Analysis – China’s softer diplomacy as Xi overcomes challenges at home


Written by James Pomfret and Michael Martina

HONG KONG/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – China has taken a softer tone in its dealings with the world recently, releasing an Australian journalist from prison, inviting the U.S. military to a defense forum and agreeing to a $4.2 billion debt restructuring deal with Sri Lanka. .

The conciliatory approach towards competitors as well as China’s partners in the developing world comes as president It deals with the most important local economic problems seen in years.

Analysts say that although the United States is welcoming its focus on the crisis in the Middle East, the new tone may not indicate lasting change and old tensions are likely to resurface soon.

For now, China wants to reassure the world that it is business as usual when it comes to trade, said Noah Barkin, an analyst with Rhodium Group and an expert on China’s foreign relations.

“Their leaders are keen to reassure foreign investors that relations with the United States and its allies in Asia and Europe are not in a one-way escalatory spiral,” Barkin said.

Last week, China released Australian news anchor Qing Lei after detaining her for three years on national security grounds, in the latest step in warming relations with Australia and paving the way for its prime minister to visit the country.

The United States has been invited to an upcoming defense forum in Beijing — signaling a thaw in military exchanges — and Xi delivered kind words to a US delegation led by Senator Chuck Schumer last week.

As Xi hosts a forum this week marking the 10th anniversary of the Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing has agreed with Sri Lanka to restructure more than $4 billion of its debt and concluded a memorandum of understanding to restructure Zambia’s debt. Zambia was the first African country to default on its debt during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“Beautifully made”

China’s diplomatic shift comes as various pressures pile on Xi, including the economic downturn, exacerbated by capital flight, the real estate crisis, and rising youth unemployment rates.

“Xi Jinping is being gentle with Western powers in order to reduce the pace of multinational companies leaving China, to counter China’s disconnection from the global supply chain,” said Willy Lam, a senior fellow at the US think tank Jamestown Foundation.

China has not changed its tone on every issue. It has not backed down from escalating the naval confrontation with the Philippines in the South China Sea.

But at the same time, China wants to deepen political and trade relations with developing countries, for economic reasons and as part of Xi Jinping’s drive toward a multipolar world order that includes the Global South.

China wants to counter the idea that the Belt and Road Initiative – a plan to connect Asia with Africa and Europe through infrastructure and other investments – is a form of “debt trap diplomacy,” offering loans that some countries cannot repay.

Debt concessions to Sri Lanka and Zambia could help.

“The purpose of the Belt and Road Initiative has always been to help developing countries,” said Huiyao Wang, head of the Beijing-based Center for China and Globalization, adding that the project should be seen as closer to the Marshall Plan – the post-world war plan. Two American plans to rebuild Europe – for developing countries.

Politically, the disappearance of Chinese Foreign Minister Chen Gang and Defense Minister Li Changfu has complicated Xi’s efforts to focus foreign and security policy efforts in response to its growing rivalry with the United States.

Stabilizing US relations, including through a meeting between Xi and US President Joe Biden at the upcoming Asia-Pacific summit, could give China breathing room.

But with the US election next year, and Donald Trump’s likely return to the presidency, some see little room for Biden to concede much – especially on China’s core issues, including US restrictions on semiconductor exports and trade tariffs.

Any Chinese military maneuvers before Taiwan’s elections in January would also lead to friction with the West.

“Fundamental tensions in the relationship remain, and this is a temporary rise in engagement that will likely be followed almost immediately by another decline,” said Zach Cooper, an expert on US-China relations and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. Washington.

(Editing by Don Durfee, Robert Bircell)

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