This July has been the biggest month for international visits of the entire decade — following the previous weekend’s stopover of the chief of the world’s largest country, Russian President Vladimir Putin (currently very much more at the heart of world news with the mystery of the Malaysian airliner shot down over Ukraine), we now have the three-day visit of the leader of the globe’s biggest population, China’s Xi Jinping. It could hardly be more impressive although it might be said in passing that Argentina has succeeded in attracting the more stellar pair from last week’s BRICS summits in Brazil rather than the more democratic (the new Indian premier Narendra Modi from the world’s largest democracy and South African President Jacob Zuma, re-elected two months ago). This point is not minor, not only because of Argentina’s hard-earned return to democracy but because it is a key existential question for BRICS itself — their common identity as emerging market heavyweights does not extend to convergence over political philosophy or democratic values. The Chinese might argue that one-party rule is the price for their spectacular growth rates and for taking so many millions out of rural poverty so fast (and they might also be right) but the obligations of gracious hospitality should not rule out a gentle suggestion that amid all their amazing modernization of the last quarter-century or so, more evolution towards democracy should not be beyond their formidable capacities.
Yet the focus of Xi’s visit is undoubtedly more economic than political (and within that sphere more financial than commercial). Since he is spending the weekend here, it is obviously premature to talk about results but not about the significance of Chinese interest, which has sparked great expectations. Trade with China is delicately balanced between the bumper soy exports to the Asian giant for many years now and the manufacturing sector’s apprehension over its inability to compete with the world’s largest industrial producer, especially if there is any kind of free trade agreement — the investments of President Xi and his 200-plus business entourage will thus be crucial to tipping this balance in the direction of uninhibited enthusiasm for closer ties with China. The investment promises are already on the table — it remains to be seen how they translate into reality.
The expression: “May you live in interesting times” so widely used in the Western world is generally assumed (wrongly, it seems) to be an ancient Chinese curse — perhaps President Xi’s visit will be the prelude to interesting times in a much more positive sense.