Chinese President Xi Jinping flew into the Myanmar capital Naypyidaw on Friday, making his first overseas visit this year.
The Chinese leader appears to have lost his penchant for long-haul, intercontinental travel and now prefers whistle-stop tours to China’s close neighbors such as Myanmar.
Plans for his scheduled trips abroad in 2020 prepared by China’s Foreign Ministry suggest Xi will not venture outside Asia this year.
Hong Kong’s Ming Pao daily reported that Xi may not fly beyond Asia this year and attending the G20 Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in November could be his furthest trip in 2020. The paper cited a state visit plan drafted by the Foreign Ministry and viewed by the broadsheet’s China correspondent.
Previously, Xi was known for his marathon, continent-to-continent flights, zipping between time zones aboard his Boeing 747 state aircraft on trips that sometimes lasted more than 10 days.
Indeed, Xi has visited some of China’s most far-flung diplomatic allies from Angola to Argentina in recent years, when a more assertive Beijing was on a spree of doling out loans and buying up foreign assets.
In 2019 alone, Xi had a flurry of visits to more than a dozen nations across Asia, Europe and South America. This included his trip to Brazil in November for the BRICS Summit in Brasilia, and the return leg covered a staggering distance of almost 17,000 kilometers.
This ultra-long journey home included a stopover on the Spanish island of Tenerife off Africa for refueling and Xi took to the scenic beaches to shake off fatigue and jet lag.
But this year Xi will only go to neighbors like South Korea and possibly Japan in the first half, on trips that are shorter than flying from Beijing to some of the western border provinces.
Some observers say no intercontinental travel this year could be a sign of Xi’s lingering ailments, especially after his strange and occasionally teetering gait when inspecting honor guards with foreign dignitaries was caught on camera several times.
Xi’s usual gait caught reporters’ eyes when visiting France and Monaco last year.
Rumor has it that Xi, 67, could be suffering from chronic arthropathy or gout and that his joints could be too fragile to bear the weight of his increasingly plump paunch. Xi has piled on the pounds since coming to power in 2012.
Crossing continents on long-distance travel, prolonged sitting and jet lag can all complicate the symptoms and discomfort.
Also, logistical and security support for long flights and visits for state leaders are always risky, complex and costly, and too many trips and junkets abroad may also run counter to Xi’s own frugality drive.
Another theory claims that Xi has developed aerophobia – a fear of flying – and is becoming wary about the running of the nation and the military as well as there may be bids to usurp his grip of power when he is away for a prolonged period of time.
Some reports say Xi is “literally deaf and blind” when his plane gets airborne, with no or little real-time communications with his subordinates available, especially when he is traveling far afield.
Xi’s one-man rule of the country does not mean there is no angst or threats lurking below the surface on the top echelon of the ruling party. One telling indication is that he again highlighted allegiance, oversight and fending off conspirators during a plenary meeting of the Communist Party’s top discipline and inspection body this Monday.
Before the meeting, Zhao Zhengyong, the former party boss of the central Shaanxi province, along with a deputy governor there and several chiefs of state-owned enterprises, were named and shamed and stripped of their posts due to corruption and political scheming. Shaanxi is Xi’s ancestral home.
Also, it is believed that Xi’s strongman image and some lingering trade and national security rows with other major powers – including an ongoing German probe of a senior EU diplomat who could be a spy for China – mean he may not be feted with courtesy and pageantry when he goes there, at a time when the West is reluctant to roll out the red carpet for Chinese cadres or open their markets to Chinese firms and investments.
Xi reportedly put off a state visit to the US planned for 2019 when China and the US slapped punitive tariffs on each other’s exports, and he is unlikely to be a VIP guest in the White House this year as no Chinese leader has visited the US in an election year.
Xi’s new diplomatic focus in 2020 is to mend fences with neighbors despite long-running security and territorial rifts and sell his paradigms on regional security and integration like the belt and road initiative in localities he finds easier to dominate, such as neighbors in Southeast Asia.