Chinese President Xi Jinping will visit South Africa on Monday in a bid to boost Beijing’s influence in developing and emerging nations. Economic problems bubble up at home as relations with the United States are deeply strained.
The three-day state visit, which also includes a summit with leaders of the BRICS emerging economies, is only Xi’s second international trip this year — a stark contrast to the days of diplomacy that rocked the world before the coronavirus. International distribution.
The Chinese leader last left the country in March to meet his “dear friend” Vladimir Putin in Moscow, where the two authoritarian strongmen reaffirmed their strategic alignment against the United States and laid out their vision for a new world order free from the hegemony of the West.
For Xi, the first in-person summit of the BRICS group since the pandemic offers another opportunity to advance that vision.
The group’s members – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – account for more than 40% of the world’s population. And they share a desire for a multi-polar world and a demand for more say in global affairs.
“Xi Jinping is not trying to compete with the US in a US-dominated liberal international order. His long-term goal is to make the world order China-centric,” said Steve Chang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London.
To support that ambition, Zhang said, “it makes sense for China to engage with the Global South, (which is) more populous than Western democracies and often more authoritarian in governance structure.”
Ahead of Xi’s visit on Friday, Chinese Ambassador to South Africa Chen Xiaotong hailed BRICS as “an important platform for cooperation between developing and emerging countries” and “the backbone of international fairness and justice”.
“The traditional global governance system appears disorganized, incompetent and non-existent. The international community is looking forward to BRICS playing a leading role,” Chen told reporters.
Xi’s visit to South Africa comes days after US President Joe Biden met with the leaders of Japan and South Korea in a show of unity and strength against China’s growing threats.
The summit at Camp Davis saw the US and its two closest allies in Asia deepen military and economic cooperation – and criticize China’s “dangerous and aggressive behavior” in the South China Sea.
With China and the United States locked in increasingly intense competition, BRICS has gained greater strategic relevance for Beijing, said Paul Nandulya, research associate at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.
“Xi is going to be at the center of the BRICS summit as Vladimir Putin will not attend in person,” he said.
Putin, who is facing an international arrest warrant for alleged war crimes in Ukraine, is participating by video from Russia.
Nandulya described BRICS as “another multilateral platform where China can exert influence around the world – especially in the Global South”.
But the summit also comes at a difficult time for Xi, who is grappling with myriad domestic challenges 10 months into his unprecedented third term.
China’s much-anticipated economic recovery from its strict Covid lockdowns is faltering. Instead, the world’s second-largest economy is beset by a confluence of problems — from a swirling asset crisis and mounting local government debt to worsening deflationary pressures.
The country’s youth unemployment rate – which has hit consecutive record highs in recent months – has caused the Chinese government to hold off on publishing it all together.
Hear how China’s economic slowdown will affect and benefit other countries
Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Washington-based Stimson Center think tank, said the struggling economy, particularly in the global South, is a key obstacle to Xi’s diplomatic charm offensive.
“For G to go to developing countries, China has been providing generous aid, funding and cooperation agreements. But given the current state of the Chinese economy, Beijing is no longer willing to do that,” he said.
“Economic performance (is) limiting his ability to play the great power leader he used to (be).”
China also faces an increasingly skeptical public about its government’s lavish spending abroad.
“On Chinese social media, there’s been a lot of pushback against the Belt and Road Initiative,” Nandulya said.
“Chinese citizens ask what is the reason for investing so much money abroad, but there are many problems facing China at home.”
Faced with a sluggish economy, Nandulya says the Chinese government has been very selective in choosing which overseas projects to finance.
Even as its international funding declines, Beijing has stepped up political and military involvement in Africa, including party-to-party involvement, setting up more chaotic institutions and training more African officers at military academies in China, Nandulya said.
“These are low-cost measures, but have a very high impact in terms of China’s ability to demonstrate that it still cares about Africa, even as it cuts funding for major infrastructure initiatives,” he said.
This is Ji’s first trip to Africa in five years.
His last trip to the continent – for the BRICS summit in South Africa in 2018 – included visits to Senegal, Rwanda and Mauritius.
At this time, Beijing has not announced any other stops for Xi.
Instead, the Chinese leader will co-chair the China-Africa Leaders’ Dialogue on the sidelines of the BRICS summit with his South African counterpart, Cyril Ramaphosa, China’s foreign ministry said.
A total of 69 countries including all African countries have been invited to the summit.
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