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Xi Tells the World What He Really Wants

A close reading of this week’s revealing speech by the Chinese president.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Chinese President Xi Jinping attends the World Economic Forum virtual event of the Davos Agenda and delivers a special address via video link in Beijing on Jan. 25. Xinhua/Li Xueren via Getty Images
Chinese President Xi Jinping attends the World Economic Forum virtual event of the Davos Agenda and delivers a special address via video link in Beijing on Jan. 25. Xinhua/Li Xueren via Getty Images

On Jan. 25, Chinese president Xi Jinping gave a speech to the online version of the World Economic Forum’s Davos conference, with the lofty title “Let the Torch of Multilateralism Light Up Humanity’s Way Forward.” It was important not because it offered new revelations about Xi’s thinking or China’s ambitions, but because it provided a handy summary of how China wants to be seen by others.

Although much of Xi’s speech may have been completely honest and sincere, the public nature of the performance and some obvious inconsistencies suggest that it needs to be read with a careful and critical eye. How should it be interpreted, and what is the best way for other states to respond?

All great powers try to attract support and minimize opposition by presenting themselves in a positive light. China under Xi is no exception, and he went to considerable lengths to portray China as a rising but benevolent great power that only has humanity’s best interests at heart. He called for macroeconomic coordination to “jointly promote strong, sustainable, balanced and inclusive growth of the world economy.” He repeated China’s familiar plea that states “abandon ideological prejudice and jointly follow a path of peaceful coexistence, mutual benefit, and win-win cooperation.” Saying “no two leaves in the world are identical,” he emphasized that “each country is unique” and “none is superior to the other.” Instead of judging social systems according to some set of universal values, therefore, “the best criteria are whether a country’s history, culture, and social system fit its particular situation … [and] serve to deliver political stability, social progress, and better lives.”

On Jan. 25, Chinese president Xi Jinping gave a speech to the online version of the World Economic Forum’s Davos conference, with the lofty title “Let the Torch of Multilateralism Light Up Humanity’s Way Forward.” It was important not because it offered new revelations about Xi’s thinking or China’s ambitions, but because it provided a handy summary of how China wants to be seen by others.

Although much of Xi’s speech may have been completely honest and sincere, the public nature of the performance and some obvious inconsistencies suggest that it needs to be read with a careful and critical eye. How should it be interpreted, and what is the best way for other states to respond?

All great powers try to attract support and minimize opposition by presenting themselves in a positive light. China under Xi is no exception, and he went to considerable lengths to portray China as a rising but benevolent great power that only has humanity’s best interests at heart. He called for macroeconomic coordination to “jointly promote strong, sustainable, balanced and inclusive growth of the world economy.” He repeated China’s familiar plea that states “abandon ideological prejudice and jointly follow a path of peaceful coexistence, mutual benefit, and win-win cooperation.” Saying “no two leaves in the world are identical,” he emphasized that “each country is unique” and “none is superior to the other.” Instead of judging social systems according to some set of universal values, therefore, “the best criteria are whether a country’s history, culture, and social system fit its particular situation … [and] serve to deliver political stability, social progress, and better lives.”

“Difference in itself is no cause for alarm,” he suggested, warning further that “what does ring the alarm is arrogance, prejudice, and hatred” and trying “to force one’s own history, culture, and social system upon others.” These sentiments are wholly consistent with China’s long-standing defense of the norm of noninterference in domestic affairs, and its explicit rejection of a world order based on universal liberal principles.

Xi also made a point of reaching out to the global south, labeling China a “steadfast member of developing countries.” He advocated closing “the divide between developed and developing countries” and said that countries should “come together against global challenges and jointly create a better future for humanity.” Referring to multilateralism no less than a dozen times (including in the title of the speech itself), Xi said the nations of the world should “stay committed to openness,” “reject the outdated Cold War and zero-sum game mentality,” “say no to narrow-minded, selfish beggar-thy-neighbor policies,” and oppose efforts to “reject, threaten, or intimidate others [or] to willfully impose decoupling, supply disruption, or sanctions.”

“The right approach,” he insisted, was to “uphold the common values of humanity, i.e., peace, development, equity, justice, democracy, and freedom, rise above ideological prejudice, [and] make the mechanisms, principles, and policies of our cooperation as open and inclusive as possible.” To do that, he wants to “build an open world economy, uphold the multilateral trading regime … and take down barriers to trade, investment, and technological exchanges.” The World Health Organization should be given “full play” to build a “global community of health for all,” and the World Trade Organization should be reformed. A “people-centered and fact-based policy orientation” should guide the development of rules on global digital governance. He once again endorsed the Paris climate agreement and the concept of green development, and pledged that China was ready to “work with other countries to build an open, inclusive, clean, and beautiful world that enjoys lasting peace, universal security, and common prosperity.”

Xi’s lofty assurances must be viewed with considerable skepticism, of course. His suggestion that states should refrain from threatening or intimidating others is at odds with China’s behavior on its border with India, its efforts to punish Australia for proposing an independent international investigation into the origins of the coronavirus, or its continuing campaign of intimidation against Taiwan. His call for states to “stay committed to international law and international rules instead of seeking one’s own supremacy” rings hollow in light of Chinese behavior in the South China Sea, including its overt rejection of the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s 2016 ruling that Chinese territorial claims there were without foundation. His desire to strengthen the WHO and WTO are welcome, but China’s past actions are at least partly responsible for their eroding legitimacy (although the Trump administration bears considerable blame as well). His rhetorical commitment to “openness” apparently doesn’t apply to information; there was no hint that he plans to dismantle the “Great Firewall” or remove the growing restrictions and threats to foreign journalists. Nor is China as respectful of sovereignty or diversity as Xi would like you to think, as its own interference in other countries and its efforts to eradicate Uighur culture within China make clear.

To be clear, I’m not saying that the speech was nothing more than a propaganda exercise, or that everything Xi said was disingenuous. Rather, I’m suggesting that Xi was acting much as other world leaders do and seeking to present his country’s interests in the most appealing light. Although the content was different, the message was similar to former U.S. President George H.W. Bush’s claim that America would use its vast power to “shape the world … for the benefit of not just the United States but all nations,” or former President Barack Obama’s declaration that “America led the world in constructing an architecture to keep the peace … mechanisms to govern the waging of war, treaties to protect human rights, prevent genocide, [and] restrict the most dangerous weapons.” As the historian E.H. Carr once observed, “the English-speaking peoples are past masters in the art of concealing their selfish national interests in the guise of the general good.” But this tendency is hardly confined to them.

Apart from its obvious inconsistencies, there is a more fundamental reason to regard Xi’s speech with some reserve. As realist scholars have long argued, it is difficult (and maybe impossible) to draw reliable conclusions about another state’s intentions. The point is not that states are constantly trying to deceive each other—they aren’t—or that national leaders never say what they mean. The point is that it is difficult to be sure whether any particular statement or pledge is genuine or not. Moreover, even when top officials state their goals or desires openly and honestly, those intentions are always subject to revision as circumstances change. China’s recent history is a perfect illustration of this tendency: As its power has increased, its ambitions have grown, and its definition of “core interests” has expanded.

It would be astonishing if it were otherwise. Just as a person who wins the lottery or inherits a fortune will suddenly discover wants and needs that they never contemplated before, states typically discover “vital interests” that they never even imagined when they were too weak to pursue them. Just look at the United States: The 13 original colonies mostly hoped to survive and stay out of the quarrels of the great powers. Once the country had become a great power, however, U.S. leaders now deemed it vital to make the world “safe for democracy,” to fight “wars to end war,” and to spread liberal values all around the world.

So how should other countries—and especially the United States—react to a speech like this? Above all, the United States should not simply dismiss it as meaningless propaganda intended to hoodwink the audience and conceal China’s true aims. To do so would be to ignore the possibility—even the strong likelihood—that China genuinely wants mutually beneficial cooperation in a number of important areas, even as it also strives for enduring advantages in others. At the same time, the inconsistencies in the speech should not pass without notice, and U.S. diplomats should remind their foreign counterparts of the ways in which China’s actions do not live up to Xi’s lofty rhetoric.

Most important of all, the United States should not respond in ways that make Beijing look like it is being more reasonable and high-minded than Washington is, or that make Americans appear aloof, insensitive, uncompromising, fearful, or selfish. That was the approach of outgoing President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence to international diplomacy, and it did untold damage. Asian countries are especially worried about being caught up in an escalating Chinese-American competition, and they will distance themselves from whichever great power they believe is most responsible for disturbing the peace in the region.

Mindful of these concerns, the United States (and other countries) should start by testing Xi’s expressed willingness to “work together”—neither embracing it uncritically nor rejecting it out of hand. As Dani Rodrik and I have outlined, they could start by identifying areas where interests overlap and agreement is possible, either in terms of negative actions each side would agree to avoid or positive steps that each might agree to implement. Next, diplomats should explore areas where the United States and China are currently doing things that harm the other and ask if those harms might be reduced through negotiation and mutual adjustment. The current trade war is an obvious candidate, but similar bargains might be struck in arms control or conceivably even Taiwan.

If mutually beneficial agreements cannot be reached and each side chooses to act unilaterally, they could still attempt to calibrate their responses appropriately: doing just enough to protect their own interests while seeking to minimize the threat posed to the interests of the other side.

Lastly, the United States should take Xi up on his stated preference for multilateral engagement and use America’s vastly larger array of allies and partners to pursue favorable outcomes within various multilateral forums. If China wants to reform the WTO, for example, the United States should welcome this commitment and work with the European Union, Japan, South Korea, and its other partners to make sure the reforms are the right ones.

None of these suggestions will eliminate the reality of Sino-American rivalry. Xi may genuinely believe that “zero-sum game or winner-takes-all is not the guiding principle of the Chinese people,” but that noble sentiment is at odds with China’s own efforts to achieve a leading position by the middle of this century. And no matter what Xi thinks, competition between the two largest powers is to a considerable extent hardwired into the emerging structure of the international system and some aspects of that competition cannot help but be zero-sum. For the foreseeable future, the real challenge is to keep that competition within acceptable limits and create a world order that allows these two mighty powers to work together on the areas where cooperation between them will be essential.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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