Xi has not left China for 21 months. Covid can only be part of the reason.

When the presidents and prime ministers of a group of 20 countries meet in Rome this weekend, Chinese leader Xi Jinping will not be among them. They also don’t expect it at climate talks next week in Glasgow, where China’s commitment to limiting carbon emissions is key to helping tackle the dire effects of climate change. He has not yet met with President Biden in person and it seems unlikely he will soon.

Mr Xi has not left China for 21 months – and beyond.

The apparent reason for Mr Xi’s lack of travel abroad is Covid-19, although officials have not explicitly said so. It is also a calculation that has reinforced a deeper shift in China’s foreign and domestic policy.

China under Mr Xi no longer feels compelled to cooperate – or at least appear to be cooperating – with the United States and its allies on anything but their conditions.

Nevertheless, Mr. Xi’s recent absence from the world stage has complicated China’s ambitions to position itself as an alternative to the U.S. leadership. And it coincided, some say, that it contributed to a sharp deterioration in the country’s relations with much of the rest of the world.

Instead, China has turned inward with officials busy protecting Mr. Xi’s health and domestic political machinations, including the Communist Party Congress next year, where he is expected to demand another five years as head of state. As a result, face-to-face diplomacy is a lower priority than it was in Mr. Xi’s early years.

“China is currently ruled by a bunker mindset,” said Noah Barkin, who accompanies China to research firm Rhodium Group.

Mr Xi’s withdrawal has deprived him of the opportunity to personally fight the country’s steady decline in the country’s reputation, even though he is facing growing trade tensions, Taiwan and other issues.

Less than a year ago, Mr Xi relented in concluding an investment agreement with the European Union, in part to stifle the United States, only to reach an agreement. submerged due to friction due to political sanctions. Since then, Beijing has not accepted an invitation for Mr Xi to meet with EU leaders in Europe this year.

“Eliminates or reduces opportunities for top-level cooperation,” said Helena Legarda, senior analyst at Mercator Institute for Chinese Studies in Berlin, said of Mr Xi ‘s lack of travel. “Diplomatically,” she added, face-to-face meetings are “very often crucial to trying to overcome the remaining obstacles in any deal or to reduce tensions.”

Mr Xi’s absence has also weakened hopes that the meetings in Rome and Glasgow can make significant progress on the two most pressing issues facing the world today: recovery from the pandemic and combating global warming.

President Biden, who is attending both, wanted to meet with Mr Xi on the sidelines, in line with his strategy work with China on issues such as climate changes, even when countries are at odds with others. Instead, the leaders agreed to organize “virtual top”Before the end of the year, although the date is not yet known.

“The inability to meet President Biden and President Xi in person comes at a cost,” he said Ryan Hass, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who was director for China at the National Security Council under President Barack Obama.

Just five years ago, in a speech at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Mr. Xi called himself the guardian of the multinational order, while President Donald J. Trump pulled the United States into withdrawing “America first.” It is difficult to play this role while locked within China’s borders, which remain largely closed as protection against a pandemic.

“If Xi were to leave China, he would either have to follow Covid’s protocols after returning to Beijing or risk criticism because he is putting himself above the rules that apply to everyone else,” Mr Hass said.

Mr Xi’s government has not abandoned diplomacy. China, along with Russia, has taken a leading role in negotiations with the Taliban since returning to power in Afghanistan. Mr Xi also had several conference calls with European leaders, including outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel; and this week French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi will attend meetings in Rome, and Xi will address and deliver, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on Friday, “an important speech.”

While President Biden spoke of forming an “alliance of democracies” to meet China’s challenge, Xi sought to build his own partnerships, including Russia and developing countries, to oppose what it sees as Western sainthood.

“In terms of diplomacy with the developing world – most countries in the world – I don’t think Xi Jinping’s lack of travel was a big drawback,” said Neil Thomas, an analyst. Eurasia group. He warned Telephone diplomacy Mr. Xija this week with Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape.

“That’s a lot more time than the Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea has with Joe Biden,” Thomas said.

Nevertheless, Mr. Xi’s cessation of international travel is noticeable, especially compared to the wild pace it once maintained. He last left China in January 2020, on a visit to Myanmar just days before the order the closure of Wuhan, the site where the coronavirus occurred.

Also, Mr. Xi did not host many foreign officials. In the weeks following the closure, he met with the director of the World Health Organization and the leaders of Cambodia and Mongolia, but his last known meeting was with a foreign official in March 2020 in Beijing with Pakistani President Arif Alvi.

Chinese leaders have long highlighted their busy travel schedule abroad, especially their willingness to visit poorer countries. Mr. Xi was the first before Covid to overtake his American counterpart in terms of the average annual number of visits to foreign countries. research g. Thomas.

In the years before Covid, Mr Xi visited an average of 14 countries a year and spent about 34 days abroad, g. Thomas rated. This significantly exceeded Mr. Obama’s average (25 days of overseas travel) and Mr. Trump’s average (23).

“President Xi’s diplomatic steps cover all parts of the world,” said the article which was shared by the Communist Party media at the end of 2019.

Mr Xi marked the world by rejecting the idea that China should be a humble player on the international stage – “hiding our power and waiting for time”, as his predecessor Deng Xiaoping puts it. Now, however, he finds himself trying to project a new Chinese image of self-confident ambition into video meetings.

It is doing so while facing international scrutiny of a number of Chinese policies, the origins of the coronavirus, growing abuses of rights in Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang, and increasingly ominous warnings to Taiwan.

Research has shown that views on China have deteriorated sharply many larger countries in the last two years.

Victor Shih, a professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, said Mr. Xi’s limited travel coincided with an increasingly nationalistic tone at home that seems to preclude significant cooperation or compromise.

“He no longer feels he needs international support because he has so much domestic support or domestic control,” Mr Shih said. “These general efforts to court America as well as European countries are smaller today than in his first term.”

The schedule of meetings in Rome and Glasgow was also at odds with preparations for the meeting at home, which has a clear advantage. From November 8 to 11, the country’s communist elite will gather in Beijing for a closed-door meeting, which will be a big step towards the next phase of Mr Xi’s rule.

Mr Xi’s absence in Rome and Glasgow could be a missed opportunity for countries to unite a stronger, unified global effortthis climate or economic recovery. It seems unlikely that Chinese delegations alone will have the power to negotiate important compromises.

“These are problem areas where there was some hope for collaboration and some hope for positive outcomes,” Ms. Legarda, a Chinese analyst at the Mercator Institute, said of the Glasgow climate summit. “Since Xi Jinping did not attend, it is unclear at first whether they will be able to get there. Second, I think the question is whether this is not a priority for Beijing in the minds of many leaders?”

Claire Fu contributed research.

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