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China In Eurasia Briefing: Xi's Diplomatic Olympics   


Chinese President Xi Jinping tours a competition venue for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing on January 4.

Welcome back to the China In Eurasia briefing, an RFE/RL newsletter tracking China’s resurgent influence from Eastern Europe to Central Asia.

I’m RFE/RL correspondent Reid Standish and here’s what I’m following right now.

Against the backdrop of diplomatic boycotts, the prospect of war in Ukraine, and strict COVID protocols, the Beijing Olympics are set to kick off on February 4 and present an opportunity for world leaders in attendance to get some rare face time with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Finding Perspective: The last time Xi left China was January 2020, on a visit to Myanmar only days before he ordered the lockdown of Wuhan, the city where COVID-19 emerged, and his last known meeting with a foreign official took place in Beijing in March 2020, with Pakistani President Arif Alvi.

While Xi and Chinese officials have been active, holding virtual summits and multiple phone meetings, it’s not a substitute for face-to-face diplomacy, especially when it comes to an authoritarian and increasingly personalistic regime like China’s.

According to a provisional list put forward by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, world leaders from 32 countries will be attending the Olympics.

While many Western nations aren’t sending dignitaries as part of a diplomatic boycott against China over its human rights record, the list of attendees is mostly composed of China’s neighbors and political partners.

Perhaps the most notable guest will be Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was the first to confirm his attendance, and comes to Beijing with tensions high over Ukraine, along whose border Moscow has massed more than 100,000 troops.

Beyond Putin, Xi will also notably have time to meet with leaders from Pakistan, all five Central Asian countries, Poland, and Serbia.

Why It Matters: In the COVID-19 era, China has isolated itself with a zero-tolerance policy and hosts the Olympics now as a more powerful, more authoritarian, and more contentious country on the international stage compared to when it last hosted the games in 2008.

Beijing will be keen to show that its diplomatic bonds are still strong and to counter the image that China has turned inward, with its officials preoccupied with protecting Xi’s health and the country’s internal political machinations, including a Communist Party congress later this year where Xi is expected to claim another five years as the country’s leader.

Expect many photo ops with Xi and statements of support for China, as well as using the games as an opportunity to announce long-planned initiatives with friendly countries that have been delayed due to the pandemic.

Read More

● A recent report from the Foreign Correspondents Club of China said that media freedom in China is declining at “breakneck speed.”

● In his first one-on-one interview since assuming his post in July, Qin Gang, China's ambassador to the United States, warned to NPR that the United States could face “military conflict” with China over the future status of Taiwan.

● China is changing, but what is the correct way to describe its system? Is it authoritarian, totalitarian, or something else? Melissa Chan explores this question for The Washington Post.

Expert Corner: The Message Behind the 2022 Olympics

Readers asked: “When Beijing hosted the Olympics in 2008, it was a coming out party for China as a global power. What do these Olympics represent for China?”

To find out more, I asked Isaac Stone Fish, author of the forthcoming book America Second: How America's Elites Are Making China Stronger and a visiting fellow at the Atlantic Council:

“This Olympics symbolizes Beijing’s retreat from the world and despite it being used as a justification, COVID is not the main reason for this retreat. Beijing has been doing so much over the last two years in terms of controlling its citizens at home and also removing them from the international space with travel bans and restrictions on movement, which is symbolized by how closed off these Olympics will be.

“This isn’t permanent, but it’s hard to know where things will stand in a few years. Making sure that there are minimal distractions ahead of the Communist Party congress this year and a view within the leadership that the United States wants to destabilize and overthrow the Party are all factors contributing to Beijing closing itself off and adopting a greater bunker mentality.”

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. Why China Is Watching Ukraine

Beijing is closely following Russia’s military buildup along the Ukrainian border, viewing it as a litmus test for political unity in the West and using the mounting tensions as an opportunity to strengthen its ties with Moscow, I reported here.

What It Means: Beijing was relatively mute amid the buildup of Russian troops, but China has begun to offer more explicit support.

The German Marshall Fund’s Alliance For Securing Democracy has been monitoring both Chinese state media and officials’ comments around Russia and another potential invasion of Ukraine and found some interesting results that they shared with me for this newsletter.

Russia’s military buildup on Ukraine's border was one of the most discussed topics by Chinese state media, their analysis shows, but received far less attention from Chinese officials in statements and social media posts.

Beijing has also recently struck a balance by shying from comments specifically on Ukraine but backing Russia’s calls for security guarantees from NATO and attacking the United States as an aggressor in the tensions.

“Diplomats’ overt attacks on NATO and the United States, loud commitments to the relationship with Russia, and Chinese state media’s more overt embrace of Russian talking points about Ukrainian aggression suggest that China would side with Moscow should things escalate further,” Etienne Soula, an analyst at German Marshall Fund who compiled the data, told me.

For China, tensions over Ukraine have many layers. It’s an opportunity to chide the United States and boost its relationship with Moscow, but Beijing also sees it as a crucial test for American resolve and the strength of transatlantic ties as it digs into its own rivalry with the West.

2. Gathering Central Asia

Xi held a virtual summit with the leaders of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan on January 25, pledging aid and vaccines and promising to bolster the region’s economies and security, my colleagues in RFE/RL’s Central Newsroom reported.

What You Need To Know: The virtual meeting was officially held to celebrate 30 years of diplomatic relations between Beijing and the region after it became independent following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But China used the meeting to continue to deepen its relations with Central Asia, offering $500 million in aid over the next three years and Xi vowing to open China’s domestic market to more Central Asian goods, which have been cut off amid pandemic border controls. (You can read Xi’s full comments here).

The gathering should also be seen as a precursor to all five Central Asian leaders heading to Beijing to attend the Olympics’ opening ceremony and getting some face time with Xi and other high-ranking Chinese decision-makers.

One leader to watch will be Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov, who has been trying to get the long-delayed China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway up and running and will head to Beijing with new contracts and a financing plan, my colleagues at RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service reported.

3. India Has Entered The Chat

Two days after Xi hosted China’s virtual summit, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi hosted his own with the region’s leaders, RFE/RL reported.

The Takeaway: The meeting was largely symbolic, with fewer actionables than the Chinese summit, but the outreach comes as Central Asian countries are eager to diversify their partnerships with the region increasingly cornered by China and Russia.

New Delhi, which has increasingly tense relations with Beijing, has long been trying to build up its ties with Central Asia and has done so with uneven results so far.

Perhaps the most noteworthy thing to come from the Indian meeting is that Modi and the five leaders decided to set up a joint working group on Afghanistan to focus on aid and the issue of international recognition of the Taliban.

For a deeper dive on India’s relationship with Central Asia, my colleagues Bruce Pannier and Muhammad Tahir, who run RFE/RL’s Majlis Podcast, had a recent episode unpacking the summit. You can listen to it here.

Across The Supercontinent

Watching Pristina: Surveillance cameras from Chinese companies Dahua and HikVision, which are blacklisted by the United States, have been installed on government buildings in Kosovo, RFE/RL’s Balkan Service reported.

Sending Signals: In an interview with the South China Morning Post, Gabit Koishibayev, Kazakhstan’s ambassador to China, praised his country’s ties with Beijing and said that Kazakhstan supports China’s anti-terrorism efforts, although he refrained from mentioning Xinjiang specifically.

On The Border: Beijing has announced its roster for its 25-member men's ice hockey team and it is mostly composed of foreign-born players. Of the 15 foreign-born players on China's roster, 11 were born in Canada, three in the United States, and one in Russia.

Year Of The Tiger: 2022 is the Year Of The Tiger in the Chinese zodiac and the endangered animal is making some modest gains in northeast China.

According to the latest monitoring data in 2021 released by Chinese officials, there are 10 newborn Siberian tiger cubs, and the big cats' population has reached more than 50.

One Thing To Watch

As attention shifts to the Olympic Games this week, more and more athletes are testing positive as they arrive in China.

A total of 200 positive tests for COVID-19 have now been recorded at the Olympics since January 23. Of those 200, 67 were athletes and officials.

The Chinese government is pursuing a zero-tolerance public health strategy. While it appears to be holding up in the early days, athletes and team officials are testing positive for COVID-19 at much higher rates than other people arriving for the Beijing Olympics and the strict rules could lead to several athletes missing out on their events.

That’s all from me for now. I’ll be off in two weeks time, so you won’t hear from me again until the beginning of March.

Don’t forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you might have.

Until next time,

Reid Standish

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    Reid Standish

    Reid Standish is an RFE/RL correspondent in Prague and author of the China In Eurasia briefing. He focuses on Chinese foreign policy in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and has reported extensively about China's Belt and Road Initiative and Beijing’s internment camps in Xinjiang. Prior to joining RFE/RL, Reid was an editor at Foreign Policy magazine and its Moscow correspondent. He has also written for The Atlantic and The Washington Post.

About The Newsletter

In recent years, it has become impossible to tell the biggest stories shaping Eurasia without considering China’s resurgent influence in local business, politics, security, and culture.

Subscribe to this dispatch in which correspondent Reid Standish builds on the local reporting from RFE/RL’s journalists across Eurasia to give you unique insights into Beijing’s ambitions and challenges.

The newsletter is sent on the first and third Wednesdays of each month.

To subscribe, click here.

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