Xi Jinping’s Summer Foreign Policy Tour Displays “Great Power Diplomacy with Chinese Characteristics”

Xi Jinping (fifth from left) stands alongside Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon (center) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (fifth from right) in the center of the front row among officials representing member states of the CICA summit, held in Dushanbe, Tajikistan in mid-June. (Source: China Daily)

Introduction

In the month of June, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping kept up an ambitious international travel schedule, spending nearly half the month abroad on four major trips: to Russia, Central Asia, North Korea, and the G20 Summit in Japan. Although diplomatic travel is a normal part of the duties of any national leader, Xi’s travel itinerary for June 2019 was unusually heavy. Furthermore, it was accompanied by a propaganda campaign in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) media apparatus that, even by the standards of CCP discourse, was intensive. As described in state media, “Through June, Chairman Xi Jinping made four successive foreign trips, creating a new record in the foreign relations history of New China [that] once more raised up China’s international influence, once more perfected the totality of [China’s] diplomatic position, and once again expanded space for [China’s] strategic plans”  (CCTV, June 29).

Throughout Xi’s diplomatic tour, five narrative propaganda themes were particularly prominent:

  • Promotion of a “comprehensive strategic partnership” with Russia;
  • Touting the BRI as a “win-win” proposition for both China and participating countries, and as a model for international economic development;
  • The promotion of “multilateralism,” even while placing China at the center of world affairs;
  • The depiction of China as a model of successful governance, and as a bedrock of stability amidst a chaotic global environment caused by the United States;
  • And above all, promotion of Xi’s own cult of personality, depicting Xi as a brilliant foreign policy thinker and inspiration to leaders in the developing world.

Russia: Building a “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership”

Xi’s travels commenced with a trip to Russia in the first week of June, where he first conducted meetings in Moscow with President Vladimir Putin on June 5, and then with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on June 6. The leading theme stressed in PRC propaganda was that Xi and Russian leaders were working together, in the midst of a world that “is becoming increasingly uncertain and unstable,” to forge a “comprehensive strategic partnership” that would contribute to a cooperative multilateral world (Xinhua, June 6). The unnamed but clearly identified villain responsible for this global instability is the United States: “[S]ome individual country, regardless of the consequence, has blatantly violated the international law and the basic norms of international relations, [and] bullied others with sanctions recklessly… which has hindered global economic growth and impaired the growth of global trade” (Xinhua, June 6).

CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping accompanies Russian President Vladimir Putin for a cruise on the Neva River in St. Petersburg (June 6, 2019). Xi traveled to Russia for meetings with Russian officials, and to present a speech at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. (Source: Xinhua)

Following the meetings in Moscow, Xi was one of the featured speakers at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) held on June 7. PRC media provided coverage of SPIEF that was sympathetic to Putin as well as Xi, noting that the Russian president called “for more equality in global trade and slammed those who opted for sanctions and trade wars as tools of pressure for imposing their vision onto the world” (CGTN, June 7). Xi’s own speech before the forum stressed one of Xi’s favorite themes: the building of a  “community of common destiny for mankind” (renlei mingyun gongtongti, 人类命运共同体) (Xinhua, June 7). Xi also introduced a new slogan, stating that “sustainable development is the ‘golden key’ for solving global problems” (kechixu fazhan shi pojie quanqiuxing wenti de jin yaoshi, 可持续发展是破解全球性问题的“金钥匙”) (Qingnian Wang, June 10).

Central Asia: Promoting China’s Economic and Security Role in Eurasia

Xi’s next stop was a mid-month trip to Central Asia. On June 12, Xi traveled to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, where he held meetings with Kyrgyz President Sooronbay Jeenbekov and Afghan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani. PRC press coverage of these meetings stressed similar themes: China’s positive role in promoting stability and security in Central Asia; the opportunities offered by the BRI; and that regional governments firmly supported the PRC’s measures aimed at “safeguarding peace and stability in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and cracking down on extremism” (Xinhua, June 12; Xinhua, June 13). This coverage also depicted regional leaders as eagerly looking to Xi for guidance: Kyrgyz President Jeenbekov was cited as calling the Kyrgyz edition of the first volume of Xi Jinping: The Governance of China “a book of great significance…to learn from China’s experience and promote [Kyrgyzstan’s] own reform and development” (Xinhua, June 12).

On June 13, Xi also held his first face-to-face meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi since Modi’s re-election to a second term in May 2019. PRC coverage of the meeting predictably emphasized themes of economic cooperation (Xinhua, June 14); Indian press coverage was also generally positive, but made mention of recent issues connected to China’s influence with Pakistan, and the controversy surrounding the U.N. designation of Jaish-e-Mohammed leader Masood Azhar as a terrorist (India Today, June 14; China Brief, April 9).

The centerpiece of Xi’s visit was an address presented on June 14 at the 19th annual summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the quasi-alliance of China, Russia, and Central Asian states (and later, India and Pakistan) first formed in 2001. Xi’s speech stressed the need for SCO member states to uphold the “Shanghai Spirit”—defined in official commentary as consisting of “mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality, consultation, respect for cultural diversity and pursuit of common development as the core values essential to promoting peace, development and cooperation” (Xinhua, June 14; Xinhua, June 16).

On June 15-16, Xi was in Dushanbe, Tajikistan for further meetings with other national leaders, and for attendance at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA), a parallel diplomatic forum to the SCO that includes membership by 27 Asian and Middle Eastern states (CICA, undated). Prior to the conference, Xi held meetings with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Tajik President Emomali Rahmon; once again, PRC state media hit upon familiar themes about the regional benefits of the BRI, and the need for “anti-terrorism cooperation” (Xinhua, June 15; Xinhua, June 16).

At the CICA conference, Xi presented a speech titled “Working Together for a New Progress of Security and Development in Asia,” which once more stressed the themes of building a “community of common destiny,” and a “new model of international relations” (xin xing guoji guanxi, 新型国际关系) focused on multilateral cooperation. Within this construct, the “platform of Belt and Road cooperation” would be a central means “to secure a sustained driver for our common development.” Xi’s speech also took the opportunity to make thinly-veiled jabs at U.S. trade policy, and to assert the PRC’s morally superior position: “With regard to any problem that occurs on the economic and trade front, all sides [should act] in accordance with norms in international relations and multilateral trading rules, rather than resort to protectionism and unilateralism… By taking such a position, China is upholding the legitimate development rights and interests of all countries and…fairness and justice in the world” (PRC Foreign Ministry, June 15).

North Korea: Asserting China’s Role in the Korean Peninsula

On the heels of the trip to Central Asia, Xi Jinping then conducted a visit to North Korea on June 20-21. Although it included standard photo-ops of Xi posing for handshakes with Kim Jong Un, this trip was focused more on closed door meetings rather than on public speeches or events. PRC propaganda themes surrounding the visit were more subdued, and largely focused on bland statements such as the “need to continue to stick to peace talks so as to make even greater contributions to peace, stability and prosperity in the region” (Xinhua, June 21); and the assertion of “both sides’ determination to push for a political solution to the nuclear issue in the Korean Peninsula and to promote lasting peace and security in the region” (Xinhua, June 20; Xinhua, June 21).

Xi likely made the visit to consult with Kim prior to the G20 summit (see below), and to assert the PRC’s central role in negotiations related to North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs, as well as to any potential longer-term political settlement on the Korean Peninsula. Unpredictable moves made by the Trump Administration regarding Korea may have reinforced Beijing’s interest in consulting with Kim about any future diplomatic efforts—as well as sending a public reminder to audiences in China, Pyongyang, and Washington that the PRC remains North Korea’s primary patron and only significant ally.

The G-20 Summit in Japan: Hailing an “Osaka Truce” in the Trade War

The capstone of Xi’s June travels was his trip at the end of the month for attendance at the Group of Twenty (G20) Summit in Japan. This summit, held on 28-29 June in Osaka, represented the world’s largest economies, bringing together national leaders and central bank directors from 19 countries and the European Union. During the visit, Xi conducted a meeting of leaders from the “BRICS” (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) countries (Xinhua, June 28); and also held a side meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron to once again urge greater international “multilateralism” (Xinhua, June 29). Xi took the opportunity of his G20 speech to once more tout the BRI (Xinhua, June 29), part of a continuing renewed propaganda push for the BRI that continued past the trip (China Daily, July 3).

A political cartoon from PRC state media that accompanied coverage of the Trump-Xi meeting in Osaka, and the resulting “trade truce.” As depicted in the cartoon, China has consistently offered an open hand of cooperation, while the United States has pursued confrontation—until Uncle Sam at last comes around to China’s wiser and morally superior position. (Source: China Daily, July 2)

As depicted in PRC media, however, the centerpiece of Xi’s trip was a triumphant side meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump, which brought about an “Osaka Truce” in U.S.-China trade disputes (China Daily, July 2)—a truce that would allow the two countries “to restart economic and trade consultations between their countries on the basis of equality and mutual respect, injecting much-needed confidence into the global economy and markets” (Xinhua, June 29). [1] PRC media was effusive in its praise, with the English-language China Daily proclaiming that Xi “brought hope to the world economy” amid “challenges and uncertainties thanks to the rise of trade protectionism and unilateralism in some economies since 2017;” and that the summit “witnessed President Xi Jinping achieving diplomatic success in terms of upholding multilateralism, partnerships, mutually beneficial cooperation and providing directions for global growth and global governance” (China Daily, July 3).

It was in domestically-oriented Chinese-language media, however, that coverage of the G20 Summit ramped up Xi’s personality cult to a new level (China Media Project, July 2). In an official commentary under the name of PRC Foreign Minister Wang Yi (王毅), Wang stated that the G20 meeting was held “at a historical juncture interwoven with a chaotic international situation” (guoji jushi bianluan jiaozhi de lishi guankou, 国际局势变乱交织的历史关口). In such a critical time, Xi Jinping stands ready to show the way—not only for China, but for the whole world:

Chairman Xi Jinping stood amidst these historical tides, not allowing clouds to cover his eyes, and from a new model of international relations and from the heights of a community of common destiny for mankind, and with clear direction for the world economy and global governance… displayed the foresight and sagacity of Chinese leaders, assuming and bringing into play the functions of a responsible great power… The present chaotic world situation still persists, and various unstable and uncertain factors are still spreading; we should take Xi Jinping foreign relations thought as our guide… and do our utmost to initiate the new achievements of great power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics (Zhongguo tese daguo waijiao,中国特色大国外交) (CCTV, June 29).

Conclusions

Xi Jinping’s June 2019 summer foreign policy tour represented an unusual level of foreign travel for a paramount Chinese leader. Part of the explanation for Xi’s ambitious travels is likely found simply in the vagaries of scheduling for major international conferences. [2] However, the content of the accompanying CCP propaganda campaign suggests other possible motives, as well. The first three trips offered opportunities for speeches, meetings, and photo ops in reliably friendly, controlled media environments. All four trips allowed Xi to bolster a domestic image as a lynchpin world leader—with the PRC’s state-controlled press providing effusive praise of Xi’s accomplishments as an international statesman, and his status as a model for leaders of developing countries to emulate.

Xi’s international travels in June—and the attendant propaganda campaign—may serve in part to bolster Xi’s position amid internal Party concerns simmering over the U.S.-China “trade war,” and the resulting economic slowdown (China Brief, August 1, 2018; China Brief, March 22). The early summer international trips may also represent part of an effort to boost Xi’s prestige prior to the annual CCP senior leadership meetings in Beidaihe (on the coast of the Bohai Sea), traditionally held in early August. In this sense, the very intensity of the propaganda surrounding Xi’s cult of personality may hint at efforts to drown out his internal critics—and swaggering pride displayed overseas may cover up anxieties at home.

Xi’s summer 2019 diplomatic tour also represented one of the clearest displays yet seen during Xi’s tenure of “great power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics”—characterized by unabashed assertion of international leadership, wrapped in the language of benevolence and international cooperation. If the foreign policy themes on display throughout the past month are any indication, the world is likely to see an even more assertive PRC position on the world stage in times to come.

John Dotson is the editor of China Brief. Contact him at [email protected]

Notes

[1] The tentative agreement between Xi and Trump did not remove existing tariffs, but involved a U.S. pledge to refrain from imposing further tariffs in the immediate term (Forbes, July 5).

[2] SCO annual summits over the past decade have been held most frequently in the month of June, and the 2019 G20 meeting happened to fall during the same month.

[3] Xi Jinping has conducted early/mid-summer trips in both of the past two years: In 2017, Xi Jinping travelled to Kazakhstan 07-10 June for the annual SCO summit; and then visited Russia and Germany from July 03-08 (China Vitae, 2017). In 2018, Xi Jinping travelled to the United Arab Emirates, followed by a multi-nation trip to Africa (Senegal, Rwanda, South Africa, and Mauritius) from July 20-28 (China Vitae, 2018).