UNITED NATIONS – Call it checkbook diplomacy, Chinese style.
On visits to Washington and the United Nations, President Xi Jinping has pledged billions of dollars for peacekeeping, economic development and climate change, winning audience applause and plaudits from the world body.
However, while many countries trade aid for specific advantages, Xi's approach is more ambitious. He's using the power of the purse to cast China as a responsible contributor to international peace and stability and to dilute international criticism of Beijing.
The approach seems to be a success so far, helping Xi override condemnation in the West about the authoritarian Communist government's strict limits on human rights and relentless persecution of anyone considered an opponent of one-party rule. He's also been able to drown out some concerns over China's aggressive moves to assert its territorial claims in the South China Sea, where it has lately been creating artificial islands by piling sand atop reefs and atolls, then topping them with airstrips and other infrastructure.
It also has the added bonus of making China look good alongside its chief international rivals, Japan and the U.S., who have long maintained the biggest foreign aid programs. Unlike China, though, that aid often comes with political or economic conditions attached.
In his first-ever appearance at the U.N. General Assembly, Xi on Monday committed $1.1 billion to support U.N. and African Union peacekeeping efforts. The day before, Xi had pledged an initial $2 billion for meeting post-2015 global development goals, saying that could grow to $12 billion by 2030. Another $10 million was pledged to the U.N. agency promoting women's rights.
Even earlier, during his state visit to Washington, Xi pledged $3.1 billion to help developing countries combat climate change, bringing the total for all potential pledges over the four days to more than $18.2 billion — still a drop in the budget for a nation with a $10 trillion economy.
Outside of monetary pledges, Xi didn't have a lot to contribute to the debate at the U.N. His 20-minute address on Saturday to the U.N. development summit was notable only for the aid pledges within. Otherwise it was dominated by bland statements, greeting card-worthy platitudes and assorted jargon: the phrase "win-win" was deployed no less than five times.
Xi, who in early September presided over a massive military parade in Beijing, said Monday that China would never seek to become a hegemonic power that would dominate others or put its interests above international justice — despite the doubts of its Asia-Pacific rivals.
"Let the vision of a world free of war and with lasting peace take root in our hearts," Xi told the assembly.
Consistent with China's avowed neutrality, Xi also stayed outside the key debates over the civil war in Syria and its resulting refugee crisis, the rise of the Islamic State and the war in Ukraine. China's principle of non-interference in other countries' internal affairs plays especially well among other developing nations, many of whose governments are similarly autocratic.
And despite skepticism in Washington, Xi used his post-summit White House news conference with Obama on Friday to focus on progress in the overall relationship, while taking a mild approach to the South China Sea and asserting China's opposition to cyber espionage, another issue of increasing concern to Washington which Obama said China must stop.
The strategy has largely shielded both him and China from criticism, at least on this trip, the one exception being Xi's co-chairing of a U.N. meeting on women's issues Sunday. That drew fire from critics including Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, who said China's detention and harassment of women's rights activists ought to disqualify Xi from such a role.
In the face of such criticism, Xi may have an ally in his glamorous wife, former army folk singer Peng Liyuan, who kept up her own busy schedule during the trip that ended Tuesday.
In Washington, she helped unveil the name of the National Zoo's new baby panda, while in New York she presided at charity events in her capacity as a World Health Organization goodwill ambassador and UNESCO special envoy for girls' and women's education.
Associated Press Beijing Correspondent Christopher Bodeen has covered Chinese politics for more than a decade.