ANALYSIS-Unmasked and in charge, China’s Xi calls personal diplomacy into play

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By Eduardo Baptista and Martin Quin Pollard

BEIJING, November 17 (Reuters)President Xi Jinping, conspicuously absent from the main stage of diplomacy during China’s COVID lockdown, has mostly been smiles and handshakes as he returns this week with a flurry of meetings that Beijing hopes will begin to mend frayed relationships.

But in an exchange that has gone viral, a maskless Xi was also filmed, giving Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau a to disguise oneself at the Group of 20 (G20) summit over media leaks, apparently during their bilateral meeting the day before. It was a rare and candid insight into the Chinese leader and a reminder of Beijing’s strained relations with the West.

China’s absence from face-to-face interactions during the pandemic has been costly, diplomats and other experts say, as ties with the United States and some Asian neighbors have soured badly over a series of disputes.

With other leaders having so little access to senior Chinese officials recently, Xi’s presence this week on the Indonesian island of Bali for the G20 followed by an APEC summit in Bangkok is amplified by its scarcity value.

The resumption of dialogue, including Xi’s first meeting with Joe Biden as US president and the first face-to-face talks with an Australian leader since 2016, is in itself a positive, China watchers said, though it does not immediately yield concrete results.

Besides Biden, Trudeau and Australian Anthony Albanese, Xi also met with the leaders of South Korea, Italy, Argentina, the Netherlands and France for bilateral talks in Bali. A meeting with Britain’s Rishi Sunak has been canceled due to scheduling issues, Downing Street said, while Xi is expected to hold talks with Japan’s Fumio Kishida and New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern in Bangkok.

Leif-Eric Easley, professor of international studies at Ewha University in Seoul, described Xi’s busy schedule as a “charm offensive” after China closed its borders for nearly three years and after Xi cemented his power last month by winning a third term in office. Communist Party Congress.

“Meetings are probably not enough to make progress on thorny economic and security issues, but could prevent diplomatic relations from deteriorating,” Easley said.

BIDEN, AND MUCH MORE

Xi’s week was marked by his three-hour session with Biden, which showed signs of a thaw in frosty bilateral relations and led to plans for US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to visit Beijing early. next year.

Daniel Russel, the top US diplomat for East Asia under former President Barack Obama, said signs that China might be willing to take preliminary steps toward cooperation on certain global issues “should be treated as an experiment, not a done deal”.

Ja Ian Chong, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore, said this week that other leaders were trying to assess the state of their relations with China, “especially now that the system is much less accessible and much more opaque. than it was before.”

Xi was ferried around Bali in his own Hongqi (Red Flag) limousine – Mao Zedong used an earlier model – the Chinese version of the US presidential “Beast” limousine.

Unlike Biden, Xi even attended the G20 group’s dinner, having skipped the ceremonial meal at a September summit of a regional security group in Central Asia that was his only other overseas trip to the time of COVID.

“GREAT POWER DIPLOMACY”

For China, raising awareness is an opportunity to take the initiative in an increasingly fierce competition for influence with the United States, whose assertion in the Pacific through its support for Taiwan and its AUKUS partnership with Australia and Great Britain worries Beijing more and more.

China is also being pressured by US efforts to cut it off from advanced semiconductor technology, prompting Xi to decry the “decoupling” and politicization of economic and trade issues with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who is home to the chip equipment giant ASML.

“It is in China’s interest to go after US partners as much as possible,” said Masafumi Iida, a researcher at the National Institute for Defense Studies in Japan.

“This way of thinking is reflected in the way Xi held summits with the Albanian from Australia and Yoon (Suk-yeol) from South Korea, hoping to forge better relations with them,” he said. he declared.

The return to in-person diplomacy also gives Xi a platform to push Chinese initiatives that further cement his stature as a leader of the emerging world. He made a catch for his Belt & Road initiative during his session with Argentinian Alberto Fernandez.

Domestically, where COVID outbreaks are on the rise and Xi’s decade in power has been increasingly authoritarian, the week of summit meetings conveys global stature and a sense of normalcy, though coverage is mainly limited to state media.

Before COVID, Xi was an enthusiastic practitioner of in-person diplomacy as China expanded its presence on the world stage through initiatives such as Belt & Road, generating goodwill especially among developing countries, including leaders. were honored with a face-to-face meeting. and photos with Xi.

Li Mingjiang, associate professor of international relations at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said the perceived pressure in Beijing from Washington’s global assertiveness may have been “additional incentive” to hurry.

“I think in the years to come you will see China indeed making serious efforts to implement its great power diplomacy,” he said.

(Reporting by Eduardo Baptista and Martin Quin Pollard; Additional reporting by Soo-hyang Choi and Hyonhee Shin in Seoul, Sakura Murakami in Tokyo, Kirsty Needham in Sydney Editing by Tony Munroe and Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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