As Xi Jinping starts his third term as China’s president, high on his agenda will be strengthening the country’s position on the world stage. After three years of isolation as Beijing tried to impose a harsh zero-Covid policy, China is reopening to the outside world.
But much has changed since China closed its borders in 2020. Its economy has been hobbled, its ally Russia has started a war in Europe and relations with the US are at an all-time low. Here are the geopolitical relationships that Xi will have to navigate as he attempts to assert Beijing’s vision.
China’s biggest threat, economic rival and partner is the US. In a speech on 6 March, Xi accused the US of leading a western policy of “containment” towards China, using a term loaded with significance from when the US tried to stop the spread of communism.
But unlike the cold war rivalry between the Soviet Union and the US, today’s clash of superpowers involves the world’s two biggest economies, which are deeply intertwined. Trade in goods between the US and China was worth $690.6bn in 2022 and attempts on both sides of the Pacific to disentangle the relationship have been hampered by links in trade, research, technology and culture.
Since Xi took power in 2012, he has promoted a nationalistic, China-first ideology that sees the US as a fundamental threat to China’s security. This view has been hardened by territorial disputes in the South China Sea and the US’s support for Taiwan.
Joe Biden has repeatedly promised to respond militarily if China tries to capture Taiwan by force – a departure from the more cautious rhetoric of previous administrations. China’s top priority is for the US to do less to support Taiwan, says Yun Sun, the director of the China Program at the Stimson Center thinktank.
Xi is also trying to position himself as a global statesman to rival Biden. On 10 March, China announced that it had brokered a deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran to restore diplomatic relations, a move hailed in China as a win against US hegemony in the Middle East.
Since the start of the war in Ukraine, China has all but given up on engagement with Washington. Modest hopes of a thaw when Xi and Biden met at the G20 summit in Bali in November were soon dashed when a Chinese spy balloon was shot down by US forces in February. (China says the balloon was for weather analysis, not espionage.)
Now China has doubled down on its rhetoric at home and abroad, blaming the US for all of its woes, from a difficult economic recovery to territorial disputes. With US domestic politics also becoming increasingly hardened against China, the options for halting the downward spiral seem limited.
Since the end of the cold war, Russia has been an important partner for China, especially after the two countries ended a decades-long border dispute in 2005.
Russia is a source of cheap energy and supports China’s expanded role in central Asia. It has also been a source of weapons: between 2017 and 2021, 81% of China’s arms imports came from Russia, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Most importantly, Russia is an ally in countering the US. Xi is expected to visit Moscow as soon as next week, according to Reuters.
Xi and President Vladimir Putin both talk of a “multipolar” world, which they say is a rebuke against US attempts to dominate the global order. China and Russia reject the notion of domestic affairs being influenced by international norms, instead promoting territorial sovereignty in everything from human rights to internet access.
But in recent years China’s view of Russia has been tainted by what many Chinese see as its “risky and irrational” approach to foreign policy, says Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. This was most apparent when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and instigated war in Donbas, moves that Gabuev says “galvanised Ukrainian identity as being anti-Russian”.
The same sentiments re-emerged when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, surprising the Chinese. From Beijing’s perspective, the many downsides for Russia – not least galvanising Nato – mean the war just “doesn’t make sense”, says Gabuev.
In January Feng Yujun, a professor of Russian and central Asian studies at Fudan University, noted that the “boundless, unrestricted, and limitless” rhetoric to describe the Sino-Russian relationship had “faded out of the official discourse”. China sees Russia as having forced it into a difficult position with the west, just as it is trying to recover from its own economic downturn.
China sees Europe as being less riven by domestic Sinophobia than the US, and potentially more open to a trade relationship that will help China’s economy recover from the harm wrought by zero-Covid. Last year Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, visited Beijing. This year Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, and Giorgia Meloni, Italy’s prime minister, will do the same.
Those hopes were dealt a blow last week when the Netherlands confirmed it would join US export controls on advanced semiconductor technology, cutting off China’s access to important computer chips. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson called on the Netherlands to “safeguard its own interests, and not follow the abuse of export control measures by certain countries”. Such rhetoric is typical of the Chinese strategy of encouraging Europe to diverge from the US.
The Chinese have tried to argue that the US is fuelling the war in Ukraine and that it is in Europe’s interests to accept Russia’s position. China believes the Europeans, who are themselves imperial powers, should accept Russia’s claims on Ukraine, Gabuev says. But the Chinese fail to understand that European countries support Ukraine because European interests and values are at stake, he says.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, China was an important partner to the newly independent countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – and a means of balancing Russian influence in the region.
But since the start of the war in Ukraine, “the region is looking for solutions that China cannot provide,” says Niva Yau, a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub. That is because China’s support for Russia’s war has led central Asian leaders to worry that if conflict spreads east, China would not come to their aid. The Kazakh government in particular is worried about this scenario, says Yau. So China is having to recalibrate its policies in the region to make sure its allies stay loyal.
Meanwhile, more than 200,000 Uyghurs live in Kazakhstan, alongside other Turkic groups, and there are smaller Uyghur populations in other parts of the region. Many maintain links with Xinjiang, the region in far-west China where Uyghurs have been subjected to mass human rights abuses, including the detention of more than 1 million people in camps where there have been reports of torture, abuse, indoctrination and forced sterilisations.
With this in mind, China has presented itself as the region’s economic and security provider, particularly through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, a regional group that includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
China’s priority is to ensure there is “no regional recognition of any human rights violations in Xinjiang”, says Yau.
China’s position on Taiwan has always been clear: the island is part of China, a renegade province that must be reunited with the mainland. But since the end of martial law in 1987 Taiwan has flourished as a democratic, independent, self-governing island whose prosperity is a direct rebuke to the CCP’s claim on holding the keys to the future for Chinese people.
An increasing number of citizens identify purely as Taiwanese but successive governments have swung towards and away from the mainland. The current president is Tsai Ing-wen of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive party. That may change in Taiwan’s election next year. The main opposition KMT party, which is advocating closer ties with the mainland, is polling at about 25% – the same level as the DPP.
The situation worries China. There have already been reports of disinformation campaigns aimed at influencing the outcome of the election in China’s favour. And Xi has made it clear that he sees reunification as a priority for his legacy.
Friends of Taiwan
Beijing is incredibly hostile to any diplomatic act that looks to give legitimacy to Taiwan’s claim of sovereignty. Part of its efforts include slowly peeling away Taiwan’s formal allies, of which there are just 14 left.
The 14 governments that recognise Taiwan as a country have a formal diplomatic alliance, an embassy or mission in Taipei and are mostly from the Pacific, Caribbean and Latin America. Beijing works hard to try to convince them to flip, with a mix of coercion and enticements. Their recognition of Taiwan “challenges foundational CCP beliefs about unification as an existential issue”, said Dr Mark Harrison, a senior lecturer in Chinese studies at the University of Tasmania in Australia.
In 2019 the foreign minister of Tuvalu, which receives significant funding from Taiwan, said they had rejected offers from Chinese companies to build artificial islands (a mitigation effort against rising sea levels). The minister, Simon Kofe, characterised the offer as a Chinese influence attempt, which he rejected, saying “Tuvalu and Taiwan diplomatic ties are the strongest they’ve ever been.”
Around the same time, Chinese authorities restricted the number of its citizens travelling to Palau as tourists – a lifeblood for the tiny island, which has been allied with Taiwan since the 1990s.
China has also reportedly targeted Paraguay – where the opposition has said it will switch to China if it wins government in April – with offers of increased agriculture trade, which contributes 30% of the country’s GDP.
The Pacific nations are significant to Beijing not just because it wants to isolate Taiwan, but because the region is strategically crucial for military dominance, territorial expansion and lucrative fishing and trade rights.
In recent years Beijing has successfully lobbied several, including Kiribati, Panama, Solomon Islands and Nicaragua, with promises of increased trade, aid, and investment.
Solomon Islands’ change was particularly controversial, accompanied by violent protests in the country, allegations of bribery, and a security pact between Beijing and Honiara that appeared to pave the way for a Chinese military base and raised alarm in the region.
Australia and China’s relationship has been complicated. China is Australia’s biggest trading partner, and crucial to its economy. China needs Australia’s resources for its economic development. But with Canberra closely allied to the US, ties have been strained.
Beijing has been frustrated by Australia’s increasingly outspoken criticism. Australia has voiced opposition to China’s expansionist activities in the South China Sea, crackdowns in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, and harassment of Taiwan. The previous conservative government was quite hawkish: allowing the US to increase its military presence, banning Chinese tech from the 5G network, signing on to new multilateral groups, such as the Quad, which appeared to be targeted at countering China. The final straw seemed to come in 2020, when a government minister was among the first to publicly call for an investigation into the origins of Covid-19.
China responded with a series of apparently retaliatory acts including trade bans on Australian wine, coal, barley, beef and lobsters, and restrictions on Chinese students (about 150,000 are enrolled in Australian universities at any one time, bringing in $12bn annually).
There has also been bilateral tension over Australians detained in China and Chinese security services interrogating Australian journalists.
But Beijing appears to have taken the opportunity of a new Australian government to bring the country in from the cold, sending a new ambassador and restarting minister-to-minister meetings including between Xi and the prime minister, Anthony Albanese, at the G20 in November. In October, the new Chinese ambassador, Xiao Qian, lamented that re-engagement was off to a good start but was not happening as quickly as China expected.
South-east Asia is on the frontline of the global competition between China, the US and other east Asian powers such as Japan and South Korea. By developing trade and infrastructure links with countries in the region, Beijing wants to “bind those economies as closely as possible into China’s orbit”, says Eric Olander, the editor-in-chief of the China-Global South Project website.
Countries that are geographically the closest to China have the cosiest relationships. But others are more tricky.
The Philippines, for example, has repeatedly clashed in international courts with China over the South China Sea, which carries one-third of global maritime trade. China claims nearly all of the sea as part of its territory – a position the US and an international court in The Hague reject.
Both superpowers are also trying to woo Indonesia, an emerging economic powerhouse, but as the US-China rivalry groups, South-east Asian countries will be forced to choose a side.
When Xi launched his belt and road initiative in 2013, one of the first regions to be lavished with Chinese cash was Africa. Between 2000 and 2020, Chinese state-backed lenders provided loans worth $160bn to African countries, with lending peaking in 2016 at $28.4bn.
Since then the money has all but dried up – in 2020 lending fell to just $1.9bn (partly reflecting disruption caused by the pandemic). Various high-profile infrastructure failures contributed to this recalibration.
One example is the Standard Gauge Railway project in Kenya, a 579km track connecting Nairobi with the coastal city of Mombasa. The project, completed in 2019, cost $5.3bn, largely financed by loans from China EXIM bank and built by a Chinese company.
But many Kenyans accused China EXIM bank of “debt-trap diplomacy” and feared that the port of Mombasa could be seized by the Chinese if Kenya defaulted.
Those fears were unfounded, but as African countries struggle to repay their loans, the appeal of Chinese has dwindled.
Chinese projects in Africa are now more focused on Beijing’s priorities, such as mining lithium, a critical ingredient in electric-vehicle batteries, the price of which has rocketed. Chinese mining companies have bought up lithium mines across the continent, particularly in Zimbabwe.
“While Africa’s economic importance has declined considerably in the past 10 years,” says Olander, “its political importance has gone up.” African countries tend to vote as a bloc at international institutions such as the UN – and this can be beneficial for Chinese aims. In October the UN Human Rights Council voted against holding a debate on alleged rights abuses in Xinjiang after African countries joined the 19 who rejected the motion.
Those votes are backed up by participation in propaganda efforts. In February, a group of ambassadors and diplomats from African countries visited Xinjiang and “spoke highly of the region’s efforts in countering terrorism and extremism”, according to state media.
Additional reporting by Helen Davidson
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