China Power

China’s Leaders Abroad; What the First Visits Tell Us

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China Power

China’s Leaders Abroad; What the First Visits Tell Us

China’s new foreign policy leaders have been quick to travel. Their choice of first destinations is revealing.

The new Chinese leadership took office in early March. In the two months since, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Vice President Li Yuanchao, Yang Jiechi, State Councilor in charge of managing foreign affairs, and Foreign Minister Wang Yi have all taken their first trips abroad. Meanwhile, Premier Li Keqiang will soon making his own first official overseas visit. Looking at the itineraries, it seems clear that the basic orientation of the new government’s diplomacy is to focus on China’s neighbors while reaching out to emerging countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Diverse itineraries

Within a week following the end of the two sessions (the National People's Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference) of the general election on March 17, new President Xi Jinping took his inaugural trip abroad, with Russia as his first stop, followed by three African countries, Tanzania, South Africa and the Republic of the Congo. Xi also attended the BRICS summit with his counterparts from Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa.

Foreign Minister Wang Yi accompanied Xi on this trip, continuing the tradition of China's new foreign minister visiting Africa first. In May, Wang Yi has also travelled to four Southeast Asian countries, Thailand, Indonesia, Brunei and Singapore, in what the official media is calling his “first visit”, suggesting the importance China is placing on neighborhood diplomacy.

Vice President Li Yuanchao is rarely involved in foreign affairs, but is currently in South America. Xinhua News Agency reports that Li will spend a week in Venezuela and Argentina. This is his first visit in his new role, and it is noteworthy for that reason. Meanwhile, Yang Jiechi, whose brief actually is foreign affairs, is in Mongolia.

According to Indian media reports, Premier Li Keqiang will pay his first visit to India, Pakistan, Switzerland and Germany. Although none of this has been publicly confirmed by official Chinese sources*, India’s foreign minister hinted that the trip to India at least was a "certainty" during his own recent visit to China.

Neighborhood stability, emerging market outreach

China's foreign policy is managed by the Central Foreign Affairs Leading Group. Within this group, the key players are the president, the premier, the state councilor and the minister of foreign affairs. As such, the destinations of their first forays overseas are revealing. Media reports have noted that Li Yuanchao—the standing member managing the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs—has also shouldered some diplomatic functions, reflecting an increased emphasis on diplomacy by the new Chinese government.

Many of these inaugural trips involve China’s neighbors: Russia, Southeast Asia, Mongolia, India and Pakistan. Beijing has always considered the nations that surround it as the starting point for its diplomacy, and repeatedly refers to a policy in pursuit of an "amicable, secure and prosperous neighborhood". With China engaged in territorial disputes with several Southeast Asian countries and with India, these first visits can help not only to attenuate doubts and confusion, but also reflect China’s continued emphasis on peaceful coexistence. Meanwhile, relations with Russia, Pakistan and Mongolia are already relatively sound, and visits to these countries simply seek to strengthen traditional friendships.

Africa and South America are rapidly joining Asia as the “new engines” of international politics and economics. The fact that these regions have been top destinations for the Chinese leaderships shows that Beijing is looking to combine neighborhood stability with outreach to its fellow emerging nations.

If the media is right, and Li Keqiang’s first trip includes Switzerland and Germany, then this inaugural round of Chinese diplomacy can be considered balanced and comprehensive. In other words, focus on the emerging world without ignoring relations with developed countries.

It’s interesting to compare these first trips by the Chinese leadership with the initial itineraries of their U.S. counterparts. In his first overseas visits after his re-election last year, Barack Obama visited Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Latin America, while Secretary of State John Kerry went to Europe, East Asia and the Middle East. In fact, John Kerry has visited the Middle East three times in rapid success, which together with Obama's own travel there, suggests that the oil-rich region remains a top priority for U.S. diplomacy.

*Update: In fact, now it has.