2018 in review

Xi Jinping’s year in diplomacy: from butting heads with Donald Trump to cosying up to Rodrigo Duterte

  • Five of the Chinese leader’s most important moments of ‘heads of state’ diplomacy
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 December, 2018, 8:02am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 December, 2018, 8:07am

As China increasingly asserts itself on the world stage, its president Xi Jinping has led the country’s sprawling diplomatic overtures on high-profile trips around the globe and promised billions of dollars in investments and aid.

The major tête-à-têtes between Xi and world leaders have been portrayed in Chinese state media as significantly bolstering his presence abroad in what was glowingly termed “heads of state” diplomacy.

But China’s increasing international footprint – including Xi’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative – has also faced an increasing pushback, from concerns about debt trap diplomacy to unease about the country’s broader strategic intentions.

As the year draws to a close, we take a look at some of Xi’s most important sit-downs in 2018.

US President Donald Trump: from bromance to frenemies

After brokering a “bromance” through reciprocal state visits in Beijing and Florida last year, Xi and Trump began to butt heads over their long-standing bilateral trade issues.

Eventually, Trump began a trade war by slapping tariffs on billions of dollars of Chinese goods, which quickly escalated into a string of retaliatory measures and counter-measures.

Meanwhile, the two sides clashed on the strategic front. This saw the US sanctioning a key Chinese military unit and a series of stand-offs in the disputed South China Sea, including a near-collision between two warships late in September.

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Earlier that month Trump had said of Xi “maybe he isn’t [my friend] any more” and suggested that China was no longer putting pressure on North Korea. He also accused Beijing of meddling in US elections – offering only a paid-for supplement in an Iowa newspaper as evidence.

The pair’s only meeting this year came at the G20 summit in Argentina, when they sat down for dinner on December 1. There they agreed a 90-day trade truce, providing a window of opportunity to try to redress a series of US grievances from the trade imbalance between the two sides to structural issues in China’s economy.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un: peace overtures

In the midst of rising tensions on the Korean peninsula, Xi met Kim in Beijing in March for the North Korean leader’s first overseas trip since coming to power in 2011.

During the secret trip, heralded by the arrival of a mysterious armoured train in the Chinese capital, Kim hinted at denuclearisation and his willingness to talk to the US.

Can Kim Jong-un become North Korea’s Deng Xiaoping?

While the two countries are historic allies, relations had become strained as North Korea pursued its missile and nuclear arms programmes, while Washington pressured Beijing to rein in Pyongyang. Both leaders met again in early May in Dalian, in northeast China for talks about the peace process on the Korean peninsula.

They met for the third time on June 19 and 20 again in Beijing, on the heels of the historic summit between Kim and Trump in Singapore, in a sign that North Korea was relying on its Chinese ally in its ongoing negotiations with the US and South Korea.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe: signs of a thaw

After years of fraught relations, Xi and Abe welcomed a rapprochement between the countries during the Japanese prime minster’s visit to Beijing, the first official visit by a Japanese leader to China in seven years.

Despite their ongoing maritime disputes and historical grievances surrounding Japanese imperialism, the two sides signed a slew of business deals and agreements, including one to move forward with a hotline to prevent accidents in the East China Sea, where they have competing claims.

The two pledged a “new era” of cooperation, in a marked contrast to the last time they met in 2014 on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings in Beijing, where the two shook hands stiffly without smiling.

Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Bin Mohamed: the old man’s back again

Mahathir made a highly anticipated five-day visit to Beijing in August, after putting US$22 billion in Chinese-funded projects in Malaysia on hold following his return to power in May.

The decision highlighted the concerns many other countries have expressed about the cost of signing up to the Belt and Road Initiative.

The 93-year-old further made headlines when he warned against “a new version of colonialism” during a press briefing in Beijing with Chinese premier Li Keqiang.

Forget the US$23 billion question. China-Malaysia ties are strong

But at the same time, he said that Malaysia’s friendly policy towards China has not changed and that the country continued to welcome investments.

Last month, Mahathir confirmed that negotiations on the controversial China-backed East Coast Rail Link remained ongoing, but did not provide a timeline for the talks.

Xi and Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte: looking for gold under the rainbow

Xi was given a red-carpet welcome when he travelled to Manila to meet Duterte in mid-November, bolstering ties that the Chinese leader described as “a rainbow after the rain”.

The two leaders signed 29 deals, including a memorandum of understanding for joint oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea, in which the two have disputed claims.

Under Duterte’s administration, the Philippines has appeared to “set aside” the country’s 2014 victory at an international tribunal that ruled against Beijing’s claims to parts of the South China Sea – a sticking point under the previous administration – in favour of wooing Chinese investments and aid.