and it is home to large populations of Chinese immigrants and students, who provide critical financial support to its universities.

But the government is now considering new limits on campaign contributions, restrictions on foreign investments and tougher counterintelligence laws. Australia is also seeking to strengthen security ties with India and Japan.

"The Chinese party-state has overplayed its hand in trying to influence Australia's choices," said Professor Rory Medcalf, head of the national security college at the Australian National University.

Concern about political interference by China is also growing in New Zealand, where a Chinese official recently advised Chinese-language journalists to coordinate coverage with China's official press.

"I never imagined the level of instruction was that direct," said Professor of Chinese Politics Anne-Marie Brady at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, who recently published a research paper on Beijing's efforts in New Zealand.

Prof Shi said Mr Trump's "negative attitude toward liberal world trade and climate change" had emboldened Mr Xi to take a more active role on the global stage.

But he added that China's efforts to influence opinion and policy in other countries were a natural extension of its growing stature in the world, and not just a result of Mr Xi's leadership. He said China has greater "financial and human resources" available now - and greater ambitions.