Xi’s second international trip this year is raising eyebrows

Updated Aug 22, 2023, 3:49pm EDT
REUTERS/Alet Pretorius
Karina Tsui/

In only his second international trip this year, Chinese leader Xi Jinping is in South Africa for the annual BRICS summit.

It is the first time Xi has stepped foot in Africa in five years.

Xi has only spent two days1 outside China in the first six months of 2023 and has instead made foreign dignitaries come to him. In March, he visited Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Some believe Xi is spending more time at home to address mounting post-COVID problems — Beijing continues to face a weakening economy, largely fueled by a liquidity crisis2 in China’s real estate sector.

Xi limiting his visit to only South Africa on the continent is an unusual decision3 at a time when China is positioning itself as a leader of the Global South and pushing for BRICS’s expansion4 , Shannon Tiezzi writes for The Diplomat. It not only deviates from his usual string of trips at prior BRICS summits, she notes, but is also at odds with China recently proclaiming itself as a country that stands with the African people. However, China’s recent diplomatic negligence of Africa and Xi’s current trip to the continent “speaks to a wider problem in China’s post-pandemic diplomacy: namely, there’s not much of it,” Tiezzi writes.

Less face time with world leaders could hamper Xi’s image — especially as China and the U.S. continue to compete for global influence. Pew research shows international perceptions of China are souring5 due to Beijing’s foreign policy and handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. China's worsening global reputation is also making it harder for democratic countries to host Xi.6 “Elected leaders in the West are more likely to attract criticism than win praise for meeting with Xi,” Neil Thomas, a China expert, told the Times of India. “It’s bad politically to meet with Xi.”

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa scored a “public relations coup”7 in convincing Xi to leave China, but Xi owes Pretoria, an editorial in Business Today, South Africa’s largest national newspaper, wrote. China is South Africa’s biggest trading partner and the latter’s missteps to appear “non-aligned” has come at “great cost” to Pretoria’s relations with Western powers. That’s why Xi has come “bearing gifts” in the form of several bilateral agreements.