Illustration: Craig Stephens
Mohamed Zeeshan
Mohamed Zeeshan

Despite challenges, China’s quest for global leadership must end in peace

  • Tensions with the US and in the region, whether with India or in the South China Sea, will limit China’s ability to exert influence far and wide. These tensions must be managed well or Beijing may opt for a more muscular projection of its power
When US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping met for the first time as top leaders on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit this week, they were both coming from positions of strength.
Biden flew in, freshly vindicated by an unexpectedly robust showing by the Democrats in the US midterm polls. Meanwhile, Xi had successfully secured an unprecedented third term at last month’s Communist Party congress – underscoring his dominance in Chinese politics.

Xi now enjoys as much free rein over policy as any Chinese leader in decades and his third term will undeniably prove pivotal for China’s future.

For years, Xi has shown he wants to be the leader who finally inaugurates an era of Chinese power around the world. Early in office, Xi rolled out a plan for a global infrastructure network, established multilateral financial institutions, and positioned Beijing as a development partner across Asia, Africa and Latin America. Now that he has consolidated power in Beijing comprehensively, Xi will have an opportunity to take those measures further in his quest for global leadership.

To be sure, even as Beijing and Washington see each other as competitors on that front, tensions with the US are increasingly becoming a problem for China. For decades, China’s rise has been underpinned by its unprecedented economic growth, which itself had been facilitated by trade ties with the West – and the United States in particular. That run was derailed by the tariff war that began under US president Donald Trump.

Far from reversing that trend, Biden has not only maintained many of those Trump-era tariffs but gone even further. Late last year, he banned goods made in Xinjiang, alleging the use of forced labour in their production. Last month, his administration rolled out crippling restrictions on China’s access to advanced semiconductors and chipmaking tools.


Xi, Biden discuss Taiwan and Xinjiang in first in-person meeting

Xi, Biden discuss Taiwan and Xinjiang in first in-person meeting
Biden’s new policies could have a significant impact on the long-term prospects of China’s tech sector and high-value economy. Not surprisingly, Beijing has protested against them in no uncertain terms. In its readout of the Biden-Xi meeting, the Chinese foreign ministry said: “We oppose politicising and weaponising economic and trade ties as well as exchanges in science and technology.”

As long as Washington sees Beijing as a competitor, those measures are only likely to escalate. Yet, it is China’s neighbourhood that arguably presents an even bigger challenge for Xi in his quest for global leadership.

Xi and Biden are at least willing to work on the US-China relationship

Over the course of his rule, Xi has seen Beijing’s relationships with its neighbours suffer, as age-old territorial disputes have heated up.

In 2019, before the pandemic started, a Pew survey found that countries in Asia-Pacific viewed China more unfavourably than favourably. This may have been exacerbated by continued militarisation in the South China Sea, a stand-off with India in the Himalayas, and tension in the Taiwan Strait.

Beijing’s troubles in the neighbourhood will inevitably limit its ability to exert influence far and wide, and it’s unlikely that China can continue to play the global role that Xi desires unless he manages those tensions.

Unease over Taiwan will inevitably hurt China’s economy, adding to uncertainty and deterring investors, even if there is no imminent military intervention. Lack of progress in border talks with India might encourage New Delhi to partner with Washington to contain Chinese influence in the region. Members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations could be tempted to do the same, even if not as explicitly.

Ever hardening stances on these territorial questions will also constrain Beijing’s strategic space in the neighbourhood.

During the ongoing war in Ukraine, China and India have often found themselves on the same page – wary of alienating an important partner in Russia and dealing with the economic fallout of the war. For a considerable time now, the rise of Hindu nationalist aggression in India, along with the spillover into the diaspora, has also raised concern in the US.

Combined with New Delhi’s neutrality over Ukraine and ties to Russia, this trend has led to a few questions in Washington over India’s long-term reliability as an ally. But in the absence of an understanding over the border, China has as yet been unable to seize that window of opportunity to build a more productive partnership with India.

The one way Beijing and New Delhi could resolve border issues

Instead, ties have remained cold since border clashes in 2020. At the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in September, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi avoided a meeting with Xi, even as he met as many as four of his counterparts bilaterally.

Under the circumstances, therefore, Xi faces multiple trade-offs: a muscular projection of power in the neighbourhood versus a larger global footprint, and geopolitical competition with the US versus a return to economic cooperation.


Explainer: How did Xi Jinping rise to power in China?

Explainer: How did Xi Jinping rise to power in China?

China’s territorial disputes – especially in the South China Sea and the Himalayas – have increasingly become focuses of nationalist sentiment. So too have Chinese tensions with the US. However, as arguably the most powerful Chinese leader in over a generation, Xi has the political capital to make some difficult decisions with a more long-term focus.

For American diplomacy, the challenge today is to find a way to give China a bigger global voice in return for peace in Asia. If Xi struggles to assert himself on the world stage, he may well be tempted to prioritise muscularity in the neighbourhood instead.

Mohamed Zeeshan is a foreign affairs columnist and the author of Flying Blind: India’s Quest for Global Leadership