In January 2017, Chinese President Xi Jinping stood at the podium in Davos defending economic globalisation. He argued that the world needed to “adapt to and guide economic globalization, cushion its negative impact, and deliver its benefits to all countries and all nations.” And in this process, “China’s development is an opportunity for the world.” All of this was, of course, in the backdrop of the beginning of Donald Trump’s presidency in the US.
Addressing deputies at the National People’s Congress in March 2018, Xi doubled down on that message: “China will contribute more Chinese wisdom, Chinese solutions and Chinese strength to the world, to push for building an open, inclusive, clean, and beautiful world that enjoys lasting peace, universal security, and common prosperity. Let the sunshine of a community with a shared future for humanity illuminate the world!”
Both of those speeches reflected strength. The essential message they conveyed was that the world needed China. And under Xi, China now was surer about its destiny and keener than ever to play a larger international role. Yet as 2018 unfolded, this narrative came under severe strain. To assess how, we need to look at three dimensions: Xi’s status as the core of the Communist Party, the pushback against BRI, and the deepening competition with the US. It is the interplay of these three that is shaping China’s future.