Chinese leader Xi Jinping heads to South Africa Monday on a trip intended to bolster Beijing’s influence among developing and emerging nations, as ties with the United States remain deeply strained and economic troubles bubble up at home.
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 sharp contrast to his globe-trotting days of diplomacy before the coronavirus pandemic.
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 US and touted their vision for a new world order no longer dominated by the West.
For Xi, the first in-person summit of the BRICS grouping since the pandemic presents another opportunity to advance that vision.
The bloc’s members – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – account for more than 40% of the global population. They also share the desire for a more multipolar world and the demand for a greater say in global affairs.
“Xi Jinping is not trying to out-compete America in the existing liberal international order dominated by the US. His long-term goal is to change the world order into a Sino-centric one,” said Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London.
To support that ambition, Tsang said, “it makes sense for China to engage with the Global South, (which is) much more numerous than Western democracies and mostly authoritarian in governance structure.”
Previewing Xi’s visit on Friday, China’s ambassador to South Africa Chen Xiaodong hailed BRICS as “an important platform for cooperation among emerging and developing nations” and “the backbone of international fairness and justice.”
“The traditional global governance system appears to be out of order, incapacitated and absent. The international community is eagerly looking forward to the BRICS to…play a leading role,” Chen told reporters.
Xi’s trip to South Africa comes just days after US President Joe Biden met with the leaders of Japan and South Korea in a show of solidarity and force against rising threats from China.
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 an increasingly intense rivalry, the BRICS has taken on greater strategic relevance to Beijing, said Paul Nantulya, a research associate at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.
“Xi is going to be the center of the BRICS summit, given that Vladimir Putin is not attending in person,” he said.
Putin, who faces an international arrest warrant over alleged war crimes in Ukraine, will take part by video from Russia.
Nantulya described BRICS as “another multilateral platform through which China can exert influence around the world – especially in the Global South.”
But the summit also comes at a difficult moment for Xi, who is grappling with a myriad of domestic challenges 10 months into his unprecedented third term.
China’s much-anticipated economic rebound from its rigid Covid lockdowns is faltering. Instead, the world’s second largest economy is beset by a confluence of problems – from a spiraling property crisis and mounting local government debt to worsening deflationary pressure.
The country’s youth unemployment rate – which hit consecutive record highs in recent months – is so bad that the Chinese government has suspended releasing it all together.
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Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Washington-based Stimson Center think tank, said the struggling economy is a key constraint for Xi’s diplomatic charm offensive, especially in the Global South.
“For Xi to visit developing countries, the norm is for China to deliver generous packages of aid, finance and cooperation deals. But given the current state of the Chinese economy, Beijing is no longer as well-equipped to do that,” she said.
“The economic performance (is) constraining his ability to play the great power leader he used to (be).”
China is also facing a public that has become much more skeptical about their government’s lavish spending abroad.
“On Chinese social media, there has been a lot of push back against, for instance, the Belt and Road Initiative,” Nantulya said, referring to Xi’s flagship global infrastructure program.
“Chinese citizens are asking what the rationale is to invest so much money overseas, yet domestically there’s so many problems China faces.”
In face of the slowing economy, the Chinese government has become much more selective in choosing what foreign projects to finance, according to Nantulya.
While its international funding has slowed, Beijing has stepped up political and military engagement in Africa, including increasing party to party engagement, setting up more Confucious Institutes, and training more African officers in military academies in China, Nantulya said.
“These are low-cost activities, but very high impact in terms of China’s ability to demonstrate that it still cares about Africa even if it has reduced funding for major infrastructure initiatives,” he said.
The visit is Xi’s first trip to Africa in five years.
His last journey to the continent – also for the BRICS summit in South Africa – in 2018 includes a whirlwind of visits to Senegal, Rwanda and Mauritius, spanning almost every corner of Sub-Saharan Africa.
This time around, Beijing has not announced any other stops for Xi.
Instead, the Chinese leader will co-chair the China-Africa Leaders’ Dialogue with his South African counterpart Cyril Ramaphosa on the sidelines of the BRICS summit, China’s Foreign Ministry said.
A total of 69 countries have been invited to the summit, including all African states.