Chinese leader Xi Jinping will head to South Africa on Monday on a trip aimed at boosting Beijing’s influence among developing and emerging nations. As relations with the United States continue to be severely strained and economic problems at home worsen.
The three-day state visit, which also includes a summit with leaders of the emerging BRICS economies, is Xi’s second international trip this year – in sharp contrast to his globe-trotting diplomatic days before the coronavirus outbreak. pandemic.
The last time the Chinese leader left the country was in March to meet his “dear friend” Vladimir Putin in Moscow, as the two authoritarian leaders reaffirmed their strategic alliance against the United States and promoted their vision of a new world order no longer dominated by the West.
For Xi, the BRICS’ first in-person summit since the pandemic offers another opportunity to advance this vision.
The members of the bloc – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – account for more than 40% of the world’s population. They also share a desire for a multipolar world and a demand for a greater role in global affairs.
“Xi Jinping is not trying to outdo America in the current US-dominated liberal international order. His long-term goal is to change the world order to a China-centric one,” said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London.
To support this ambition, Tsang said, “It makes sense for China to engage with the Global South, (which is) far more numerous than Western democracies and most of which is authoritarian in its governance structure.”
Reviewing Xi’s visit on Friday, China’s Ambassador to South Africa Chen Xiaodong hailed BRICS as “an important platform for cooperation between emerging and developing countries” and “the backbone of international justice and fairness.”
The traditional world government system seems to be out of order, powerless and absent. Chen told reporters that the international community is eagerly looking forward to the BRICS countries playing a leading role.
Xi’s trip to South Africa comes just days after US President Joe Biden met the leaders of Japan and South Korea in a show of solidarity and strength against growing threats from China.
The Camp Davis summit saw the United States and its two closest allies in Asia deepen military and economic cooperation — and criticize China’s “dangerous and aggressive behavior” in the South China Sea.
With China and the United States entering into an increasingly intense competition, the BRICS countries have taken on greater strategic importance to Beijing, said Paul Nantolia, research associate at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.
“Xi will be the center of the BRICS summit, given that Vladimir Putin will not attend in person,” he said.
Putin, who faces an international arrest warrant for alleged war crimes in Ukraine, will share the video from Russia.
Nantulia described BRICS as “another multilateral platform through which China can project influence around the world – especially in the Global South”.
But the summit also comes at a difficult moment for Xi, who faces a myriad of domestic challenges 10 months into his unprecedented third term.
China’s long-awaited economic recovery is faltering from strict Covid-19 lockdowns. Instead, the world’s second-largest economy is beset by a host of problems – from a spiraling real estate crisis and spiraling domestic government debt to worsening deflationary pressures.
The country’s youth unemployment rate – which has reached consecutive record highs in recent months – is so bad that the Chinese government has suspended its release entirely.
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The ailing economy is a major limitation to Xi’s diplomatic charm offensive, especially in the global south, said Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Washington-based Stimson Center think tank.
For Xi to visit developing countries, the rule is for China to offer generous packages of aid, financing and cooperation deals. But given the current state of the Chinese economy, Beijing is no longer well equipped to do so.
“Economic performance limits his ability to play the superpower leader he used to be.”
China also faces a public that is becoming more suspicious of its government’s generous spending abroad.
“On Chinese social media, there was a lot of pressure against the Belt and Road Initiative, for example,” Nantulia said, referring to Qi’s flagship global infrastructure programme.
“Chinese citizens are asking what is the rationale for investing so much money abroad, but there are many problems that China is facing domestically.”
Faced with a slowing economy, the Chinese government has become more selective in choosing which foreign projects to fund, according to Nantulia.
While its international funding has slowed, Nantulia said, Beijing has stepped up its political and military involvement in Africa, including increasing party involvement, establishing more Confucian institutes, and training more African officers in military academies in China.
“These are low-cost activities, but they are very high-impact in terms of China being able to demonstrate that it still cares about Africa even if it cuts funding for major infrastructure initiatives,” he said.
This is Xi’s first visit to Africa in five years.
His most recent trip to the continent – also for the BRICS summit in South Africa – in 2018 includes a whirlwind of visits to Senegal, Rwanda and Mauritius, spanning nearly every corner of sub-Saharan Africa.
This time, Beijing announced no further stops for Xi.
The Chinese foreign ministry said the Chinese leader would instead chair the China-Africa leaders’ dialogue with his South African counterpart Cyril Ramaphosa on the sidelines of the BRICS summit.
69 countries were invited to attend the summit, including all African countries.
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