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Xi’s Geopolitical Playbook, Explained

  • Xi's willingness to move boldly marks a new phase in China's vision for itself and its role in the world.
  • European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen outlined her vision for the future of EU-China relations during a high-profile speech in Brussels on March 30.
  • The Kremlin traditionally viewed Central Asia as its strategic backyard, but has been displaced by China as the premier economic force
Xi Duterte

After three years of "zero-COVID" isolation, China is stepping out onto the global stage to a far more unfriendly West and using its growing economic and military power to shape the world to better suit its interests.

Finding Perspective: This more assertive footing was on display in March, with Beijing surprising much of the world by brokering a diplomatic deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia, one of the world's most volatile rivalries.

Xi has also continued to press ahead with China's peacemaker status for the war in Ukraine after unveiling a 12-point proposal for how to broker a cease-fire. The plan has largely been dismissed in the West but is gathering support from large players in the Global South.

The Chinese leader also drew the world's attention with a three-day visit to Moscow, where he reaffirmed Chinese support for Russian President Vladimir Putin and, among other developments, Russia increased its reliance on China's yuan as it seeks to move away from Western currencies, particularly the U.S. dollar.

Beijing's Middle East moves and efforts to undermine the U.S. dollar globally also moved ahead, with China saying that it was open to talks with Malaysia on forming an Asian Monetary Fund, which would increase use of the yuan.

Elsewhere, Saudi Aramco, Riyadh's state energy company, said that an oil refinery it's building in China is expected to be fully operational by 2026, which comes after the kingdom announced in 2022 that it would be open to accepting yuan instead of dollars for Chinese oil sales. Related: Major U.S. Utilities Consider Selling Natural Gas Distribution Networks

In another development at the end of March, the Saudi Council of Ministers officially approved a proposal to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the Beijing-led bloc for Eurasia. Saudi membership -- coupled with Iran, who is also slated to join -- could give the SCO added energy sway with a trio of Moscow, Riyadh, and Tehran.

Why It Matters: There's still plenty of room for skepticism that the above will lead to lasting breakthroughs, but Xi's willingness to move boldly marks a new phase in China's vision for itself and its role in the world.

It also sends a message that Beijing and like-minded countries no longer have to conform to the U.S.-led global order and that increasingly substantial alternatives are being put on offer.

Expert Corner: Brussels Looks For A New China Line

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen outlined her vision for the future of EU-China relations during a high-profile speech in Brussels on March 30. The full comments can be found here, but I've selected a few noteworthy passages:

"Far from being put off by the atrocious and illegal invasion of Ukraine, President Xi is maintaining his 'no-limits friendship' with Putin. But there has been a change of dynamic in the relationship between China and Russia. It is clear from this visit that China sees Putin's weakness as a way to increase its leverage over Russia. And it is clear that the power balance in that relationship -- which for most of the last century favored Russia -- has now reversed.

"We have to be frank on this point. How China continues to interact with Putin's war will be a determining factor for EU-China relations going forward.

"I believe it is neither viable -- nor in Europe's interest -- to decouple from China. Our relations are not black or white -- and our response cannot be either. This is why we need to focus on de-risk -- not decouple.

"But I also want to say that nothing is inevitable in geopolitics. China is a fascinating and complex mix of history, progress and challenges. And it will define this century. But our story about how we relate to China is not yet fully written -- and it need not be a defensive one. We must collectively show that our democratic system, our values and our open economy can deliver prosperity and security for people."

Do you have a question about China's growing footprint in Eurasia? Send it to me at StandishR@rferl.org or reply directly to this e-mail and I'll get it answered by leading experts and policymakers.

Three More Stories From Eurasia

1. Macron In China

French President Emmanuel Macron arrived in Beijing on April 5 along with von der Leyen for a three-day visit as Europe tries to find a balance between its concerns over China's geopolitical moves and its economic ambitions for the country.

What You Need To Know: As I reported here, Macron is looking to add a more personal touch to his discussions with Xi as part of an ambitious diplomatic push to create distance between the Chinese leader and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Speaking ahead of the visit to Beijing, Macron said his goal was to "try and involve China as much as possible to put pressure on Russia" on topics such as nuclear weapons, with aides saying Macron will try to gauge Xi's reaction to Russia's threat to host nuclear missiles in Belarus.

EU officials who spoke to RFE/RL said that expectations were low within the bloc for Macron's moves to work, but the diplomatic gambit is part of a long-standing fascination from the French president on the need for Europe to keep a distance between Beijing and Moscow.

More so, even with criticism within the bloc toward China rising, there is still a belief that Brussels will need to preserve some kind of functional relationship with Beijing in the future to tackle pressing issues.

2. Watching Taiwan

With tensions high with Beijing, U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Kevin McCarthy has confirmed that he will meet with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen on April 5 as she returns from a tour of Taiwan's allies in Central America.

The Details: Ahead of the visit, China staged military drills in the East China Sea and has repeatedly warned against any official contact between the U.S. and Taiwanese authorities.

The meeting in California comes after some notable recent developments. On March 30, Marketa Pekarova Adamova, the speaker of the Czech parliament's lower house, finished a trip where she led a delegation of more than 150 business leaders and officials to Taiwan as part of Prague's growing outreach to Taipei.

While that visit was under way, former Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou made a historic trip to China, where he called for people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait to work together for peace because "we are all Chinese."

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The symbolism of Ma -- who served as president from 2008 to 2016 -- traveling to China is significant, and he drew protesters to the airport in Taipei, who saw his visit as a form of capitulation to Beijing.

In the run-up to Taiwan's presidential election in early 2024, the series of visits have thrown up a host of questions about how Taiwanese politics is dealing with China and with the United States -- the two most significant foreign factors for Taiwan's future.

3. Same Game, New Rules

The ripple effects of China and Russia moving closer together are already being felt around the world, and as I reported here, those changes are being felt strongly in Central Asia, especially after Xi's recent visit to Moscow.

What It Means: The Kremlin traditionally viewed Central Asia as its strategic backyard, but has been displaced by China as the premier economic force for the region's five countries. Moscow's war in Ukraine has also released geopolitical and economic shock waves and seen China's role in the region grow through diplomatic summits and new initiatives.

Following the Xi-Putin meeting in late March, Xi announced that he would host a summit with the other Central Asian leaders in May. While China has hosted virtual summits with the region before, it would be the first in-person gathering at the top-level.

But Central Asia's story does not -- and never really has -- fully fit with one of Chinese and Russian competition. While each side has their own interests, the region is one that represents major overlap for Beijing and Moscow, a trend that was reinforced in Xi and Putin's joint statement in Moscow, where they said they would work together "to support the countries of Central Asia in ensuring their sovereignty and national development" and safeguard them against so-called "color revolutions and external interference in the affairs of the region.

By RFE/RL

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