China Briefing

Aggression is not part of national character

Xi Jinping's reiteration of his vision for peaceful development should help reassure neighbours in a time of rising regional tensions

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 May, 2014, 3:47am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 February, 2016, 12:19pm

The timing speaks volumes. On Thursday, while anti-China protests in Vietnam turned deadly, leaving at least two Chinese nationals dead and hundreds of factories damaged, President Xi Jinping was at the Great Hall of People, presenting his vision for China's role in peaceful development.

"There is no 'invasion gene' in Chinese people's DNA and they won't accept the logic that might is right," Xi told a 60th anniversary tribute to the Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, a non-governmental organisation .

He also vowed that China would share more international responsibilities and obligations, take a more active role in solving contentious international issues and try to uphold justice.

Xi cited examples of the Chinese traders plying the silk trade routes more than 2,000 years ago to promote trade and culture and Zheng He, an early Ming dynasty eunuch turned diplomat who led peaceful expeditionary voyages as far afield as the Middle East and East Africa six centuries ago.

This is not the first time Xi has tried to articulate his vision for peace since he came to power nearly two years ago and he has largely stuck to the official script that China will not pursue hegemony and will insist on a peaceful path of development.

But the timing is significant as tensions run high over the territorial disputes with China's neighbours, including Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines .

Relations between Beijing and Washington have also soured. The US has accused Beijing of escalating tensions over the South China Sea, while Beijing has countered that the US has inflamed the situation with its military "pivot" to Asia, encouraging some of China's neighbours to use the policy as an excuse to provoke trouble.

While the chance of direct and large-scale military conflict is remote, unintended military clashes are very much possible .

In this context, Xi's calming words of reassurance are timely and should be welcomed. They will help ease international concerns and help rein in the rising nationalistic elements at home agitating for Beijing to take a tougher stance, and even military force if necessary.

As part of China's efforts to counter the theory that it is a threat, Xi's first public attempt to argue that the Chinese people lack a "gene for invasion" makes interesting reading.

As China has become the world's second-largest economy and will soon overtake the US, concerns about China's intentions are likely to increase .

History buffs cite examples of how Genghis Khan and his descendants built up the Yuan dynasty through the wholesale massacre of local populations and how the Qing dynasty extended control over Central Asia through brutal conquest. But what is often neglected is that the dynasties that were expanded in the most ruthless manner were ruled by ethnic minorities: Mongols in the Yuan dynasty and Manchus in the Qing dynasty.

It may sound simplistic, but history has indeed shown that when dynasties were ruled by Han Chinese they were known for trade and cultural expansion.

The Silk Road began and expanded under the Han dynasty, while Zheng He's voyages occurred in the Ming.

Sceptics may also point to border wars with India (1962) and Vietnam (1979). But both conflicts were short and the PLA quickly withdrew.