Blog 11 January 2023

China Back on the Global Stage

The Communist Party of China’s (CPC) 20th National Congress meeting, which took place last year, secured an unprecedented third term for General Secretary Xi Jinping and filled the party’s top ranks with Xi’s closest allies. The Congress also cemented longer-term developments such as increased prioritization of security issues, a decreased focus on market reform, and growing techno-nationalism. 

His internal leadership secured, Xi re-entered the global stage in a position of strength. After an almost three-year break from the international stage, he flew to Bali in November to join other world leaders at the G20 Summit,  followed shortly by the APEC summit in Bangkok. A number of bilateral relations have recommenced since.

Kekst CNC’s China Desk considered different interpretations of the recent events, and what they mean for Western businesses in China:

View from the West: A mixed picture of hope and apprehension

In the West, interpretations of Xi’s true intentions have ranged from hopeful to apprehensive. Most see the multiple in-person meetings as a positive step towards resetting bilateral relations and restoring communications channels. Various commentators such as Germany’s ex-Foreign Affairs Minister Sigmar Gabriel also pointed to the importance and need for global cooperation – even with countries whose political order the West does not agree with. Some analysts also picked up on Xi not protecting Russia in the G20 Summit communiqué on the Ukraine war.

That said, many question whether China really wants a more globalized world, and if its true focus is on simply being the dominant power. Some pointed out the fact that this was a highly choreographed show, with Xi ultimately seeking to reassert power. Media outlets picked up on a candidly filmed spat with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau over leaked documents, showing a seemingly smiling Xi speaking harsh words. Others noted that UK Prime Minister’s Sunak’s bilateral meeting with Xi Jinping was cancelled at the last minute, and British China hawks have stressed that China cannot be appeased. Some also pointed to the US focus at the APEC summit to further counter growing Chinese influence in the region – indicating a growing competition for hearts and minds.

View from China: China as a rational, confident, and responsible major power

Chinese perspectives are very different and provide us with another set of key insights, showing that the China we are increasingly seeing is one that wants to be respected and is prepared to defend its interests. In the Chinese public narrative, Xi’s trip was portrayed as a major diplomatic initiative within the context of a chaotic and challenging international world – inaugurating a new chapter in which China seeks to present itself as a rational, confident, and responsible major power. Accordingly, local analysts depicted a world with an increasingly fragile global economy and inadequate global governance, noting Xi’s calls for global development and leading global governance, while respecting differences across countries, along with free and open trade.

Experts highlighted positive meetings with various leaders, next to pictures of a smiling Xi shaking hands with his counterparts. Xi is positioned as a thought leader – helping others understand the CPC’s governing strategy, desire for win-win cooperation, and overall vision. Articles picked up optimistic comments from other world leaders lauding China’s path to modernization and positive influence as more countries see China as a reliable partner they need to cooperate with, and that China’s development strengthens global peace and progress. On the exchange with the US, local opinions remain more sober, picturing it as a candid and important exchange. Throughout all reports, China is pictured as a unifier and friendly, stable force in a messy world – a view which, according to local accounts, is shared by the rest of the world.

What this means for Western businesses in China

However these events are interpreted, it is clear that the great powers realize that their interests depend on each other and that they will need to balance cooperation, competition, and confrontation. That is why, despite reasserting global influence, all have also established themselves as partners for dialogue and cooperation over recent weeks and shown themselves willing to make concessions. As a result, key working level discussions have recommenced – for example, US State Secretary Blinken is already planning a visit to China early this year.

For Western businesses, one thing is clear: China is a reality that cannot be ignored. Some form of cooperation will be necessary from all sides. Companies will need to know their values and their stakeholders well, to clearly assess and explain their China strategy. A key part of this will be keeping close tabs on the debate across the local, national, and global levels by monitoring the media and political discussion – and to read between the lines to understand potential future directions.

For more information on navigating the complex background of Sino-Western relations, reach out to us now at [email protected].