China’s Xi in Saudi Arabia continues his resurgence from isolation

He met with the King of Saudi Arabia and the leaders of Egypt, Tunisia, Kuwait and Sudan. He promised to expand ports along the Red Sea, invest in petrochemicals and launch a wave of Chinese tourism.

After years of alienating other countries with his Foreign Ministry’s aggressive style of diplomacy and then retiring in semi-isolation for most of the pandemic, China’s leader Xi Jinping is returning to the global stage to mend China’s position and to the United States to unlock , which Beijing believes has emerged stronger than expected from the Covid crisis.

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

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

The engagement is a welcome change for foreign leaders, who have long wondered when they will be able to hold face-to-face meetings with Mr Xi, either to woo him as head of the world’s second-biggest economy or to confront him as a powerful autocrat who attempts to reshape the global order. Many are disappointed to learn that Mr. Xi has not wavered on key issues like Taiwan or support for Russia.

“Xi is purposely courting America’s allies — meeting or receiving the leaders of Western democracies from Germany to Japan,” said Danny Russel, vice president of the Asia Society Policy Institute and former deputy foreign minister. Now, with his visit to Saudi Arabia, “Xi is showing that the United States is not the only game in town.”

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

Chinese state media have featured his trips prominently, announcing that China-Saudi Arabia relations have reached an “important milestone”! They highlighted the hero’s reception in Saudi Arabia, which included a Royal Saudi Air Force escort, a 21-gun salute and a formation of Saudi aerobatic jets ribbons of red and yellow vapor, in the colors of the Chinese flag.

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

The new diplomatic course follows years of inward focus for Mr Xi, who has been busy mitigating the impact of the pandemic and consolidating support for his norm-breaking third term at a Communist Party congress in October.

The tight Covid restrictions, which locked millions in their homes over long distances and all but prevented international travel, deepened China’s isolation at a time when the world was growing increasingly suspicious of Beijing, fragmenting into geopolitical blocs over security and technology, which was Comparisons with the cold drew war.

In contrast, the United States is emerging from the pandemic with stronger ties with 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, is increasingly sidelined.

Mr. Xi appears intent on stabilizing ties with Washington, which hit their lowest point in half a century this year after Beijing frozen diplomatic channels with Washington in response to Spokesman Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August and after the Biden -Government had imposed a purge ban on semiconductor technology exports to China in early October.

The relationship began to thaw after the party congress, when senior officials at China’s Foreign Ministry began dealing with Western countries again, a Western official said.

That led to the closely watched meeting between Mr Xi and Mr Biden on November 14 at the G20 summit in Indonesia.

China’s renewed engagement does not spell the end of Beijing’s assertive stance under Mr Xi, a leader who has portrayed the West as hostile tyrants and inspired a combative brand of “wolf warrior” diplomacy, named after two nationalist action films.

Mr. Xi has not relented on the most thorny issues dividing China and the West — Beijing’s increasing pressure on Taiwan, its crackdown on freedoms in Hong Kong and its support for Russian President Vladimir V. Putin’s waging war in Ukraine , to name just a few.

Western observers say it’s too early to call Mr Xi’s charged diplomacy a charm offensive — not until they see China abandoning some of its more coercive behaviors, like blocking imports from Lithuania, to punish the Baltic state for doing so that he agreed to let Taiwan open a trading office in the capital Vilnius last year.

A more accurate reading of Mr Xi could be gleaned from his confrontation with Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the end of the G20 summit. Mr Xi was caught by a news camera berating Mr Trudeau and accusing him of leaking a conversation between the two leaders. When Mr. Trudeau suggested that the couple settle their differences, Mr. Xi reacted sourly, saying, “Let’s set the conditions first.”

That confidence is why analysts don’t expect Mr Xi to appear chastised by last month’s protests against China’s tough pandemic measures and the subsequent collapse of his “zero Covid” policy, which he had upheld as an example to the country’s Superiority in preventing the high number of deaths seen elsewhere.

“From Beijing’s perspective,” said Mr. Russel, “the upsurge in diplomacy following Xi’s extended self-quarantine and triumphant reappointment at the 20th Congress reflects Beijing’s growing dominance on the international stage.”

This was underscored by the pomp of Mr Xi’s Saudi welcome, which marked 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, best remembered for an awkward fist-bump with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler.

Mr Xi, who hopes to weaken US 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 expanded beyond oil to include arms, technology and infrastructure.

The Chinese leader’s arrival comes as relations between Washington and Riyadh have become increasingly crumbling, first over the 2018 assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and most recently over the October decision to end oil production by OPEC Plus, an energy producers’ cartel , to which Saudi Arabia plays a key role.

The Gulf is seen as ripe for Chinese expansion as there is a growing perception 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 non-interference means that issues like human rights never stand in the way of business. Beijing says it accepts Riyadh’s flimsy explanation for Khashoggi’s death, and the Saudis have rebuffed efforts to condemn China’s mass incarceration of Muslim Uyghurs.

For China, which counts on the region as its main oil supplier, friendly relations in the Gulf are of paramount importance. It is also a key hub of its “Belt and Road” initiative and a major market for Chinese consumer goods and technology. Huawei, the Chinese telecom giant banned in the US, offers 5G networks in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates

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

Competition for countries like those in the Gulf region could intensify if the United States and its closest allies harden their positions on China. In his first foreign policy speech as British Prime Minister last month, Rishi Sunak declared the “golden era” of relations with China to be over. And in Canada, a long-awaited government Indo-Pacific Strategy Paper published last month described China as “an increasingly disruptive global power”.

Mr. Xi is betting he can weather these tougher relationships if he can garner enough support in the Global South and convince US partners that their economic future is linked to the Chinese economy. His efforts are hampered by the war in Ukraine, which has shown Europe the dangers of becoming too dependent on an opponent.

“China missed a crucial opportunity to restore ties with the West when Russia invaded Ukraine,” said Yuen Yuen Ang, a University of Michigan political science professor 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 Beijing is under a lot of pressure to make new friends.”

Keith Bradsher and Olivia Wang contributed reporting. China’s Xi in Saudi Arabia continues his resurgence from isolation

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