Xi Jinping’s cordial tone at G20 does not herald softer foreign policy

Fresh from consolidating power with a third term at home, Xi Jinping struck a largely cordial tone at the G20 summit in Indonesia, but don’t expect a change in China’s often aggressive “wolf-warrior” diplomacy.

While laying down a hard line on Taiwan, the Chinese president’s three-hour meeting with Joe Biden was described by the US president as “candid and clear” on subjects ranging from Taiwan to trade. After China accused the US of breaching the “One China” policy in its pledge to protect Taiwan, Biden reassured Xi that the US remained committed to the policy and “a new cold war” could be avoided.

“He got what he wanted in his meeting with Biden, as a limited apparent rapprochement made him appear more responsible,” said Prof Steve Tsang, the director of the Soas China Institute at London University.

Xi’s speech at the summit was in turn peppered with conciliatory language about unity and cooperation, in stark contrast to his aggressive rhetoric at the 20th Communist party congress last month, when he stressed China’s need for a “fighting spirit” in a hostile international environment.

“This is Xi’s coming-out party, after having consolidated power at home at the 20th party congress,” said Wen-Ti Sung, a political scientist at the Australian National University. “He knows other countries feel a higher comfort level to engage with China after seeing cordiality at the Biden-Xi meeting, so it’s a good timing for Xi to seize that momentum and reset relationships with these countries on a more positive footing.”

However, Wu Qiang, a former political science lecturer at Tsinghua University in Beijing, said the rapprochement was more of a symbolic gesture that was thin on substantial diplomatic results. “This was the first political show in his new term and signals his return to the international arena. It is his attempt to get the international endorsement of his new term,” he said.

Wu said Xi’s key goals at the summit were to repair Sino-US relations and relations with other countries, to stabilise the North Korean situation and to win over Europe. But he also noted that Xi’s meetings with international leaders tended to be one-sided declarations of China’s stance rather than diplomatic negotiations.

“The actual progress was very limited, it was mainly a ‘reconnaissance by fire’ [to test the response],” he said. “It’s a rapprochement in gesture only and not in the traditional diplomatic sense. So we can’t really say that it was so successful.”

Willy Lam, a senior fellow at Jamestown Foundation, a Washington-based thinktank, said Xi’s main motive was to “drive a wedge” between the US and its allies in the EU, and between the US and smaller Asean countries.

In his speech at the summit, Xi made a veiled attack of “bloc politics” and the US export controls on semiconductor technology by joint efforts to “unclog industrial and supply chains”.

Xi also called on the French president, Emmanuel Macron, to “encourage the EU to stay committed to an independent and positive China policy”, in an apparent appeal to the EU to refrain from joining the US restrictions on the sale of hi-tech components to China, Lam said.

Lam said Xi managed to win praise for opposing Russia’s threat of using nuclear weapons over Ukraine and reassured world leaders that there was no change to China’s open-door policy. But he also said “it is too early to say whether Xi would be ultimately successful” as there were still too many uncertainties over the Chinese economy and policies regarding western hi-tech firms.

But one thing is certain: Xi has won world leaders’ endorsement as the head of the superpower in the next five to 10 years, and they are happy to continue doing business with China and overlook other issues.

Sung said the countries’ engagement with China “signals they will not let concerns about China’s domestic human rights situation and narrowing political space be an obstacle in their relationship with China. This will give China an opening to assuage its international isolation.”

Victoria Hui, a political scientist at Notre Dame University in the US, said Biden’s cordial “handshakes and broad smiles with Xi grants tactic legitimacy for Xi’s power grab”.

Judging by Xi’s rhetoric at home regarding “struggles” and “fighting spirit” – reminiscent of the Mao era – an overwhelming concern over national security and his status as the “core leader”, Xi’s cordial tone at the summit should not be seen as an indication of change. “We can’t see much of an opportunity for the ‘wolf-warrior’ mentality to be abandoned any time soon,” said Wu.


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