While China’s neighbours may welcome its assurances of friendship as it grows in strength, there is also need for vigilance, writes Duncan Barlett
As the supreme authority of the People’s Republic, China’s President Xi Jinping is the man whose thoughts encapsulate the Chinese Dream. The words of his speeches are bound in handsome hardback books, andXi Jinping Thought, as it has become known, is as central to modern Chinese philosophy as the wisdom of Confucius. Loyal citizens are constantly encouraged to draw patriotic inspiration from their leader. Domestically, the message is clear: China is on a steady path to progress and its people should be grateful and proud. The Communist Party fulfils its promises. China is deserving of respect.
But internationally, the narrative is more complex. While other countries hear talk of harmony and cooperation towards peaceful development, they often suspect that China is trying to coerce them into consolidating its wealth and influence.
Like most politicians, President Xi adapts his message, depending on to whom he is speaking. The rhetoric he used at the Boao Forum for Asia on Hainan Island on April 10, for example, was designed to reassure China’s neighbours that he will be their friend, despite ideological differences and long-standing territorial disagreements.
Xi insisted that ‘no matter how rich or powerful China becomes, we will never threaten anyone, nor overthrow the existing international system. We will not seek to build up spheres of influence – China will always be a builder for world peace, a contributor to global development and a defender of the international order.’
Yet a few days later, national television showed Xi standing on the deck of a destroyer, overseeing China’s largest ever maritime parade. Afterwards, the Chinese navy announced it would conduct exercises by firing live ammunition in the Taiwan Strait.
Jonathan Fenby, China Chairman and Managing Director of European Politics at the research service TSLombard, has written eight books on China, including, most recently, Will China Dominate the 21st Century? He believes China wants to prevail in Asia through economic clout and military projection. ‘China has set itself up as the champion of globalisation, in contrast to the protectionist tendencies in Washington,’he says. ‘It is stepping into the vacuum left by the Trump Administration and its admirers overlook the repressive nature of its political system and the ways it falls well short of the free trading hymn sheet from which it purports to sing.’
Femby regards President Xi as a pragmatist, who judges that the carefully managed opening up of some parts of China’s markets will enable it to modernise its economy, without relinquishing state control of major industries. He believes the emphasis will be on inter-Asian trade, on China’s terms.
The Trump factor
President Xi told the Boao Forum: ‘The door to China will not close, it will only open wider and wider.’His US counterpart wants China to throw open its doors to American companies. President Trump complains frequently of China’s restrictive trade practices and its unauthorised use of the intellectual property developed by Silicon Valley.
In March, Trump tweeted: ‘China will take down its trade barriers because it is the right thing to do.’ He followed through by imposing punitive duties of tens of billions of dollars on Chinese imports. China said it would respond with tariffs on many US goods, including soybeans, aircraft and vehicles.
Chinese officials have suggested a new and extensive wave of economic reforms is imminent. However, the trade war with the US seems to have pushed China back towards a more protectionist position. President Xi’s speech to the Boao Forum stuck to reiterating previously unveiled initiatives, rather than revealing new ones – a signal that he did not want the measures to be seen as concessions to the United States.
The Sino-US trade dispute has also caused collateral damage and frustration in Japan. President Trump slapped tariffs on both Chinese and Japanese steel imports into America, a situation which Prime Minister Shinzo Abe complained about when he met the President in Florida last month. Despite being on the receiving end of some angry tweets from the US leader, Abe’s own ideology has much more in common with capitalist, democratic America than it does with Communist China.
But Japan has much to gain from maintaining stable relationships with both countries and not allowing issues of ideology – or the personalities of their leaders – to get too much in the way.
Prime Minister Abe and his team have therefore been working hard to improve Japan’s diplomatic and trade relations with China. Last month, Wang Yi became the first Chinese foreign minister to visit Tokyo in more than eight years, when he attended the Japan-China High-Level Economic Dialogue.
At the meeting, Japan emphasised its support for the multilateral international trade system, centred on the World Trade Organisation.This was designed to balance the Chinese rhetoric regarding globalisation and multilateralism, focused upon the Belt and Road initiative, a network of international trade routes built with Chinese money. In exchange for infrastructure investment, China expects the countries it supports to accept its leadership on projects. Japan, not surprisingly, disapproves.
Nevertheless, Abe is due to hold talks with the Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, who will attend a June trilateral summit in Tokyo with South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in.
India in play
There is also a meeting scheduled for June between President Xi and another Asian rival, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India.
Last year saw a tense standoff between China and India in Dokalam and military forces from both sides remain on a state of alert. China is making heavy investments in countries which surround India and it supplies weapons to Pakistan. This leaves India with the uncomfortable sense of being encircled by China’s Belt and Road.
However, China is India’s largest trading partner by far and India is the fastest growing economy in the world, so both countries have many reasons to cooperate closely economically, even though the Chinese Dream can sound like a challenge to India’s aspirations.