Chasing the U.S., China’s Leader Emerges From Diplomatic Isolation

He met with Saudi Arabia’s king and the leaders of Egypt, Tunisia, Kuwait and Sudan. He pledged to expand ports along the Red Sea, invest in petrochemicals and usher in a wave of Chinese tourism.

After years of alienating other countries with his foreign ministry’s abrasive style of diplomacy and then retreating into semi-isolation for most of the pandemic, China’s leader, Xi Jinping, is returning to the global stage to repair China’s position and catch up to the United States, which Beijing sees as having emerged stronger from the Covid crisis than expected.

Saudi Arabia is the latest leg in Mr. Xi’s diplomatic drive, following a soft reset with President Biden last month in Indonesia that pulled the countries’ ties out of a nosedive. The Chinese leader has met with at least 29 heads of state since he emerged from the pandemic in September.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese of Australia with Mr. Xi last month. The two leaders worked to improve frayed ties.Credit…Mick Tsikas/AAP Image, via Reuters

In that time, he’s ended a yearslong freeze on high-level talks with Australia by meeting with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, and rolled out a red carpet for Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany in Beijing to shore up one of China’s most important economic partnerships.

The engagement is a welcome change for foreign leaders who have long wondered when they would get to hold face-to-face talks again with Mr. Xi, either to court him as the head of the world’s second-largest economy, or to counter him as a powerful autocrat seeking to reshape the global order. Many come away disappointed to learn that Mr. Xi has not wavered on key issues like Taiwan or support for Russia.

“Xi is deliberately courting America’s allies — meeting or hosting the leaders of Western democracies from Germany to Japan,” said Danny Russel, a vice president of the Asia Society Policy Institute and former assistant secretary of state. Now, with his visit to Saudi Arabia, “Xi is demonstrating that the United States is not the only game in town.”

The meetings also have domestic political value for Mr. Xi, turning the spotlight away from a difficult unwinding of his signature “zero Covid” policy and burnishing his image as a global leader fighting for Chinese interests.

China pulled back on its “zero Covid” policies after widespread protests.Credit…Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Chinese state media outlets have given his travels prominent play, proclaiming that ties between China and Saudi Arabia have reached an “important milestone!” They highlighted the hero’s welcome he received in Saudi Arabia, which included an escort from the Royal Saudi Air Force, a 21-gun salute with canons, and a formation of Saudi aerobatic jets shooting ribbons of red and yellow vapor, in the colors of the Chinese flag.

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“The Gulf summit allows the propaganda organs to shift attention to something more positive: Xi’s statesmanship,” said Willy Lam, a veteran analyst of Chinese politics in Hong Kong and a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation.

The new diplomatic tack follows years of inward focus for Mr. Xi, who was preoccupied with blunting the effects of the pandemic and consolidating support for his norm-breaking third term at a Communist Party congress in October.

Harsh Covid restrictions that left millions confined to their homes for long stretches and all but closed off international travel deepened China’s isolation at a time when the world was growing more distrustful of Beijing and splintering into geopolitical blocs over security and technology, drawing comparisons to the Cold War.

By contrast, the United States is coming out of the pandemic with stronger relationships in Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Europe, while strengthening regional security pacts with India, Australia and Britain. At the same time, one of China’s closest strategic allies, Russia, finds itself increasingly on the fringes.

President Biden during a meeting with Asian leaders in Cambodia last month.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

Mr. Xi appears to want to steady relations with Washington, which hit their lowest point in half a century this year after Beijing froze diplomatic channels with Washington in response to Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August, and after the Biden administration imposed a sweeping export ban on semiconductor technology to China in early October.

The relationship began to thaw after the party congress, when senior Chinese foreign ministry officials started engaging with Western countries again, a Western official said.

That led to the closely watched meeting between Mr. Xi and Mr. Biden on Nov. 14 at the Group of 20 summit in Indonesia.

Mr. Biden’s meeting with Mr. Xi in Bali last month came after relations had reached a decades-long low.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

China’s re-engagement does not spell an end to Beijing’s assertive posture under Mr. Xi, a leader who has depicted the West as hostile bullies and inspired a pugnacious brand of “wolf warrior” diplomacy, named after a pair of nationalistic action films.

Mr. Xi has not relented on the thorniest issues dividing China and the West — Beijing’s increasing pressure on Taiwan, its crackdown on freedoms in Hong Kong, and support for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia as he wages war in Ukraine, to name a few.

Western observers say it’s too early to declare Mr. Xi’s recharged diplomacy a charm offensive — not until they see China abandon some of its more coercive behavior, like its blocking of imports from Lithuania to punish the Baltic state for agreeing to let Taiwan open a trade office in its capital, Vilnius, last year.

China retaliated against Lithuania after the Baltic state let Taiwan open a representative office.Credit…Andrej Vasilenko for The New York Times

A more accurate reading on Mr. Xi might be gleaned from his confrontation with Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, at the end of the Group of 20 summit. Mr. Xi was caught by a news camera scolding Mr. Trudeau and accusing him of leaking a conversation between the two leaders. When Mr. Trudeau suggested that the pair work through their disagreements, Mr. Xi bristled and said, “Let’s create the conditions first.”

That self-assuredness is why analysts don’t expect Mr. Xi to appear chastened by the protests last month against China’s strict pandemic measures and the subsequent collapse of his “zero Covid” policy, which he had held up as an example of the country’s superiority in preventing the high numbers of deaths seen elsewhere.

“From Beijing’s perspective,” Mr. Russel said, “the surge of diplomacy following Xi’s extended self-quarantine and his triumphal reappointment at the 20th party congress reflects Beijing’s growing pre-eminence on the international stage.”

Mr. Xi confronting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada in Bali last month.Credit…Adam Scotti/Prime Minister’s Office, via Reuters

That was underscored by the pomp of Mr. Xi’s Saudi welcome, marking the Chinese leader’s first visit to the kingdom in six years. The pageantry contrasted with Mr. Biden’s more subdued visit to Saudi Arabia over the summer, remembered best for an awkward fist-bump greeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler.

Mr. Xi, who is hoping to weaken U.S. influence in the region, held talks with King Salman of Saudi Arabia on Thursday and signed a strategic partnership agreement with the kingdom. The pact strengthens diplomatic and economic ties in an already complex relationship that has diversified beyond oil to include arms, technology and infrastructure.

The Chinese leader’s arrival comes as relations between Washington and Riyadh have steadily frayed, first over the 2018 murder of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and, most recently, over the October decision to cut oil production by OPEC Plus, an energy producers’ cartel in which Saudi Arabia wields a key role.

The Gulf is considered ripe for Chinese expansion because of growing perceptions among Saudi officials, scholars and businesspeople that the United States has lost interest and is diverting resources to Asia and Europe.

Unlike Washington, Beijing is not asking leaders to choose sides. China’s stated policy of noninterference means that issues like human rights never get in the way of business. Beijing says it accepts Riyadh’s flimsy explanation for Khashoggi’s death, and the Saudis have rejected efforts to condemn China’s mass detention of Muslim Uyghurs.

Friendly relations in the Gulf are paramount for China, which counts on the region as its top supplier of oil. It’s also a key node along its Belt and Road Initiative and an important market for Chinese consumer goods and technology. Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant, which is banned in the United States, provides 5G networks in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates

Mr. Xi and King Salman of Saudi Arabia on Thursday, when the two countries agreed to a new partnership.Credit…/EPA, via Shutterstock

“With the U.S. in retreat and Russia caught in the Ukraine crisis, China can play a constructive role in the transformation of the Middle East regional order,” Cui Shoujun, a professor at Renmin University’s School of International Studies in Beijing, said of Mr. Xi’s ambitions in the region.

The contest for countries like those in the Gulf region could grow more fierce as the United States and its closest allies harden their positions on China. In his first foreign policy speech as Britain’s prime minister last month, Rishi Sunak declared the “golden era” of relations with China over. And in Canada, a long-anticipated government Indo-Pacific strategy paper released last month described China as “an increasingly disruptive global power.”

Mr. Xi is wagering that he can weather those more difficult relationships if he can win enough support in the global south and persuade U.S. partners that their economic futures are wedded to China’s economy. Hindering his efforts is the war in Ukraine, which has demonstrated to Europe the perils of growing too dependent on an adversary.

“China missed a crucial opportunity to rehabilitate ties with the West when Russia invaded Ukraine,” said Yuen Yuen Ang, a professor of political science at the University of Michigan who studies China. “Initially, a minority of pragmatists in Beijing warned that siding with Russia in an unjust war would further isolate China. This prediction has come true. So now, Beijing is under intense pressure to find new friends.”

Keith Bradsher and Olivia Wang contributed reporting.

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