Xi flexes diplomatic muscle with Olympics outreach

Chinese President Xi Jinping (right) meets with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Beijing on February 5, 2022.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (right) meets with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Beijing on February 5, 2022.

Hosting more than two dozen visiting world leaders in a banquet in Beijing on Saturday, China’s President Xi Jinping called for countries “to practice true multilateralism” and “uphold the international system centred on the United Nations”.

Reading between the lines of the message, carefully couched in diplomatic language, was a thinly veiled criticism of the United States, which China has accused, particularly in the wake of recently deteriorating relations, of practicing “hegemony” and undermining the UN-centred order.

That message was conveyed recently in more explicit terms by the country’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who in his end-of-year review of China’s foreign policy contrasted Mr. Xi “pointing out unequivocally that there is but one international order, that is the international system with the UN at its core” with “a certain country’s interference in the internal affairs of other countries in the name of democracy and human rights, and the fabrication of false narratives of democracy versus authoritarianism”.

The banquet for visiting leaders, which followed Friday’s opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics, was attended by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, five Central Asian Presidents, Singapore President Halimah Yacob, and Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan.

The list of who wasn’t present was just as revealing. Ahead of the games, the U.S., U.K., Australia, Japan and Canada were among countries that announced a “diplomatic boycott” – their athletes are participating – citing China’s human rights violations in Xinjiang.

India initially did not join the boycott and in November expressed support for the games along with Russia following a meeting of the foreign ministers of Russia, India and China. That changed on Thursday when India said it would not send an official to attend the opening ceremony to protest China’s decision to select a PLA regiment commander involved in the June 15, 2020 Galwan Valley clash as one of the Olympic torchbearers.

While China has hit out at the U.S. for “politicising” the games, the event has at the same time offered for Beijing an important diplomatic platform, as Saturday’s banquet underlined, after two years of a pause in its diplomatic activity, which was limited to virtual engagements. Mr. Xi has not left China since mid-January 2020, when he visited Myanmar, and there have been no major incoming foreign visits until the Olympics this month.

The Chinese state media highlighted that Mr. Putin was the first foreign leader to confirm his attendance at the games, and the growing closeness in China-Russia ties has been in focus this week.

On Friday, Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin in a lengthy joint statement that followed talks outlined a common position on a range of issues from human rights to attacking NATO’s “expansionism” in Europe and America’s Indo-Pacific strategy in Asia for having a “negative impact” on the region.

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Printable version | Jul 2, 2022 6:46:56 am |