Quiet suc­cess for China as Xi avoids drama, spotlight

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

From US anger over in­ac­tion on North Korea to a fes­ter­ing bor­der dis­pute with In­dia and the ail­ing Chi­nese No­bel lau­re­ate Liu Xiaobo, last week’s G20 sum­mit was strewn with mine­fields for China’s Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping. By chance or by strat­egy, Xi and his of­fi­cials picked their way through un­scathed. Bei­jing is ul­tra-sen­si­tive about Xi’s im­age and en­sur­ing he gets the re­spect it sees as his due as leader of an emerg­ing su­per­power, es­pe­cially when trav­el­ling to Western coun­tries where it can­not so tightly con­trol the public nar­ra­tive.

Diplo­matic sources in Bei­jing, speak­ing ahead of Xi’s trip to the G20 gath­er­ing in the Ger­man city of Hamburg, said Chi­nese of­fi­cials had in pri­vate ex­pressed ner­vous­ness that he could be asked awk­ward ques­tions about North Korea, or the can­cer­struck Liu, jailed for 11 years in 2009 for “in­cit­ing sub­ver­sion of state power”. In the end it was US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s meet­ing with Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin, amid ac­cu­sa­tions Rus­sia in­ter­fered in the US elec­tion, and Trump’s re­fusal to re­turn to the Paris cli­mate agree­ment that dom­i­nated the lime­light.

Xi, by con­trast, avoided con­tro­versy in his bi­lat­eral meet­ings and reaf­firmed China’s com­mit­ment to the Paris deal and to an open global econ­omy, in what the of­fi­cial China Daily called the “bur­nish­ing of (his) rep­u­ta­tion”. “No­body talked about the South China Sea. No one talked about trade. Ev­ery­one was happy with Xi. I think he played this well,” said Ul­rich Speck, se­nior fel­low at the El­cano Royal In­sti­tute in Brus­sels. “All eyes were on Trump and Putin. But the fact that there was no US-China clash was at least as im­por­tant. Xi stayed out of the al­pha-male fight. China pre­sented it­self as a part­ner to Europe.”

Chi­nese For­eign Min­is­ter Wang Yi said Xi “made it clear that the G20 should ad­here to tak­ing the path of open de­vel­op­ment and mu­tual ben­e­fit lead­ing to all-win re­sults, sup­port a mul­ti­lat­eral trade mech­a­nism, and pro­mote in­ter­na­tional trade and in­vest­ment”. “China was in a good place at G20, with rea­son­able poli­cies,” said Jin Can­rong of the School of In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies at the Ren­min Uni­ver­sity of China, who has ad­vised the gov­ern­ment on diplo­matic mat­ters. “So Pres­i­dent Xi was com­fort­able and pos­i­tive there.”

Don’t Men­tion Tai­wan

Po­ten­tially the big­gest test was Xi’s meet­ing with Trump, who in the run-up to Hamburg had voiced frus­tra­tion over China’s in­abil­ity to rein in its trou­ble­some erst­while ally, North Korea. In the event, Trump re­turned to the con­cil­ia­tory tone struck at their first meet­ing in April, telling the Chi­nese leader it was “an honor to have you as a friend” and he ap­pre­ci­ated ac­tions Xi had al­ready taken to try to dis­suade North Korea from pur­su­ing nu­clear weapons.

In­flu­en­tial Chi­nese state-run tabloid the Global Times said in an ed­i­to­rial yes­ter­day that the Xi-Trump meet­ing had de­fied “the naysay­ers in the West”. “Bei­jing and Wash­ing­ton saw fric­tion on is­sues in­clud­ing Tai­wan and the South China Sea ahead of the meet­ing, and there was spec­u­la­tion from Western public opin­ion that the China-US ‘hon­ey­moon’ had come to an end. But the Xi-Trump meet­ing re­pu­di­ates such spec­u­la­tion,” the pa­per said.

Speak­ing to re­porters later on Air Force One, US Trea­sury Sec­re­tary Steven Mnuchin said the Trump-Xi meet­ing lasted more than an hour-and-a-half, and would have gone on longer had they not had to leave for other en­gage­ments. Ruan Zongze, a for­mer Chi­nese diplo­mat now with the China In­sti­tute of In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies, a think-tank af­fil­i­ated with the For­eign Min­istry, said Xi was much more up­beat than when he spoke to Trump a few days ahead of G20 and men­tioned cer­tain un­named “neg­a­tive fac­tors” in their re­la­tion­ship. “Even on trade Trump un­der­scored that he wants co­op­er­a­tion,” Ruan said.

China’s big­gest con­cern had been US pol­icy to­wards self-ruled Tai­wan, af­ter the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion ap­proved a $1.42 bil­lion arms pack­age for Tai­wan, claimed by China as its own. Nei­ther gov­ern­ment men­tioned Tai­wan in their re­spec­tive ac­counts of their G20 meet­ing. Chi­nese of­fi­cials were at pains to point out their good re­la­tions with the new ad­min­is­tra­tion in Wash­ing­ton. Vice Fi­nance Min­is­ter Zhu Guangyao told re­porters in Hamburg that the Chi­nese and US teams deal­ing the bi­lat­eral fi­nan­cial re­la­tion­ship clearly un­der­stood that both would be hurt by fight­ing with each other. “Our strength is com­mu­ni­cat­ing ev­ery morn­ing and ev­ery evening. This is un­prece­dented,” Zhu said. — Reuters

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