Chinese President Xi Jinping is rebooting his image as a global statesman — and he’s already got a significant win under his belt.
Hours after securing a third term as China’s president on Friday, Xi’s government hosted the signing of a landmark deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran to restore diplomatic ties. While details of Beijing’s involvement remain unclear, the agreement added credibility to Xi’s push to broker peace between Russia and Ukraine — a proposal roundly dismissed by the United States and its allies as lacking substance.
Now Xi is expected to soon meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, hold his first-ever call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and possibly speak once again with US President Joe Biden in a bid to put US-China ties on more stable footing.
The diplomatic blitz marks a reset for Xi, who last November ended years of isolation during the pandemic by meeting more than a dozen leaders of the world’s biggest economies at various summits in Southeast Asia. During his meeting with Biden on the Indonesian resort island of Bali, Xi referred to himself as a “statesman” who should “think about and know how to get along with other countries and the wider world.”
Those efforts appeared to go off the rails after an alleged Chinese spy balloon was spotted over the United States in January, prompting Biden to eventually shoot it down. Making matters worse, the US strengthened efforts to prevent Chinese companies from obtaining advanced technology and repeatedly warned that Beijing was weighing whether to supply weapons to Russia, undermining China’s efforts to portray itself as a neutral actor that could broker peace.
Just as Xi called out the US for seeking to contain and encircle China, the Saudi-Iran agreement changed the narrative around Beijing. Beyond helping Xi look like a peacemaker, it also undermined US efforts more broadly to lump China in with Russia and isolate it on the world stage.
“If the agreement reached by Saudi Arabia and Iran in Beijing can be successfully implemented, it will increase the international community’s expectations for China’s participation in solving world problems,” said Fan Hongda, professor at the Middle East Studies Institute of Shanghai International Studies University. “It will also enhance China’s own confidence.”
The United States appeared caught off-guard by the announcement, with National Security Council spokesman John Kirby taking a shot at China even as he said the Biden administration would “welcome” a sustainable deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia “regardless of what the impetus was or who sat down at the table.”
“We certainly continue to watch China as they try to gain influence and footholds elsewhere around the world in their own selfish interests,” he said.
US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said Monday that a Biden-Xi call could happen anytime now that China’s annual legislative session is over.
Either way, plenty of potential landmines await, including a possible visit by Taiwan leader Tsai Ing-wen to the US and a host of legislation making its way through the US Congress. Mike Gallagher, chairman of a new House committee scrutinising China, this month described relations with Beijing as an “existential struggle over what life will look like in the 21st century.”
Despite all the threats of military action and decoupling, China’s trade with both the US and Taiwan are at record high levels, said Rorry Daniels, managing director at the Asia Society Policy Institute.
“Using force to settle the Taiwan issue remains Beijing’s option of last resort,” she said. “We are likely to see these two Chinese priorities — a peaceful external environment that facilitates trade and investment, and a need to curb US-Taiwan ties — mix in surprising ways over the coming weeks and months, especially as Taiwan heads into an election season.”
Apart from the US and some of its allies, China has found a more receptive audience elsewhere for its diplomatic efforts — most notably in Ukraine.
After China last month unveiled a 12-point blueprint for ending the war in Ukraine, a document dismissed by most Western governments, Zelenskyy said he was open to meeting Xi to discuss things further. Other leaders are also taking China’s role seriously, with Brazil President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva expected to visit China in the coming weeks to discuss peace efforts.
As Xi prepares to speak with Zelenskyy, he’s set to head to Moscow to meet Putin — a trip that could take place next week, according to reports. Xi has spoken to Putin four times since the invasion, even though he has yet to speak with Zelenskyy. China accounted for 23 percent of Russia’s overall trade in the third quarter of 2022, latest data shows, rising from 19 percent a year ago.
Whether Xi can actually forge an end to the war that is acceptable in the West is the big question. Still, he achieved a big win with the Saudi-Iran deal given the extent to which China was under pressure for providing diplomatic support to Putin, according to William Figueroa, a research associate for the Centre for Geopolitics at the University of Cambridge.
“The deal represents an important symbolic victory for China,” he said. “But it is less clear whether it was the result of Chinese diplomacy or simply a low-hanging fruit that all parties were happy to pluck together.”