[Mr. Xi may sense an opening during a historic inflection point. He plans to deliver a speech at Davos at a moment when the incoming United States president, Donald J. Trump, has suggested that the United States should withdraw from the traditional superpower role it has played since World War II, including its leadership of a global free trade agenda.]
By Edward Wong
President Xi Jinping of China plans to stride into the snowy high-altitude conclave of the world’s financial elite next week, attending the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland, the first time a top Chinese leader will put himself into the mix of political leaders and business executives who view themselves as the masters of the global economy.
His participation was announced by the Chinese Foreign Ministry on Tuesday. It is the latest, and in some ways the boldest, Chinese attempt to compete with the United States’ dominant position in world economic and strategic institutions, a decades-long campaign that has been carried out everywhere from the conference rooms of Asian central banks to the waters of the South China Sea to the halls of the United Nations in New York.
But it is unclear whether Mr. Xi, who rarely ventures beyond platitudes in discussing the strategies of the world’s second largest economy, can take advantage of this time of transition when the rest of the world is gauging whether the United States is pulling back from global leadership.
Mr. Xi may sense an opening during a historic inflection point. He plans to deliver a speech at Davos at a moment when the incoming United States president, Donald J. Trump, has suggested that the United States should withdraw from the traditional superpower role it has played since World War II, including its leadership of a global free trade agenda.
In recent years, Davos had come to embody that American-led agenda — a gathering at an Alpine ski resort of some of the world’s most powerful figures in the realms of politics, media and technology. Discussions each year have been set by Western leaders, not Asian ones.
But events of the past year brought into sharp focus a rise in populist denunciations of globalization, free trade and inequality in some Western nations, including the United States, with Davos frequently mentioned by critics as a symbol of the root causes of their countries’ ailments.
China has benefited greatly from access to international trade markets since its entry in 2001 into the World Trade Organization, and it could now become the most vocal proponent of that system. Mr. Trump campaigned on opposition to the existing global trade system and has denounced China for competing unfairly against the United States.
At Davos, Mr. Xi plans to lead a delegation of senior officials, China’s wealthiest entrepreneurs and top executives of state-owned enterprises, including the China Poly Group Corporation, which has ties to the Chinese military.
His appearance is a logical step in his country’s evolution into a globe-spanning superpower, a rapid transformation that has been marked by bold symbolic gestures and events in the past decade, including the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing under President Hu Jintao, Mr. Xi’s predecessor.
Mr. Xi has carried on that theme with much more aggressive actions, including overseeing construction of military infrastructure in the South China Sea’s contested waters and establishing a regional lending bank opposed by the United States.
Premiers of China, including the current one, Li Keqiang, have attended Davos before, but the nation’s president — and head of the Communist Party — has never been to the gathering.
“Clearly it signals that Xi Jinping is now interested in writing both China and himself in a grander way on the global diplomatic horizon,” said Orville Schell, director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society. “He feels it’s time to really come out. Behind that probably is an assumption and wishful thinking that the U.S. is in disarray, Europe is feckless, and so on.”
“He’ll be received almost as the number one citizen at Davos,” Mr. Schell added.
Mr. Xi plans to attend Davos on Jan. 17, during a state visit to Switzerland from Jan. 15 to 18, said Lu Kang, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, at a regularly scheduled news conference in Beijing on Tuesday. Mr. Xi is expected to speak at the opening session of the forum, which runs from Jan. 17 to 20.
Strong anti-globalization sentiments erupted last year in the movement in Britain that culminated in the popular vote by British citizens to leave the European Union. But it was Mr. Trump’s election in November that was the apotheosis of the move in the West toward isolationism, and meetings and conversations at Davos — whose theme this year is “responsive and responsible leadership” — will take place in the shadow of Mr. Trump’s campaign promises and rhetoric.
“It’s going to be very tempting for China to imagine for itself that it’s gained much more status after this election in a whole array of global endeavors, including trade and on climate change and possibly other issues,” Mr. Schell said. “If the U.S. is going to absent itself more — and we don’t know if that’s the case yet — nature does abhor a vacuum. When a father grows old, the son is sometimes able to fill the space.”
Victor Shih, a scholar of China’s political economy at the University of California, San Diego, said there are actually some global agenda matters on which China’s influence “might have peaked in the medium term.”
He pointed to China’s push in recent years to have the renminbi counted as an international currency. That has been undermined in the past year by efforts of the Chinese central bank, the People’s Bank of China, to withdraw large quantities of offshore renminbi from circulation. The bank has been doing that in order to try to prop up the value of the renminbi and limit capital flight from China, including the transfer of money to Hong Kong by wealthy Chinese.
“The People’s Bank of China continues to claim that renminbi internationalization is important, and of course, at Davos, President Xi may continue to pay verbal homage to that agenda because it would be an important sign of China’s ascendance on the world stage,” Mr. Shih said. “Yet, in the past year, we have seen renminbi deposits outside of mainland China decline by hundreds of billions of renminbi.”
Among the Chinese tycoons expected to attend Davos are Wang Jianlin, founder of the Wanda Group, a property and cinema company, and Jack Ma, founder of the Alibaba Group, China’s biggest e-commerce company.
They are commonly referred to as the two wealthiest men in China. Both are investing in the United States, and Mr. Ma met with Mr. Trump on Monday at Trump Tower in New York to discuss business opportunities between companies in the two countries. (Within Mr. Trump’s family, his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has been involved in personal business negotiations with top Chinese executives.)
Some members of the Congress, mostly Republicans, have called for greater scrutiny of Chinese investments in the United States, including those by Wanda, which recently bought the AMC movie theater chain and Legendary Entertainment, a film production and financing company.