[News] Xi Jinping had 16 bilateral meetings while on tour, not all went to plan

“Very naive,” Xi muttered off-camera as he walked away from the Canadian leader.

By Friday, Trudeau’s name had been censored on Chinese social media, along with his Chinese nickname “little potato”. Xi had re-established control, but the episode highlighted how sensitive he is to his international image – even as he locks in unparalleled power at home.

Xi pushed China’s role as a stabilising force in a turbulent global climate in every one of his 16 meetings in Bali and at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Bangkok this week.

The timing was fortuitous. In 1972, China established diplomatic relations with dozens of countries, including Australia, Japan and South Korea after being admitted to the United Nations the previous year. China harnesses anniversaries to drive domestic loyalty but also uses them as a mechanism for international resets.

Outside the simmering tension with Canada and the UK, Xi sought to assuage other relationships by reminding every leader he met that their 50th anniversary was coming up. It helped that he had secured a third term in October cementing him as leader for the foreseeable future.

President Xi Jinping meets with world leaders at the G20.Credit:Xinhua

Everything was designed to project this newfound power. He often stood on the right of photos so that his body was open to the camera while others were forced to turn theirs inwards towards him. Most world leaders beamed, but Xi on tour rarely gives much away. His half-smile straddles the optimism and scepticism of the geopolitical circumstances that China finds itself in.

“We are living in a changing world surrounded by the Quad, AUKUS and Five Eyes,” said Wang Huiyao, president of the Centre for China and Globalisation, referring to security groupings involving the United States and Australia among others.

“There are about 1000 companies under sanctions. The US is unilaterally decoupling the semiconductor sector. We hope to live in peace but think of danger.”

Xi’s most significant meeting was not with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, or US President Joe Biden but with Widodo, this year’s G20 host and leader of an increasingly important regional partner.

The pair released the only joint statement of Xi’s dozen meetings in Bali, and tied their economic futures by declaring China and Indonesia would both become developed countries by mid-century. The goal will be driven by billions of dollars in investment, mostly from Beijing. In exchange, Indonesia reaffirmed its “commitment to uphold the principle of non-interference into internal affairs of each other and support […] on issues concerning such core interests as national sovereignty, security and territorial integrity.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, is greeted by the Indonesian President Joko Widodo.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, is greeted by the Indonesian President Joko Widodo.Credit:Getty

The same language has been used in China’s joint statements with Russia and other close economic partners.

China’s investment in Indonesia is becoming more tangible than the lofty promises and debt traps that have characterised parts of the Belt and Road Initiative. On Thursday, Widodo and Xi watched as the first train ran on the Chinese-built Jakarta-Bandung high-speed railway. it cuts travel time between the capital and Indonesia’s third-largest city from almost 3 hours down to 36 minutes.

Widodo called Xi his “big brother” at the start of their meeting. By the end, their joint statement said their relationship would forge “an exemplary model of major developing countries seeking mutual respect, mutual benefit, win-win results, justice, equity, common development and South-South cooperation”.

The partnership also delivered what was once thought to be beyond the capabilities of the G20 itself – a statement condemning the actions of one of its key members, Russia, for its war on Ukraine.

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“Discussions on this [the war in Ukraine] matter were very, very tough, and finally the G20 leaders agreed on the contents of the declaration; namely the condemnation of war in Ukraine for violating territorial boundaries and violating territorial integrity,” Widodo said.

Indonesia used the issue of food security and the economic fallout from the war to get China, along with its other BRICS partners Brazil, India, and South Africa onside for a statement that slammed the impacts of the war, without putting them offside with Moscow, retaining the diplomatic credibility of the G20 and Indonesia.

Xi had been pressed in every meeting – particularly by France, Australia and the United States – to take a firmer position on Ukraine. By the end of the summit, he had at least refrained from China’s year-long playbook of blaming the US or NATO for stoking tensions.

“China stands for a ceasefire, cessation of the conflict and peace talks,” he told French President Emmanuel Macron. “The international community should create conditions for this to happen. China will also continue to work in its way to play a constructive role.”

For Xi, China’s “no limits” partnership with Russia has become the biggest test of his attempt to transform from antagonist to statesman. Beijing thought the Ukraine war would be won quickly. Now in its ninth month, it shows few signs of ending soon.

“China has got to sort out what that means to the world and what it means to China itself,” said James McGregor, the chairman of consultancy group APCO Worldwide’s greater China operations.

McGregor said he was sceptical of China’s push to become a genuine global mediator.

“Basically, Xi and Putin have met 40 times. I think they plan to grow old together, stay in power for a long time and make the world safer for their form of government,” he said.

“They say they want peace, but they are very much in this long-term partnership to make the world safer themselves and for them to start making the rules.”

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