President Xi Jinping, who was conspicuously missing from the main stage of diplomacy during China’s COVID isolation, has returned this week with a rush of talks that Beijing believes would begin to heal frayed relations.
However, in a viral encounter, a mask-less Xi was seen on video giving Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau a scolding at the Group of 20 (G20) summit about media leaks from their bilateral meeting the day before. It was a rare, frank look into the Chinese leader, as well as a reminder of Beijing’s fractious relationship with the West.
Diplomats and other experts say China’s absence from face-to-face interactions during the pandemic has been costly, as relations with the US and some Asian neighbours have deteriorated significantly over a variety of issues.
With other leaders having had so little recent access to top Chinese officials, Xi’s presence this week on the Indonesian island of Bali for the G20, followed by an APEC summit in Bangkok, is amplified by its rarity.
The restart of interaction, including Xi’s first meeting with Joe Biden as US president and the first direct talks with an Australian leader since 2016, is seen as a positive by China observers, even if it does not generate immediate results.
In addition to Biden, Trudeau, and Australia’s Anthony Albanese, Xi met with the leaders of South Korea, Italy, Argentina, Holland, and France in Bali for bilateral meetings. A meeting with Britain’s Rishi Sunak was cancelled due to scheduling issues, according to Downing Street, while Xi is scheduled to meet with Japan’s Fumio Kishida and New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern in Bangkok.
After China closed its borders for nearly three years and Xi consolidated power last month by winning a third term at the ruling Communist Party’s congress, Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha University in Seoul, described Xi’s busy schedule as a ‘charm offensive.’
‘The meetings are probably not enough to make progress on thorny economic and security issues,’ Easley said, ‘but they could prevent diplomatic relations from deteriorating.’