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Acting globally, thinking locally: Xi scores political points at home from wins on world stage

Never before has a Chinese leader held so much of the international limelight as President Xi Jinping did in chairing the Group of 20 (G20) summit of leaders.

Hosting the gathering of the world’s wealthiest nations in Hangzhou gave Xi a unique opportunity to project his personal image on the world stage as well as strengthen his position within the Communist Party ahead of a crucial congress to be held a year from now.

Analysts said Xi scored points politically at home and diplomatically abroad by chairing the most important gathering of world leaders in the country’s history.

They said Xi also succeeded in using the event to showcase China’s soft power, to expand its international influence.

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“Xi is apparently making the best use of the summit to … advance diplomatic ties with friendly nations such as Russia while also containing tensions and fallout with countries such as the US, South Korea and Southeast Asian nations,” said Hongyi Lai, a professor of contemporary Chinese studies at the University of Nottingham in Britain.

Jingdong Yuan, a professor of international politics and head of the University of Sydney’s Centre for International Security Studies, said: “I would summarise Xi’s performance at the summit as [showing] confidence, leadership, and inclusive diplomacy.”

Yuan said Xi used the occasion to meet global leaders, heads of major international organisations, and a number of leaders of non-G20 countries that were important in terms of geographic reach, socioeconomic diversity and future growth.

Analysts said the signing of China-US agreement to ratify the Paris climate deal at the gathering was a major achievement and gave the event a big boost. It also helped Xi and Obama secure a green legacy for their own political careers.

Overall, Xi used his keynote speeches in meetings to present himself as an open-minded and responsible world leader, voicing opposition to protectionism and anti-trade and anti-investment forces.

Xi also tried to impress by urging the G20 leaders to make the summit a forum to turn consensus into real action.

Click here for full coverage of the G20 in Hangzhou

Xi’s other main theme was to strengthen his reputation as a voice for emerging economies by chairing a high-profile informal BRICS’ summit on the G20 sidelines with leaders from Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa.

Laurence Brahm, a Beijing-based political and diplomatic affairs commentator, said Xi took centre stage as a world leader, “more so for convening other global leaders around multilateralism and pragmatism, calling for infrastructure and solid economics rather than ideology”.

But the Hangzhou summit came as China’s relations have soured with all its major neighbours – from Japan to South Korea, India, Australia and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations – because of a host of diplomatic and territorial disputes. The rivalry between the US, the world’s sole superpower, and China, a fast-rising one, has also sent relations to their lowest ebb in four decades.

Yuan said China was embroiled in many contentious issues, and it would be naive to think everything was “just fine” and that Xi did a great job in ensuring a successful summit.

Andrew Mertha, a professor of government at Cornell University, said contentious policy issues such as disputes over the South China Sea and the deployment of anti-missile systems in South Korea were certain to have been raised in bilateral meetings and closed-door sessions, but Xi was not likely to succeed in making “any dramatic breakthroughs”.

Zhiqun Zhu, a professor of international relations and director of Bucknell University’s China Institute, warned that Xi’s political and diplomatic gains during the summit would likely fuel rising nationalism at home.

Xi showed a nationalistic and hawkish stance on diplomacy, with tough comments in talks with his South Korean counterpart Park Geun-hye.

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Analysts said that a high priority on Xi’s political agenda was to use the summit to strengthen his domestic political position before next year’s crucial party congress.

Brahm said the summit solidified Xi’s position as a global leader in the eyes of the Chinese public. “The strengthening of China’s position as a global investor and next in line to have a world reserve currency places Xi in an insurmountable position of political influence on the eve of this critical party congress,” he said.