This week’s Beijing Winter Olympics isn’t only a sporting extravaganza for China. Beijing’s top plea to countries boycotting the event was to avoid politicising the games, but instead, Chinese president Xi Jinping used the opportunity to play high politics. He met almost 20 world leaders and renewed bilateral ties with them, without physically leaving the Chinese mainland.
With United Nations General Secretary Antonio Guterres on his side, Xi Jinping tried to signal that China wants to continue promoting multilateralism that some other countries around the world have questioned. But under that guise, the Chinese President sought bilateral meetings with leaders who travelled to Beijing and promoted the exclusive ‘China club’. The conditions to join this ‘club’ required one to support the ‘China model’ and avoid even thinking about its human rights record.
Dictators and authoritarian leaders have naturally felt the urge to join Xi’s club.
Leaders part of the ‘China club’
On 4 February, Xi held bilateral talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin to strengthen their strategic partnership. “A few international forces continue to stubbornly pursue unilateralism, resort to power politics, interfere in the internal affairs of other countries, harm the legitimate rights and interests of other countries, create confusion, differences and confrontations, and hinder the development and progress of human society,” said a section of lengthy joint China-Russia statement. Xi’s support for Putin’s ongoing escalation at the Russian border with Ukraine speaks about Beijing’s new confidence and comfort in great power politics.
Xi kept rolling with meeting other leaders. On Saturday, he attended a Lunar New Year-themed banquet hosted for visiting leaders and Olympic officials. The banquet became an opportunity for Xi to meet more leaders of other nations for the first time since the Covid-19 outbreak in late 2019. In a large and opulent banquet hall, Xi was signalling to the world that China has arrived, and he has a sphere of influence — the rest of the world better deal with it.
The Chinese President met leaders from Argentina, Poland, Serbia, Egypt, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Mongolia. But the meeting between the Argentina president and Xi showcased Beijing’s ability to conduct diplomacy during Covid-19. With a smile on his face and singing praises of the Chinese Communist Party, Argentine President Alberto Fernandez said: “We very much recognise what the Communist Party has done for China, bringing this country to the centre of the world stage”.
If the praise wasn’t enough, the Argentine ambassador to China, Sabino Vaca Narvaja, heaped further praise for the party in Chinese: “Without the Communist Party, there will be no new China”. A video of Xi responding to the ambassador’s remarks with an approving nod began trending on the Chinese version of Tiktok, Douyin.
China welcomed Argentina to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) by agreeing to finance infrastructure and development projects worth $23.7 billion. Out of the $23.7 billion, $14 billion has already been approved under the Strategic Dialogue for Economic Cooperation and Coordination, and the remaining $9.7 billion will be approved under the BRI. China and Argentina are already comprehensive strategic partners.
At the event, Beijing promoted more than just the BRI — Argentina’s claim on Malvinas Islands or Falklands. “China reaffirmed its support for Argentina’s demand to fully exercise sovereignty on the Malvinas Islands and for the resumption of negotiations to resolve the disputes through peaceful means,” said the joint statement issued after the bilateral meeting.
China’s support for Argentina’s claim isn’t new, but the support comes with weight as Beijing’s international influence grows. The United Kingdom currently has control of the Falklands, but Argentina claims the Island as well — what it calls Malvinas Islands. The UK foreign secretary Liz Truss later tweeted: “The Falklands are part of the British family, and we will defend their right to self-determination. China must respect the Falklands’ sovereignty.”
Truss’ tweet was shared by Chinese State media on Weibo and particularly quoted Chen Weihua’s, Chinese state media journalist, response to Truss’ tweet. “But it’s okay for the UK to challenge China’s sovereignty in the South China Sea by sending navy vessels? At least China has not sent its navy near the Malvinas, or what you call the Falklands,” wrote Chen.
The Polish surprise
A major European presence in Beijing was President Andrzej Duda of Poland. The Polish president’s visit came as a surprise to many. “China is ready to take an active part in the logistics hub construction of Poland and help Poland become a key node in the China-Europe supply and industrial chains,” said Xi Jinping.
Poland currently participates in a China-led initiative for Central and Eastern European governments known as the China-CEEC group. Some commentators in Poland have said that Chinese companies did win bids for construction projects in the past, but Poland hasn’t fully signed on to BRI. However, that doesn’t stop Beijing from wooing Poland into its ambit.
Towards the latter half of Sunday, Xi met Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan. No new investments for Pakistan were announced during Khan’s visit. The meeting turned into a symbolic meeting that emphasised implementing existing BRI projects.
“Both sides reiterated their support on issues concerning each other’s core interests. The Pakistan side expressed its commitment to One-China Policy and supported China on Taiwan, the South China Sea, Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet. The Chinese side reaffirmed its support for Pakistan in safeguarding its sovereignty, independence and security, as well as promoting its socio-economic development and prosperity,” said the joint statement issued by China and Pakistan.
Xi’s messaging to the world wasn’t only a show of opulence and backed by the hard economic display. China has unveiled its digital currency, or the digital yuan, to coincide with the Winter Olympics. Spectators and Olympians were encouraged to pay in digital yuan.
While figure skaters spun people’s imagination on the ice rink, Xi took the visiting leaders on a tour of alternate possibilities if they join his ‘club’.
The author is a columnist and a freelance journalist, currently pursuing an MSc in international politics with focus on China from School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He was previously a China media journalist at the BBC World Service. He tweets @aadilbrar. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)