After years of isolation, Xi’s China looks to dominate world stage

Amy Hawkins

In Xi Jinping’s closing speech at China’s annual parliamentary meeting on Monday, his message was clear: China is back. Speaking to nearly 3,000 delegates in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Xi, newly anointed as president for a precedent-busting third term, said: “After a century of struggle, our national humiliation has been erased … the Chinese nation’s great revival is on an irreversible path.”

The speech comes as Xi is trying to position himself as a global statesman, leading a China that is ready to dominate the world stage. After three years of isolation caused by the zero-Covid policy, Chinese diplomats and Xi himself are jetting across borders to participate in international summits once again.

On Friday, Iran and Saudi Arabia announced a Chinese-brokered deal to restore diplomatic relations, seven years after the relationship was severed. In a joint statement, the Saudi and Iranian governments thanked China for sponsoring and hosting the talks. Chinese diplomats have been working the Middle East circuit for several weeks and Xi is expected to visit Iran soon.

On Saturday, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said: “China pursues no selfish interest whatsoever in the Middle East … China always believes that the future of the Middle East should always be in the hands of the countries in the region.”

US officials brushed off the notion that the deal represented a blow to US influence in the Middle East. But that is how it was portrayed in China. Wang Yiwei, the director of the Institute of International Affairs at Renmin University of China, said the deal “proves that Chinese medicine can solve problems that western medicine cannot solve”.

Stability in the region serves China’s interests. About half of China’s crude oil imports come from the Middle East, and on a visit to Saudi Arabia last year Xi vowed to buy more. Energy security is increasingly important to Beijing as it looks to become more resilient to international sanctions in the event of a conflict with Taiwan.

Xi’s ambitions for Taiwan were another key theme of Monday’s speech. China regards the self-governing island as a renegade province that needs to be reunited with the mainland. Xi has not ruled out the use of force to achieve that aim.

On Monday, he said China “should actively oppose the external forces and secessionist activities of Taiwan independence” and “unswervingly advance the cause of national rejuvenation and reunification”.

He promised to build China’s military into a “great wall of steel”. China’s defence budget will increase by 7.2% in 2023, compared with a general public expenditure increase of 5.7%.

Analysts are watching for signs that China is preparing its military to be ready for an invasion of Taiwan. According to the CIA, Xi has told the army to be ready for an invasion by 2027, although some fear that the date could come sooner. The outcome of next year’s presidential election in Taiwan may be an influencing factor: if the pro-independence DPP wins and declares formal independence from China, that could provoke a reaction from Beijing.

In Monday’s speech, Xi also stressed the importance of self-sufficiency in science and technology. Last week, the Netherlands joined a US plan to restrict the export of semiconductor-making technology, a move aimed at slowing China’s military and technological advances.

On Sunday, Li Shangfu was appointed as China’s new defence minister. Li has been on a US sanctions list since 2018 for engaging with individuals linked to Russia’s defence sector. Li’s appointment will make military dialogue between the US and China – which has been paused since the then US House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, visited Taiwan in August – even harder.

Li’s links with Russia are another sign that Xi wants to protect the Sino-Russian relationship. Xi’s support for Vladimir Putin during the war in Ukraine has been evident, although China claims to be neutral and denied US claims that it was considering sending lethal arms to Russia. Last month, China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, met Putin in Moscow and said the Sino-Russian relationship was “never dictated by any third parties”.

Xi is also expected to visit Putin. On Monday, Reuters reported that the visit, which would be Xi’s most high-profile diplomatic meeting in months, could happen as soon as next week.

(Source: The Guardian)