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Unmasked and in charge, China’s Xi puts personal diplomacy back in play

BEIJING: President Xi Jinping, conspicuously absent from the main stage of diplomacy during China’s COVID-19 isolation, has been mostly smiles and handshakes on his return this week with a flurry of meetings that Beijing hopes will begin to mend frayed relations.

But in an exchange that went viral, a mask-less Xi was also captured on-camera giving Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau a dressing-down at the Group of 20 (G20) summit over media leaks, apparently from their bilateral meeting a day previously. It was a rare, candid glimpse of the Chinese leader and a reminder of Beijing’s testy relations with the West.

China’s absence from face-to-face interactions during the pandemic has been costly, diplomats and other experts say, as ties with the United States and some Asian neighbours have badly deteriorated over a range of disputes.

With other leaders having so little recent access to top Chinese officials, Xi’s presence this week on the Indonesian island of Bali for the G20 followed by an APEC summit in Bangkok is magnified by its scarcity value.

The resumption of dialogue, including Xi’s first meeting with Joe Biden as US president and the first direct talks with an Australian leader since 2016, is itself a positive, China watchers said, even if it doesn’t immediately yield concrete results.

Besides Biden, Trudeau, and Australia’s Anthony Albanese, Xi also met the leaders of South Korea, Italy, Argentina, Holland, and France for bilateral talks in Bali. A meeting with Britain’s Rishi Sunak was cancelled because of scheduling issues, Downing Street said, while Xi is set to hold talks with Japan’s Fumio Kishida and New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern in Bangkok.

Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha University in Seoul, described Xi’s busy schedule as a “charm offensive” after China shut its borders for nearly three years and after Xi consolidated power last month by clinching a third term at the ruling Communist Party’s congress.

“The meetings are probably not enough to make progress on thorny economic and security issues but could prevent diplomatic relations from getting worse,” Easley said.

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