One lion that doesn't want to be king of the jungle

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 March, 2014, 5:19am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 March, 2014, 5:19am

Evoking Napoleon Bonaparte, President Xi Jinping proclaimed while in France last week, that "the sleeping lion" of China has awoken. But, unlike others of the species, this lion would be "peaceful, pleasant, and civilised".

Xi's decision to revive the quote often attributed to Napoleon more than two centuries ago announced a shift in China's foreign policy that is likely to accelerate, raising expectations and concerns alike that the China will be more confident and assertive on international issues.

It signalled that China would no longer be shy about staking its claims in controversial matters, be they territorial disputes with neighbouring countries or carving out its place in the international arena. It also reflected Xi's own personal outlook. Since coming to power in November 2012, he has been more forthcoming and forceful than his predecessors, not only on international issues, but also on domestic affairs.

Since China started to open its doors to the world in the late 1970s, Communist Party leaders have religiously followed Deng Xiaoping's motto on foreign affairs: "Bide one's time and never strive to be No 1."

During his own time in office, Jiang Zemin similarly trumpeted the folksy phrase "keeping quiet will help you make a fortune" to illustrate his foreign policy outlook.

But China could not afford to keep quiet over the decade Hu Jintao was in power, as its economy expanded to become the world's second largest and its businesses scoured the globe for sources of energy and raw materials.

In direct response to international concerns about Beijing's growing power, Hu and other Chinese leaders started to preach that China was committed to a "peaceful rise".

But they were still very much torn between the need to adopt a bigger international profile and a desire to hew closely to the policies of their predecessors.

Xi appears to have fewer inhibitions than the leaders of the Hu era. He has openly blasted Japan for its revival of militarism and has acted tough on territorial disputes in the South and East China seas.

International developments have indeed presented China with an opportunity to raise its profile. Washington has increasingly turned inward despite its intended policy "pivot" towards Asia. Europe is preoccupied with the crisis in Ukraine.

However, it is too early to conclude that Xi wants to replace Deng's foreign policy doctrine with his own. While Beijing appears to be more open about its intentions and capabilities, it still intends to adhere to Deng's exhortation to never strive to be No1.

This means that despite its intention to make better use of its rising influence, Beijing is unlikely to do anything to challenge the current international order or the supremacy of the US, as confirmed today by this newspaper's interview with senior Xi policy adviser, Shi Zhihong .

For Xi and other Chinese leaders, their priorities are domestic. They are battling a multitude of challenges, including rampant official corruption, a slowing economy and a need to enhance the legitimacy of the Communist Party.