Like Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Adolf Hitler or George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, Chinese President Xi Jinping has just had an epic foreign-policy failure—he just doesn’t appear to have realized it yet.
Through four years of Donald Trump’s presidency, Xi had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to significantly, and perhaps permanently, expand Chinese influence around the world at America’s expense. By angering friend and foe alike, withdrawing from global institutions and agreements, and failing to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, Trump left the world ripe for a new leader to step into Washington’s worn shoes. Some were convinced this was China’s moment. “Sadly, the art of diplomacy has been lost in Washington D.C.,” the former Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani wrote earlier this year. “This has created a massive opening that China has taken full advantage of, on its way to victory over the post COVID-19 world.”
But Xi blew it. A recent Pew Research Center global survey revealed that attitudes toward China have drastically darkened in a number of countries, sinking to all-time lows in an array of nations such as Canada, Germany, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Xi himself didn’t fare any better. Though his image around the world is still a bit better than Trump’s, a median of 78 percent of respondents said they had little or no confidence that Xi would do the right thing in global affairs, a sharp spike from 61 percent in 2019. In almost all of the 14 countries included in the report, negative opinion of Xi reached the highest levels on record. With Joe Biden about to become the next U.S. president, Xi may have lost any chance of fixing his mistakes, and the consequences for China’s role in the world could be huge.