Xi Jinping Hasn’t Set Foot Outside China for 600 Days

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(Bloomberg) — Xi Jinping hasn’t left China for one year, seven months and 22 days, the longest such stint of any Group of 20 leader. The question is whether his absence from major events will hinder progress on everything from climate change to disputes with the U.S.

Xi on Thursday will virtually attend a summit of leaders from BRICS nations, the latest of more than a dozen gatherings he’s participated in so far this year via video. He’s also held nearly 60 calls with world leaders, including multiple chats with Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French leader Emmanuel Macron. 

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But worries are growing that Xi’s desire to stay in the country, a byproduct of China’s strategy to completely eliminate cases of Covid-19, could start having diplomatic consequences — particularly if he avoids the G-20 meeting in Rome at the end of October and a UN climate summit right afterward. 

Ties between China and the West have deteriorated since the outbreak of the pandemic, with sharp clashes over imports of high-tech products like chips, political freedoms in Hong Kong and allegations of genocide in Xinjiang. Beijing has sparred with Canada over a U.S. request for the extradition of a Huawei Technologies Co. executive, while relations with Australia have nose-dived over Canberra’s call for an international inquiry into the origins of Covid-19. 

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Xi’s reluctance to head overseas could be an obstacle to improving relations with those countries and others because it eliminates the possibility of face-to-face meetings on the sidelines of major events that can help ease tensions. Xi has not yet confirmed his presence at the G-20 meeting, according to a government official and senior European diplomat. The official cited Covid-19 protocols as the reason Xi may not attend in person.

The diplomat added there were mounting concerns that Xi wouldn’t show up, an outcome that could be damaging for the summit’s prospects. They said he hadn’t confirmed his attendance at COP26, either. China is seen as a crucial player in achieving an ambitious outcome at the climate gathering in Glasgow.

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The last time Xi returned from a trip abroad was on Jan. 18, 2020, after visiting neighboring Myanmar. That came five days before his government locked down the city of Wuhan, a move that alerted the world to the severity of the virus that causes Covid-19. 

“The risk of Covid exposure hasn’t been worth travel at the highest level,” said Natasha Kassam, director of the Lowy Institute’s Public Opinion and Foreign Policy Program. “Some of the Chinese public may also question lavish international travel given the serious restrictions they have faced in response to small outbreaks.”

China has responded to any subsequent virus outbreaks with stringent measures such as targeted lockdowns, travel curbs and mass testing. The government has been particularly protective of Beijing, making travel in and out of the capital harder than for other cities, and requiring individuals to use an app to record their movements. 

Even top foreign officials aren’t allowed in the capital. High-level diplomatic meetings with everyone from Taliban officials to U.S. climate envoy John Kerry were held in Tianjin, some 100 kilometers (60 miles) from the Chinese seat of power.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

Bloomberg.com

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