President Xi’s Economy-Focused Leadership Model

By October 9, 2017

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 608, October 9, 2017

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: On September 3, the heads of the BRICS states gathered for a summit. At the event, Chinese President Xi Jinping once again presented his way of thinking about his role in the global arena, a role he believes should focus on economic and trade issues. His approach downplays the issues of North Korea’s nuclear pursuit and the persistent global problem of terrorism, raising questions about his ability – or indeed his desire – to take on a world leadership position. 

On September 3, the heads of the BRICS states gathered for a two-day summit in the port city of Xiamen in southeastern China. The organization consists of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, which together account for about a third of the global economy. The main topics discussed at the summit were terrorism, the common aspiration of all parties to change the UN structure, and international trade. Alongside the summit’s main forum, the leaders also held one-on-one meetings with heads of states, including some, like Mexico and Egypt, which are not BRICS members.

The summit was hosted by Chinese President Xi Jinping, leader of the organization’s most powerful member. Xi used the summit to promote his new model of world leadership, a model that outspokenly focuses on financial and trade issues. During his speech at the summit, he said, “We must push towards an open global economy and encourage the liberalization of global trade.”

Xi went on to say that there has been an increase in risk and uncertainty regarding the global economy, and that he hopes to increase the power of emerging markets on the global stage. He added that the external environment for developing economies is complicated and bleak, and repeated that his country opposes protectionism and is an enthusiastic supporter of a multi-sided trading system.

Xi moved on to talk about the BRICS countries’ status in the international arena. “Our ties with the rest of the world, which are better today than ever, require our five countries to take more of an active part in world government. Without this, it will not be possible to efficiently solve many international challenges.”

The Chinese president’s words were very much intended for Donald Trump, who, during his campaign for the US presidency, emphasized his support for protectionism. As stated, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto was invited to the summit to examine the possibility of creating a free trade agreement as an alternative to NAFTA. In response, American organizations criticized Beijing’s trading policy and its governmental restrictions on the Chinese market. (The White House also recently increased pressure on China regarding its restrictions on intellectual property.)

Alongside economic-commerce issues, the heads of state also discussed their status in the geopolitical ring. In the summit’s concluding report, they called for a comprehensive reform of the UN in general and the Security Council in particular, with the goal of “making them more efficient and representative.” The leaders called for increasing representation of developing countries so the UN can properly respond to global challenges. It is worthy of note, however, that whereas the other subjects raised at the summit (like commerce) were accompanied by documents containing detailed proposals, the matter of the reform of the UN was not accompanied by any specific proposals at all.

The last subject on the leaders’ agenda was the problem of terror, and it is here that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi accomplished a major achievement – a success that reveals certain Chinese priorities. Modi was able to include Pakistani groups on the list of terror organizations to be subject to BRICS restrictions. Pakistan is an important ally of China and until this summit, Beijing had blocked any attempt to limit the operations of Pakistani organizations designated by Delhi as terror organizations. The organizations concerned are Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, which are based in Pakistan alongside ISIS, al-Qaeda, and others. The Indians managed this accomplishment despite the Chinese foreign ministry’s spokesperson having declared before the event that Beijing did not see the war on terror as an appropriate matter for discussion at the summit.

President Xi had his own reasons for wanting to downplay the problem of terrorism. He is scheduled next month to lead the Communist party convention, which is held once every five years. Xi’s goals at the convention will be to decide on the composition of Chinese government leadership over the next few years and to solidify his reign. Preceding the event, he has put in place a carefully orchestrated process of tightening control over China. The war on terror, which in the Chinese case is usually directed towards the Uyghur minority, is a delicate subject, and one Xi would prefer to avoid discussing right now.

He faced a similar challenge when yet another North Korean nuclear experiment – the biggest ever conducted by Pyongyang – was provocatively timed to occur during the summit. Kim Jong-un’s true intentions are not known, but it can be assumed that the timing of the experiment was not coincidental. It was likely meant, among other things, to upstage the Chinese president and make clear that North Korea will not be ignored.

The model President Xi is trying to work with, according to which trade and commerce come before any other issue, has proven itself efficient and feasible within China’s borders. However, Pyongyang’s provocations and the terrorism faced by many countries worldwide, including China itself, have shown Xi the flaws in this model. In order to cement his status as a global leader, he must update this model and give geopolitical issues their due.

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Roie Yellinek is a doctoral student in the department of Middle East studies at Bar-Ilan University, a fellow at Kohelet Policy Forum and a visiting scholar at Shanghai University.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family

Roie Yellinek

Roie Yellinek is a Ph.D. student at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat-Gan (Israel), a doctoral researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, and a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute. He is a specialist in the growing relationship between the Middle East and China, especially in regards to the soft power component of Chinese diplomacy. His research is based on fieldwork conducted in China, Israel and other countries. He has authored numerous articles that have been published by research institutions and newspapers in both Israeli and international media outlets.