President Xi returns to the international stage with an eye on the US

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaking with China's President Xi Jinping at the G-20 Leaders' Summit in Bali on Nov 16. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING - After more than two years of isolation because of the pandemic, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s return to the international stage this week was marked by meetings with various world leaders on the sidelines of the Group of 20 (G-20) and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summits.

The meetings brought his top foreign policy priority into focus, blunting the efforts of the United States to contain China.

Analysts say Mr Xi’s actions and statements indicate Beijing’s willingness to mend ties with key US allies and partners, including Australia, Japan and South Korea.

And in a surprise move, Beijing appeared to distance itself from Moscow, signing off on the G-20 leaders’ declaration which stated that “most members strongly condemned the war in Ukraine”.

Beijing, which earlier this year declared that it had a “no limits” partnership with Moscow, has not explicitly condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but the fact that it did not block the G-20 statement showed China was making adjustments to its stance on the war, said experts.

In a meeting with US President Joe Biden on Monday, Mr Xi said China was against the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Both sides also appeared to put a halt to deteriorating relations, agreeing to resume contact on a range of issues.

Beijing has over the months been moving towards a more “neutral” position on the conflict, said Associate Professor Li Mingjiang from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

“This new round of small adjustments is perhaps related to Beijing’s interest and objective of trying to improve relations with major western powers, including the US and EU countries,” said Prof Li.

The summits are Mr Xi’s first international engagements since the Communist Party’s congress ended in October.

Mr Xi has largely kept within China’s borders during the pandemic, except for a visit to Central Asia in September. But since he left Beijing on Monday, Mr Xi has met more than a dozen world leaders in bilateral meetings.

With Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, Mr Xi had discussed resuming routine dialogue, a significant move after China-Australia relations deteriorated over trade issues, Canberra’s 5G network ban on Huawei and its call for a probe into the origins of Covid-19.

In his meetings with the top leaders of Japan, South Korea and the Netherlands – countries that are critical to semiconductor manufacturing – Mr Xi stressed the importance of keeping supply chains stable and stepping up high-tech cooperation. 

China’s domestic chip sector has been hit after the US in October banned the export of certain high-tech US chips and chipmaking equipment to the country.

“Chinese leaders have come to the recognition that they need to work with US allies, strategic partners and improve relations with those countries for the purpose of undermining American strategic encirclement of China,” said Prof Li.

Mr Xi had also met leaders from the Philippines, Indonesia and Singapore.

The keenness on the part of foreign leaders to meet Mr Xi is also being seen within China as a rebuke of US’ efforts to build coalitions against China.

“It shows that even though the US wants to decouple (with China), it won’t be able to do so easily. These countries have a choice of their own to make; China must work on building relationships with these countries,” said Professor Zhu Feng, dean of the Institute of International Relations at Nanjing University.

But amid the flurry of bilateral meetings, there was also an informal moment between Mr Xi and Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that offered a rare inside look at high-level Chinese diplomacy.

Mr Xi had been filmed chiding Mr Trudeau for leaking details of their meeting to the media. “Everything we discussed was leaked to the paper(s), that’s not appropriate… And that’s not the way (our discussion) was conducted, was it?” said a translator for Mr Xi.

He was likely referring to media reports that Mr Trudeau brought up serious concerns over Chinese interference in Canada’s elections when they met on Tuesday.

“If there is sincerity, we can communicate well with mutual respect, otherwise it will be difficult to say what the outcome will be,” Mr Xi told Mr Trudeau.

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