Word and deed must match in Xi Jinping’s Boao speech

April 8, 2013

(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily of Reuters)

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s maiden speech at the Boao forum is to be welcomed – but cautiously. The vision he has outlined of harmonious co-operation and co-existence among members of the global community has echoes of the 1954 Sino-Indian panchsheel (five principles of peaceful coexistence) agreement. History reminds us that the two Asian giants engaged in a brief border war in October 1962.

However, it must be noted that in its current form, the Xi vision is forward-looking, normative and unexceptionable and hence, to be carefully commended. The challenge for Beijing will be to match these words with appropriate deeds and actions.

The tenure of Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao was accompanied by the ‘peaceful rise’ formulation but this was not how some of Beijing’s principal interlocutors saw China’s actions. Towards the end of the Hu tenure, it would be fair to note that Beijing had generated more anxiety than admiration or adulation in the neighbourhood and this has become the dominant global perception. On sovereignty issues, it has been a case of the Chinese way – or the highway.

Even in Boao, President Xi cautioned that China’s sovereignty, security and territorial integrity will be upheld though Beijing will concurrently seek to “maintain good relations with its neighbours.”

In the context of the critical Asian triangle, both Japan and India have their own areas of discord and divergence with China, and here the Xi subtext is elliptically reassuring. He added that China will continue to “properly handle differences and frictions with relevant nations.”

The nuanced warning that “no one should be allowed to throw a region into chaos for selfish gains” will be variously interpreted by mandarins in Pyongyang and other capitals.

That China has the potential to be the economic driver for Asia is evident in the trade figures that were highlighted. Xi pointed out that over the next five years China’s imports will reach $10 trillion and outbound foreign direct investment will be in the range of $500 billion – fiscally salivating numbers.

Reviewing the past decade, Xi noted that China’s trade with Asia had surged to $3 trillion from $ 800 billion, while that with the rest of the world had moved to $4.8 trillion from $1.5 trillion. Given the rest of Asia’s economic catch-up potential and the demographic stasis of the developed world, Xi’s exhortation will be welcomed by smaller Asian economies.

The ultimate challenge to the Xi vision is how sincerely it will be implemented and the integrity with which China is willing to pursue the common good of the “global village”. Shunning power politics and distancing himself from “an arena where gladiators fight each other,” the Holy Grail outlined is that of “comprehensive, common and cooperative security.”

This is heady rhetoric and of great import to the world. The success or lack thereof of this initiative will have significant repercussions for the Chinese people, the extended Asian continent and the world at large.

The moot question is whether 10 years from now, Xi will be remembered for breaking out of the Hu mould or nurturing the status quo – the Boao speech notwithstanding.

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