THE factories have closed down for a few days, and millions of cars have been ordered off the roads. Clear blue skies appearing over a usually smog-choked Beijing always mean one thing: a big event is about to get under way.
From November 10th President Xi Jinping will welcome world leaders to this year’s Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) summit. Not since the Olympics in 2008 have so many leaders gathered in the capital, and they will include the heads of the United States, Russia and Japan. It is a defining moment for Mr Xi’s foreign policy. Having established himself at home as China’s most powerful leader since Deng Xiaoping, he now seems to want to demand a bigger, more dominant and more respected role for China than his predecessors, Deng included, ever dared ask for.
Respect begins by putting on a good face to guests. Chinese bullying over disputed maritime claims has done much to raise tensions in the region. But now Mr Xi appears to be lowering them. In particular, China’s relations with Japan have been abysmal. The government has treated Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, with both venom and pettiness, implying he is a closet militarist. The relationship had sunk to such a low that it will count as notable progress if Mr Xi shakes Mr Abe’s hand—even if he does little more—at the summit.
On November 11th and 12th, Mr Xi will host a state visit in Beijing for Barack Obama. It is the second summit with the American president, following one at Sunnylands in California in 2013. It will be a good show, with a scenic walk and all that. But the substance appears less clear. At the time of Sunnylands, there was much Chinese talk of a “new type of great-power relationship” with America. Yet since it implies a diminished role for America, at least in Asia, Mr Obama does not seem inclined to go along. The two men appear likely to co-operate in a few areas, including climate change, trade and investment. They will agree to a bit more communication over respective military movements in and over the seas near China. But hopes that cordiality at Sunnylands might lead the relationship to blossom may come to little.
In truth, Mr Xi does not have much respect left for Mr Obama; the Chinese dismiss him as weak-willed in foreign policy. And so much of Mr Xi’s ambition lies elsewhere. Above all, the dream is to return China to its rightful place in a world in which, according to Bonnie Glaser of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think-tank, “China will be at the centre, and every other nation will have to consider China’s interests.”
This attitude is most familiar to China’s neighbours in the South China Sea and East China Sea. China has upset the Philippines by grabbing a disputed reef; Vietnam, by moving an oil rig into contested waters; Japan, by challenging its control over uninhabited islets; and even South Korea which, though on good terms, was concerned along with others when China declared an “Air Defence Identification Zone” over the East China Sea, demanding that planes inform it when entering it.
Yet Mr Xi has also courted friends under the catchphrase of “peaceful development”. He has pushed multilateral initiatives, including a new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which many of China’s neighbours, including India, have signed up to. A New Development Bank has also been set up with fellow “BRICs”—Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa.
One of Mr Xi’s playmates is President Vladimir Putin. China and Russia have a history of mutual distrust, but Mr Xi’s first trip abroad as president, in March 2013, was to Moscow. Since then the two countries have struck a long-stalled gas deal and, according to Kommersant, a Russian newspaper, a pact on cyber-security. China backs Russia’s pro-Syrian stand in the UN Security Council and has refused to condemn Russia’s territorial incursions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine—though it loves to preach non-interference.
A strong thread that binds the two countries is American dominance in international affairs. “No country”, said Mr Xi at a security summit earlier this year to which Mr Putin was invited, “should attempt to dominate regional security affairs or infringe upon the legitimate rights…of other countries.” Mr Xi did not name America, but a month earlier Mr Obama had in Tokyo emphasised that America’s security pact with Japan extended to the Japan-controlled Senkaku islands, which China claims and calls the Diaoyu.
Is Mr Xi’s foreign policy succeeding? Only in parts. China’s maritime assertiveness has pushed some neighbours closer to Japan and America. But for long China will remain Asian nations’ biggest trading partner. It is busy pursuing regional and bilateral trade agreements while an American-led trade initiative, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, is bogged down. At APEC Mr Xi will seek to build on those economic relationships. And, given China’s heft, by and large he will succeed.
via Foreign policy: Showing off to the world | The Economist.