Xi Jinping

Xi's first overseas foray 'a symbolic victory', analysts say

Analysts say president visited 'safe' nations to raise his profile but the West may be a challenge

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 April, 2013, 11:05am

Xi Jinping's first diplomatic foray abroad as head of state was a symbolic success, as it helped to raise his international profile and boost his image back home, analysts say.

The choice of destinations shows that Xi, who became president last month, preferred to play it safe in choosing countries in which errors were unlikely to be made.

However, his diplomatic skills in handling more challenging audiences in the West remain untested and unknown, analysts point out.

Happily for Xi, first lady Peng Liyuan helped enhance China's image during their trip that lasted more than a week, as she impressed the global media with her fresh and sophisticated image.

Xi returned to Beijing yesterday morning after visiting Russia, Tanzania, South Africa as well as Congo.

Wang Yi, China's new foreign minister, said yesterday that the arrangement of Xi's trip reflected "the strategic planning of Beijing's new leadership".

Like his predecessor Hu Jintao, Xi chose Russia as his first stop, as China has long viewed its relationship with Russia as an important counterweight to world politics that is dominated by the United States.

"Going to the same first stop as his predecessor did was to stress continuity," said Kerry Brown, executive director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.

Brown adds that Xi's conservative approach can also be seen in his attendance of the summit of the leading emerging economies, "where nothing nasty might be waiting for him".

Xi's visit to Africa, on the other hand, highlighted China's strong strategic and business interests in the resources-rich continent.

Compared to Hu, Xi appears to be a more confident political figure, analysts say.

Joseph Cheng, professor of political science at City University, says Xi's overseas tour has strengthened his status as a world leader and sends a political message to mainlanders.

Indeed, Xi's speech in Moscow, which included an analogy between choosing a political path and fitting into one's shoes, showed that Xi has "more oratorical flair than Hu ever showed", Brown said.

While discussing the path that a nation takes towards development, Xi said that "only the wearer knows if the shoe fits his foot".

Jin Canrong, associate dean of Renmin University's School of International Relations, says the trip has accomplished the main goals of cementing ties with China's traditional allies while boosting the country's leadership status in the developing world. Jin adds that Xi has also managed to secure much-needed supplies of energy and raw materials to fuel China's manufacturing sector, citing a series of investment and co-operation agreements signed during the tour.

It also reflected Xi's self-confidence and the fact that he is holding a strong position after consolidating power as the head of the party, the state and the military

Yin Gang, a researcher with the Institute of West Asian and African Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), says Xi's tour fostered closer relations with other so-called BRICS nations - including Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa - who are playing an increasingly important role in global affairs.

Yin notes that Xi sought to allay growing fears in Africa that China's economic expansion is being achieved at their expense and that the world's second-biggest economy is exploiting resources in the continent to boost its economic growth.

During his tour of Africa, Xi promised a slew of financial assistance programmes, investments in infrastructure, scholarships and technological transfers, in order to enable African countries to benefit from working with Beijing.

Nevertheless, Xi took part "in a safe trip in a safe way, with no mishap", said Brown. "How he'll handle more fractious audiences in Europe or North America is another matter," Brown said.

During the trip, the first lady emerged as China's asset in projecting soft power abroad.

Peng, a well-known soprano in China, was seen dressed in clothes by Chinese fashion brands and appearing in various activities without Xi at her side - including visiting a centre for homeless children in the Congolese capital of Brazzaville on Friday and hugging children with HIV there.

Steve Tsang, director of the China Policy Institute at Britain's University of Nottingham, says Peng's high-profile public appearances were meant to project a softer image of China.

"It also reflected Xi's self-confidence and the fact that he is holding a strong position after consolidating power as the head of the party, the state and the military," Tsang said.

Brown agrees that Peng appears to have been a big hit with mainlanders despite concerns that she might upstage her husband.

"For a first foray, I think the leadership in Beijing will believe that if the biggest headlines are about the designers of your wife's clothes then that's not a bad start," Brown said.

Tsang says that Xi could allow Peng to play similarly high-profile roles in the future because she has shown that she was comfortable doing that and because Xi does not need to worry about being "outshined" by her.

"I think we will see more of her playing such a role in the future," Tsang said.