After a near three-year absence from the world stage, Chinese leader Xi Jinping has embarked on a whirlwind of face-to-face meetings with Western leaders at the Group of 20 summit in Bali, as he looks to reassert China’s global influence.
Following a three-hour meeting on Monday with US President Joe Biden in an attempt to prevent their rivalry from spilling into open conflict, Xi is talking on Tuesday with the leaders of Australia, France and South Korea.
China’s relations with these three US allies have deteriorated to varying degrees in recent years, due to rising geopolitical tensions, and disputes over trade and the origins of Covid-19 pandemic.
While expectations of a reset of relations are low, the meetings could serve to stave off disagreements and reopen communication lines – in ways similar to the meeting between Xi and Biden.
On Monday, the Chinese leader pushed back at a central premise of Biden’s foreign policy – the global clash between democracy and autocracy, and the willingness of Western countries to view relations with Beijing through this prism.
In a Chinese readout of his meeting with Biden, Xi described his country’s system of governance as “Chinese-style democracy,” in an apparent signal to US allies that ideological differences should not become an unbridgeable divide in their relations with Beijing.
In a sign of Xi’s busy schedule, the Chinese leader and French President Emmanuel Macron squeezed in a meeting early on Tuesday, before both leaders showed up at the opening of the G20 summit.
The talks, which lasted for 43 minutes according to Chinese state media, saw Xi reiterate his support for a ceasefire and peace talks to end the war in Ukraine.
“Xi stressed China’s position on the Ukraine crisis is clear and consistent, advocating a ceasefire, a stop to war and peace talks,” a readout of the bilat from Chinese state media CCTV said.
France, like other European countries, has hardened its position on China in recent years, increasingly viewing the country as a competitor and security concern.
For the majority of the pandemic Xi limited his diplomatic activities to virtual summits and video conferences, choosing to stay within China, rather than travel overseas.
But the most anticipated in-person diplomacy by Xi on Tuesday is perhaps his meeting with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, partly because ties between Beijing and Canberra have frayed significantly over the past years.
The two countries have been locked in a bruising trade dispute and diplomatic freeze since early 2020, when China slapped tariffs on Australia following its call for an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus.
Leaders of the two countries last met when Albanese’s predecessor, Scott Morrison, had brief informal discussions with Xi at the G20 in Japan in 2019. But it has been six years since leaders from the two sides have held a formal bilateral meeting, after then Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s sit-down with Xi at the G20 in the Chinese city of Hangzhou in 2016.
Announcing his meeting with Xi after arriving in Bali on Monday, Albanese said having the meeting alone is a “successful outcome,” pointing to the lack of dialogue at the top level for years.
“It is not in Australia’s interest to not have dialogue with our major trading partners,” he told reporters, adding that there are no preconditions for the meeting.
“I look forward to having a constructive discussion with President Xi tomorrow,” Albanese said.
As the case with the meeting between Xi and Biden, few in Australia expect the meeting between Xi and Albanese can completely reset the two countries’ strained relations.
“Core Chinese objectives such as its South China Sea, Taiwan and South Pacific policies are fundamentally at odds with Australia’s core interests,” said Australian policy expert John Lee, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute think tank in Washington and former national security adviser to the Australian government.
“It may be a diplomatic reset of some sorts but not one in substance where both sides begin to genuinely approach each other in good faith and a preparedness to compromise,” Lee added.