Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang rise to global challenges

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 May, 2015, 12:22am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 May, 2015, 12:22am

President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang are fast becoming China's best-travelled leaders. Every other month, one or the other is on an overseas trip, attending meetings, signing deals or promoting the nation. Foreign policy has shifted markedly, a deliberate move by the leadership to be more assertive and take a bigger role in regional and international affairs. This requires careful balancing, but with the aims having been made clear, there is every reason to welcome the change.

Geopolitics and economics have driven the new approach. The world was a different place when Deng Xiaoping's foreign policy dictum of keeping a low profile and biding time was observed. China's two decades of double-digit growth have ended, replaced by a sluggish economy with sharp declines in exports and investment. That, coupled with the global economic crisis and weak recovery, a US pivot towards Asia, nationalism in Japan, security threats and a perceived decline in American influence, prompted a reassessment.

Xi's response was the need to expand beyond the previous "great power diplomacy", which had focused on ties with the US, Russia and Europe. The most visible evidence is his 10 foreign trips to 38 countries since taking the presidency in March 2013. Li has been similarly busy; even before the president had returned from his latest trip, to Kazakhstan, Russia and Belarus, Beijing announced the premier would go to Brazil, Colombia, Peru and Chile from May 18 to 26. The destinations are chosen with an eye on cooperation and opportunities, a two-way strategy focused on exporting surplus capacity and labour while facilitating imports of raw materials and food. Investment and building infrastructure are key parts.

The "one belt, one road" initiative is the result, the overland and maritime silk roads being China's main foreign policy strategy. With the US pivot under way, Beijing wants to build regional influence and make its borders more secure. Plans like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, alternatives to West-dominated institutions, aim to turn dreams into reality.

With China's development and growing economic might have come expectations for it to take a bigger share in tackling global challenges. It has been doing that, fighting pirates on busy shipping routes and joining peace-keeping missions. But some governments worry about assertiveness, especially in the East and South China seas. The increased number of overseas trips by top leaders and dialogue should ease those concerns.