Xi’s Saudi trip underlines growing interest in China’s global leadership, discontent with US
President Xi Jinping’s recent state visit to Saudi Arabia was much more than seeking a greater Middle East role. It was an “epoch-making” chapter in a rapidly unfolding improving world order.
The reasons are tenfold.
First, in stark contrast to United States President Joe Biden’s recent lackluster Riyadh reception, President Xi’s visit was marked by pomp and circumstance of the highest order. There was also a series of one-on-one meetings with Arab heads of state.
Second, the visit came on the heels of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries’ open defiance of Washington’s demand in regard to oil output in response to the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
Third, the greenback is losing its global status as the “petrodollar” as the US has become a net energy exporter. China is now the Middle East’s largest energy customer by far. President Xi has promised to buy even more Middle East oil, using the renminbi for transaction settlement. As China is the world’s largest trader, the RMB will become much further internationalized, eroding the dollar’s weaponization.
Fourth, to more and more countries, especially Arab and Islamic nations, the US-dominated “liberal world order” has been fraying at the seams, if not falling apart.
According to a 2021 Brown University study, the US-inspired war on terror caused the displacement of some 38 million Middle East people with 900,000 deaths, including 364,000 civilians, with collateral damage totaling $8 trillion.
The US’ embarrassing 2021 retreat from Afghanistan handed the country over to a victorious Taliban after two decades, sapping US credibility. So did former US president Donald Trump’s 2018 unilateral withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, painstakingly negotiated by the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany.
Fifth, President Xi’s keynote speech at the China-GCC Summit on Dec 9 warned against the rise of Islamophobia and linking terrorism with pre-selected peoples and religion. He promoted the idea of a multilateral, fairer, more inclusive, and peaceful world oriented toward continuous development. These notions gain resonance in much of the developing world, including Arab and Islamic nations, which have suffered centuries of Western hegemony and unilateralism.
Eastern and Asian countries are set to gain much greater global gravitas. According to Goldman Sachs research, by 2075, seven of the top eight largest economies will be today’s developing nations (with the US in third position).
Sixth, President Xi highlighted the developmental role played by China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Against persistent Western framing of perceived “debt trap diplomacy”, a study released on July 11 by British NGO Debt Justice found that African countries owe three times more debt to Western commercial lenders than to China, and are charged double the interest.
According to the World Bank, Belt and Road infrastructure projects could increase trade between countries by 2.8 percent and GDP by 3.4 percent, lifting 7.6 million people worldwide out of extreme poverty and 32 million out of moderate poverty, fulfilling the United Nations’ 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.
Over the past nine years, China has signed over 200 cooperation documents with more than 140 countries and more than 30 international organizations under the Belt and Road framework. Of 22 Arab countries, 20 nations, as well as the Arab League, have signed up.
Seventh, the US trade and technology war and decoupling notwithstanding, a Reuters report on Nov 29 shows that China’s share of global exports remains stable at around 15 percent, the highest any country has enjoyed since the 1970s. Regardless of pandemic lockdowns, foreign direct investment rose 14 percent from January to October. Eight out of 10 European multinationals in China reported profit growth in 2021. Three out of four companies surveyed are not considering shifting investments out of the country.
Eighth, threatened by the US’ semiconductor chips stranglehold, China is leapfrogging into next-generation photonic chips, integrated optical circuits, as well as quantum chips. Along with a head start in various aspects of 5G, big data and internet of things, China is staying ahead of the game in harnessing the fourth and fifth industrial revolutions.
Ninth, with adversarial democracy, the US’ two political parties are fighting each other tooth and nail. Its government of the day tends to tilt toward the winning party’s vested interests and constituencies every election cycle. The Harvard Kennedy School found in 2020 that the Chinese government topped the list of governments best supported by their peoples, multiple ranks above the US. This year, the New York-based Edelman Trust Barometer observed that trust among Chinese citizens in their government is at a record 91 percent, the highest seen in a decade, compared to 39 percent for the US.
Last but not least, President Xi has made it plain that China has no intention to supplant the US in leading the world. After all, the US’ many blessings — geographical, ecological, military, economic, financial, scientific, institutional, scope of allies, cultural appeal, etc — remain unrivaled.
However, according to a Washington Post article, “Is the United States headed for civil war”, published on Aug 20, the US today seems closest to the edge of a civil war since 1861. To reclaim its global leadership appeal, the US needs to first put its own house in order, including promoting better infrastructure, greater economic competitiveness, and less socioeconomic inequality. Above all, it should avoid treating a more multipolar world as its own oyster, leading by example instead of by coercion. Fixating on military superiority and demonizing China are no substitute.
The author is an international and independent China strategist; he was previously the director-general of social welfare and Hong Kong’s official chief representative for the United Kingdom, Eastern Europe, Russia, Norway, and Switzerland.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.