By Noah Barkin
DAVOS, Switzerland (Reuters) - Chinese President Xi Jinping will defend globalization in the face of mounting public hostility in the West on Tuesday in a speech at the World Economic Forum that will underline Beijing's growing global role.
Xi's appearance, a first for a Chinese leader at the annual meeting of political leaders, CEOs and bankers in Davos, comes as the part the United States plays as a force for multilateral cooperation on issues like trade and climate change is in doubt following the election of Donald Trump.
Europe, meanwhile, is pre-occupied with its own troubles, from Brexit and militant attacks to the string of elections this year in which anti-globalization populists could score gains.
This has left a vacuum that China seems eager to fill.
"It is no coincidence that Xi chose this year to make the trip up the magic mountain," said Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group, a U.S.-based political risk consultancy.
More than half a dozen senior Chinese government figures will be in Davos this week, far more than in past years. And a large number of sessions are focused on Asia, including one entitled "Asia Takes the Lead".
WEF founder Klaus Schwab said Xi's presence was a sign of the shift from a uni-polar world dominated by the United States to a more multi-polar system in which rising powers like China will have to step up and play a bigger role.
"We can hope that China in this new world will assume a responsive and responsible leadership role," Schwab told Reuters. "So in some ways it is very symbolic to have the president of China here."
"TAKE OFF THE GLOVES"
Xi's appearance comes amid rising tensions between Beijing and president-elect Trump, who will be inaugurated on Friday, the final day of the Davos meeting.
Trump campaigned on a promise to confront China more aggressively on trade and broke with decades of precedent last month by taking a congratulatory telephone call from the president of Taiwan, which Beijing sees as part of China.
He has not toned down his rhetoric since, saying only last week that America's "One China" policy was up for negotiation, triggering a furious response from state-run Chinese newspapers.
"If Trump is determined to use this gambit in taking office, a period of fierce, damaging interactions will be unavoidable, as Beijing will have no choice but to take off the gloves," the English-language China Daily said.
Xi is not expected to wade into the tit-for-tat with Trump in Davos. Speaking in the Swiss capital Bern on the eve of his speech, he stressed the importance of cooperation.
"Protectionism, populism and de-globalization are on the rise. It's not good for closer economic cooperation globally," Xi said.
China, the world's top exporter, is heavily dependent on free trade and could be hit hard by a new wave of protectionism.
"Today, I think there is a big question mark as to how China pivots in this world. Will they be more regional or global in their mindset and, more importantly, in their negotiations? It's something we are going to have to watch over the next 12 months," said Bob Moritz, global chairman of PricewaterhouseCoopers.
Fears of a hard economic landing in China roiled global markets during last year's Davos.
And while those concerns have eased, the International Monetary Fund warned on Monday of ongoing risks to the economy, including its high reliance on government spending, record lending by state banks and an overheating property market.
"China is still one of the biggest risks, and I think the only reason it is not at the top of the list is that the United States has become such a locus of uncertainty," Kenneth Rogoff, an economist at Harvard University, told Reuters.
(Additional reporting by Ben Hirschler; Editing by Alexander Smith and Mark Potter)