A handful of state visits in Beijing last week, which included meetings between Xi and leaders of Tanzania, Pakistan, Vietnam and Germany, and expected travel to international summits later this month are a sharp change of pace for Xi, who has drastically limited his foreign guests and only left the country once since start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
For more than two years, Xi – who is the most important figure in China’s Communist Party by a long shot – hunkered down as China ramped up a stringent zero-Covid policy that seeks to eliminate the virus using border controls, mandatory quarantines, lockdowns and routine mass testing.
China continues to restrict its citizens under that policy, but Xi’s recent and expected diplomatic schedule suggests he is no longer willing to forfeit his place alongside other world leaders after assuming a norm-breaking third term following the ruling Communist Party’s National Congress last month.
There Xi gave a stark assessment of external threats facing China. Those growing challenges stem from “a grim and complex international situation,” with “external attempts to suppress and contain China” threatening to “escalate at any time,” Xi told his party members and the nation in a work report delivered during the congress.
“(Xi) made it very clear … that the big challenges China will face (stem from) the less and less conducive international environment – and that is an area that China must contest,” said Steve Tsang, director of the University of London’s SOAS China Institute.
For a leader whose aim throughout his decade in power has been to enhance China’s global stature, a diminished physical presence on the world’s stage – such as sending his foreign minister to last year’s G20 – threatens to hinder Xi’s personal diplomacy.
Even as other leaders resumed international travel and hosted dignitaries, Xi’s roster of diplomatic events remained largely dominated by remote engagements – speaking in online summits to the leaders of key partner countries, delivering addresses via video link, taking “cloud” group photos with counterparts at virtual events – in an apparent bid to minimize potential Covid-19 risk.
A handful of foreign leaders have met Xi in Beijing this year, marking his first in-person state meetings since 2020. But the vast majority who visited before the party congress were there for Beijing’s Winter Olympics in February. Then, China-friendly nations like Russia and Egypt attended, while the US and its allies launched a diplomatic boycott over China’s human rights record.
Xi made his first foray out of the country since the start of the pandemic in September to attend a meeting of the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Uzbekistan.