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Is Xi Softening His Approach to International Affairs?

Several recent events seem to indicate that China’s President Xi Jinping is taking a softer approach when handling international affairs. Media and political observers have become aware of several instances and discussed them, but there has not been much analysis of the underlying reasons.

The first event was Xi’s visit to the U.S. On September 25, Xi and Obama agreed that “neither the U.S. nor the Chinese government will conduct or knowingly support cyber related theft of intellectual property including trade secrets or other confidential business information for commercial advantage.”

The report that China hacked U.S. companies the next day, right after the no-hacking deal, made people wonder if Xi just paid lip-service to the agreement. Alternatively, it may have been Xi’s political rivals in China who were stabbing him in the back. Remember the Chinese soldiers who crossed the Sino-Indian border in September of last year just hours before Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s banquet to host visiting Xi Jinping?

In any case, Xi’s no hacking promise was an important gesture. Chinese leaders have not done that before.

The second event was the meeting between Xi Jinping and Ma Ying-jeou, President of the Republic of China (Taiwan) in Singapore on November 7.

The media was quick to point out that China used this meeting to help the ruling Kuomintang Party, which lags behind the opposing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), in the upcoming legislative and presidential elections in January and perhaps to send a message to the DPP.

Still, the significance of this meeting lies not only in the fact that the Presidents of two rival regimes met for the first time since mainland China and Taiwan were separated in 1949. In addition, the two met on an equal footing in a third country. In the past, China has never treated Taiwan as an equal partner. Nor was a peer-level meeting between these highest leaders ever considered likely to happen.

Two other indications showed that Xi was holding out an olive branch to Taiwan. First, Xi avoided the term “One China” (which, when used by a mainland leader, implies that Taiwan is only a part of China). Instead, in his opening remarks, he repeatedly used the term “both sides of the strait.” Second, Xi said he was willing to allow Taiwan to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) though under the “appropriate” title.

The third event was that China arranged a visit to Tibet for the U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi during her trip to China in November of this year. Pelosi has been a longtime critic of China’s human-rights record in Tibet. Earlier this year, she joined the Dalai Lama to celebrate his 80th birthday. Moreover, during her 2009 trip to China, before Xi took the reins of leadership, her request to visit Tibet was denied.

The invitation for Aung San Suu Kyi to visit China in June was another event worth noting. China’s foreign policy circle has long had a close relationship with the Burmese military junta that put Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for nearly 15 years. As a Nobel Peace laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi is also an international figure in promoting human rights. In June, Xi managed to invite her, an opposition party leader to the then Myanmar government, to visit China.

Putting all these together, one might wonder if Xi has started to take a more liberal approach to international affairs.

The answer is that it is possible.

It is possible because Xi might be willing and may even need to do so. Xi faces several severe domestic issues that could be fatal to his Presidency, including the downward pressure of China’s economic growth, the sharp fall of China’s stock market last summer, a tough anti-corruption campaign that he has vowed to carry to the end “with no cap [on the rank of tigers],” and a strong opposition force (though most of the time it is beneath the surface).

These issues require Xi to focus on domestic affairs. As a smart politician, Xi surely knows that, at this moment, what he needs from overseas are friends, not enemies.

It is possible also because Xi may now have the power to do so. After three years of maneuvering, Xi has successfully consolidated a great deal of power in his hands. This has made it possible for him to carry out what he wants to do, including setting the direction on China’s foreign diplomacy.

Take the example of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In March 2013, Xi appointed Wang Yi, Director of the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council, as the Minister of Foreign Affairs. It broke the tradition that the previous Ministers were all promoted from within the ministry. In January 2014, Xi made another cross-ministry appointment: Wang Chao, Deputy Minister of Commerce, became the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs.

In January this year, Zhang Kunsheng, Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs, was taken down and placed under investigation for “violating discipline.” Zhang is tied to Jiang Zemin, the former Chinese Communist Party (CCP) head and Li Zhaoxing, a Jiang loyalist. Zhang worked on drafting 27 speeches and detailing the schedule for Jiang’s first visit to the U.S. in 1997. In 1998, he served as the special assistant to Li Zhaoxing, then China’s ambassador to the U.S. and later the Minister of Foreign Affairs from 2003 to 2007.

Having both the desire and capability, Xi may have started to make his mark in the handling of international affairs.

However, even if Xi takes a softer approach, perhaps China will not make concessions on territorial issues. Agreement is often difficult in territorial disputes and Beijing has been using territorial disputes to pump up nationalism in China. Unless some savvy politicians can broker an agreement, China may not want to soften its position on disputed territories.