Returning to the international stage, the Chinese president has gone out of his way to court European leaders. This should not be misread as a policy shift. Rather, much suggests that there are troubled times ahead.
All eyes were on the Indo-Pacific this month as world leaders convened in Bali and Bangkok for the G20 and APEC summits. This year’s summit season could not have come at a better time for the Chinese leadership. Fresh off the heels of the 20th Communist Party Congress, having secured an unprecedented third term as Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary, these trips to Indonesia and Thailand served as a victorious return to the global stage for Xi Jinping.
Without fear of looking weak now that his control over the top echelons of the party has been secured, Xi projected an image of confidence as he worked to make up for lost time after years of little in-person interaction with other world leaders. Often maskless, he had bilateral meetings with many of the other leaders in attendance, including many European ones. Most of these meetings took place at the Chinese delegation’s hotel, in a subtle diplomatic display of authority.
In an attempt to mend relations with Western powers—or at least to prevent them from spiraling out of control—the general tone in all these meetings was more constructive than in the past. Xi delivered a much friendlier set of talking points than we have been used to over the last couple of years. For example, he noted that China-Australia relations must be “cherished” during his meeting with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese—the first such meeting between the two countries since relations deteriorated sharply in 2016. (When Canberra proposed an international inquiry into the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020, Beijing responded with a wave of trade restrictions.) Absent any real common ground between the two, Beijing is also signaling some willingness to reengage with its main competitor: Xi’s meeting with US President Joe Biden brought a reopening of the lines of communication between the two powers.
No sign of a policy shift
Despite this shift in tone, which already started during German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’ visit to Beijing in early November, it is important not to let Beijing’s charm offensive distract from the main messages delivered during the 20th Party Congress in late October. It is at the congress that policy directions and priorities are outlined, and where the key signals of what we can expect over the next few years in terms of China’s foreign policy are delivered.
And the party congress made a few things clear. First, Beijing has a much glummer view of the international environment than five years ago. Triumphal language about China “standing tall and firm in the East” and enjoying a period of strategic opportunity has given way to an emphasis on the risks and challenges it faces. This includes the intentions of international actors toward China, with Xi’s “work report” warning that external attempts to blackmail and contain China are rising and may escalate at any time—a veiled reference to the US and its allies.
Second, Beijing has prescribed more struggle (or “fighting spirit,” in the official English translation) to respond to these challenges. Although China’s official foreign policy goals and principles remain unchanged, Xi issued a call to strengthen China’s voice in international affairs and its extraterritorial legal toolkit. He also stressed the need to invest further in China’s relationships with developing countries, which are already pivotal to Beijing’s approach to geopolitical competition with the West.
And third, Xi Jinping’s position at the center of political power in China has been further solidified. He has stacked the Politburo and its Standing Committee with loyalists, outlined a policy program that revolves around his priorities, and amended the party constitution to formalize his position as the core of the party. Ideology, security, and stability will be defining themes of Xi’s third term. And the party leadership can be expected to keep a hard line against any—real or perceived—opposition to China’s rise.
In short, the charm offensive may continue as Beijing seeks to court Western powers and prevent them from uniting against China. But this is likely to involve low-cost gestures. At heart, China’s behavior on the international stage seems set to stay the course. Geopolitical competition with the US will remain front and center in shaping China’s foreign policy; developing nations will remain the main targets of China’s diplomatic outreach, and military pressure on Taiwan will be maintained.
Xi courts European leaders
European leaders were also on the receiving end of Xi’s charm offensive in the sidelines of the G20. But it was the European Union member states that got facetime with Xi, while representatives of the EU institutions were sidelined. European Council President Charles Michel has announced a surprise visit to Beijing on December 1 to try to remedy this situation. But Brussels is increasingly seen in Beijing as a problematic interlocutor, given its view of China as more and more of a systemic rival and its growing coordination with the US on China policy.
Beijing is therefore increasingly targeting EU member states to make a case for a return to less fraught relations. During meetings with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, French President Emmanuel Macron, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, Xi called on them to encourage the EU to maintain a positive China policy and leveraged some of the friction points that have emerged in the transatlantic relationship (like the Inflation Reduction Act or new US exports controls on semiconductors), in a familiar attempt at driving a wedge between Europe and the US. He complemented this request with calls and commitments for greater China-Europe cooperation in a wide range of policy areas, from energy and agriculture to tourism and science.
The latent wish of some European leaders to find ways to reconnect with China and return to positive forms of cooperation means that there is a risk that Xi’s smiles and friendly language may be misinterpreted as a change in policy. But statements rejecting the use, or threatened use, of nuclear weapons, while positive, simply recap China’s longstanding nuclear doctrine. And Xi’s assertion that China does not seek to change the existing international order is not echoed in CCP language prevalent at the 20th Party Congress. The chances that China and Europe may be able to meet somewhere in the middle on contentious issues like human rights, China’s support for Russia, the rules-based international order, or Taiwan remain slim.
The Chinese leadership will also have to contend with multiple crises going forward, including a decelerating economy and a wave of dissatisfaction with its zero-COVID policies, that will be compounded by an increasingly difficult international environment. The protests that have erupted across the country have shown the limits of China’s expansive surveillance and censorship systems, and while they mostly target China’s pandemic control measures, some calls for democracy and freedom of expression and even for Xi to step down have emerged.
The propaganda apparatus is likely to blame foreign forces for instigating the protests, but these show the degree of discontent simmering under the surface in China. Beijing will be able to reassert control domestically, but it will struggle to tackle the underlying issues causing these problems. It is likely that this will lead to Beijing refocusing its attention on domestic dynamics, reducing the space for compromise on the international arena. But as instability grows in China, we must be prepared for what’s to come, in the Indo-Pacific and beyond—a turbulent period of uncertainty and unpredictability.
This article was first published in Internationale Politik Quarterly on November 29, 2022.