Xi Jinping has arrived in Moscow, having chosen Russia as the first country to visit since his inauguration last week as president of China. After meeting with President Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials, Xi will then leave to attend his first BRICS summit in Durban, South Africa, where he will hold talks with the leaders of the "rising and resurgent" bloc of nations comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. In particular, he will have an opportunity to engage one-on-one with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the sidelines of the BRICS meeting. From South Africa, Xi will make visits to two other African states, Tanzania and the Republic of Congo, before returning to China.
Xi's choice of countries for his first foreign peregrination is no accident. This trip is a first test of his ability to course-correct China's growing problems in foreign relations. Afflicted by hubris in the wake of the 2008 global economic crisis, the leadership in Beijing decided to be more assertive on both the regional and global stages. Whereas the United States had been steadily losing influence in East Asia during the years of the George W. Bush administration, Beijing's more heavy-handed approach since 2010, especially on maritime disputes in the South and East China Seas, created incentives for many states in the region to move back toward Washington. The new India-U.S. relationship and the U.S.-Russia "reset" during the halcyon early days of Dmitry Medvedev's tenure as Russian president further heightened Chinese perceptions of a U.S. strategy to "contain" China, a fear reinforced by the formal announcement in 2011 that the United States would seek to "pivot" to the Asia-Pacific region.
With this trip, Xi has the opportunity to "execute China's own 'pivot,'" as one observer put it. China’s new president has some maneuvering room. While tensions remain high with Japan, and some of the other East Asian states are eager to have the U.S. play a balancing function in the region, other aspects of the picture have changed. When Medvedev was Russia’s president, some of his advisers were receptive to the idea of a closer U.S.-Russia partnership that would offset the rise of China. Now Beijing has an opportunity to court Moscow, made possible by Putin's return to the presidency, new tensions in the U.S.-Russia relationship and the resurgence of the political factions linked with the so-called siloviki, the former security service veterans close to Putin, who are more supportive of closer Russia-China ties.