China and the World

A welcoming host

Xi kicks off third term with a week of diplomacy


Scholz: in China this week

It’s been a hectic week for the protocol experts at China’s foreign ministry, following a flurry of arrivals from foreign governments.

Pakistani President Shehbaz Sharif came to town on Tuesday, followed by Samia Suluhu Hassan, the President of Tanzania, a day later. Beating them both to it was Nguyen Phu Trong, General Secretary of Vietnam’s Communist Party, who arrived on Sunday as the first foreign head of government to meet Xi Jinping since he secured a third term as Chinese leader.

Getting the most coverage was the arrival of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz today, the first EU leader to visit China for three years.

Although his visit was set to be a brief one – only a day in Beijing with an accompanying delegation of business leaders – it does the job for the hosts in showcasing their relationship with a key partner in trade and investment. It also signals an effort to counter some of the isolating experience of the zero-Covid policy over the last two years, as well as how the government has moved beyond the pageantry of last month’s Party Congress, where Xi was confirmed as Party Secretary.

The boss of vaccine maker BioNTech was part of the German delegation, sparking speculation that it might advance its submission to supply its mRNA vaccine to the Chinese (Beijing has blocked distribution of foreign vaccines). Those hopes seem stretched, however, with the touring group also subject to stringent Covid protocols that prevented contact with the outside public. There was a similar sense of disconnect in the reporting of Scholz’s trip. The European media talked about how he would press his hosts to open up their markets and raise longstanding concerns about human rights. But the Chinese press took a contrasting view, with warnings from stalwarts like the Global Times against “ideological snipers” determined to disrupt the visit.

Instead Scholz’s trip was interpreted as an expression of support for the economic ties between two major partners, as well as a clear repudiation of the efforts from others (read Washington) to isolate China on the world stage.

Critics of the visit in Europe and the United States have cited the dangers of over-dependency in the relationship with China, comparing it to Berlin’s complacency over energy imports from the Russians. The gripe is that the Germans need to rethink their approach after nearly 16 years of Angela Merkel’s chancellorship, where trade was generally prioritised over political confrontation. There was more discord after Scholz’s support for the purchase of a 25% stake in a Hamburg container terminal by Cosco, the Chinese shipping giant, last month, against the wishes of junior coalition partners in the German government. Berlin’s foreign ministry was also said to be unhappy, after warning that the deal “disproportionately expands China’s strategic influence on German and European transport infrastructure as well as Germany’s dependence on China”.

Not so, the Global Times countered, rubbishing talk of “encirclement” of the European coastline.

Emmanuel Macron, the French president, has also questioned the deal, however, warning that some Europeans are “naïve” about Chinese investment. He is said to have turned down a chance to visit Xi himself this year, with French government sources telling Reuters that he advised Scholz that they should travel together to China at a later date to convey a message of unity, countering efforts to play one country off against another.

In the meantime Xi has a busy travel schedule of his own this month, following pledges last week that he would intensify efforts to expand China’s influence. He is expected to visit Indonesia and Thailand for the G20 and APEC summits respectively, where he is likely to cross path with Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin.

Biden has not yet had any in-person meeting with Xi since he became US president two years ago, although a White House official confirmed on Tuesday that diplomats from China and the US are “working out the modalities” of a possible session between their leaders, adding that the duo have talked over the phone five times.

A trip to Saudi Arabia by Xi is likewise rumoured to be imminent, with preparations being finalised for summit talks between China and some Arab states.

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