News analysis

Room for give and take on China's road to modernisation

Leaders aware of neighbours' concerns over its rise and aim to optimise common interests

When a group of Asian editors met China's leaders on Tuesday, they got right down to business.

No, they did not discuss the state of China's economy or prospects for its reforms. Nor did they dwell on China's internal reforms or crackdown on corruption.

Rather, the focus was squarely on how an increasingly affluent and geopolitically assertive China would relate to the world, especially with neighbours in North-east and South-east Asia.

A senior Thai editor got things rolling. Acknowledging the economic progress that the country has made in recent decades, he noted that China was emerging as a regional power or even a superpower.

"Would China be a good big brother or bad big brother to other countries in the region?" he asked China's Premier Li Keqiang.

His Indonesian counterpart wondered if China's plans to develop Asian connectivity and collaborations through its much-promoted One Belt, One Road initiative was not at odds with its ongoing, and troubling, maritime build-up.

Others raised questions about whether China would step up cooperation with Asean and add some impetus to the long-stalled efforts to draw up a Code of Conduct for dealing with territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

And understandably, some of China's leaders might chafe at being put on the defensive by those sceptical of its intentions, and how it might wield its growing power.

Yet, the willingness to engage on the subject, and the equanimity which Mr Li and Mr Jin displayed in fielding the questions that came thick and fast from the editors, was reassuring.

Would China, which has benefited so much from peace and stability in the region, not take the lead in helping to resolve the age-old disputes, so that Asia might continue to grow economically?

The delegation of 30 editors from 21 Asian media outlets was gathered in the ornate Great Hall of the People for an hour-long session with the premier. We were in Beijing for the two-day annual board meeting of the Asia News Network, a partnership of 21 leading, mostly English-language, news groups with a combined readership of at least 14 million.

Patiently, and with considerable aplomb, Mr Li fielded the questions, which he no doubt had answered many times before. At times, his answers sounded a tad well-rehearsed.

No, he insisted, China is not a superpower, and has no desire to be one or behave like one. It is still a developing country, and its focus is on tackling the many development challenges it still faces, he added.

"China has a long way to go to realise modernisation. It needs a stable regional and peaceful international environment, and China is committed to safeguarding that environment," he said.

Having experienced oppression and subjugation in the past, China would never wish to impose this on other countries, but would treat them as they wished to be treated, he said, citing the universal "golden rule".

There was therefore no question of China acting like a big brother, or even a bully, or seeking to take the lead in regional affairs. China would treat all countries, big and small, equally and fairly, with mutual respect, and seek to build collaborative relations that would promote peace and security in the region, he continued, in familiar vein.

Just as a person might accidentally bite his lips, it is only natural that neighbours will have differences, the premier emphasised, but the key is to address such disparities in a calm, diplomatic way.

"I firmly believe that our era is one that needs peace and cooperation," he said. "The common interests among China and its neighbours are way greater than disparities, and we can always optimise the common interests and better manage our differences."

Earlier on Tuesday, a similar theme had dominated discussions when the editors met Mr Jin Liqun, president of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

After hearing Mr Jin expound on the growing number of countries lining up to join the bank, which could have nearly 100 members by year-end, a Thai editor interjected to ask pointedly if the bank president was not concerned that he was launching "a new product which started off with bad branding".

Mr Jin, who has held senior positions in the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, was unflappable. He insisted that those who had been sceptical initially would be won over when they realised that the bank he leads is not aimed at displacing any other multilateral development banks, but rather, is working well with them.

The AIIB would be professionally and transparently run, and its focus would be on development projects to uplift communities in Asia. This includes developing physical infrastructure, but the bank would also consider non-physical infrastructure projects, such as helping cities to become "smarter" through better urban planning.

When projects are launched around Asia to bring electricity or clean water to slums, or improve living conditions there, it would be plain that the beneficiaries of the bank would be Asians all around the region, not just China, he said.

Borrowing a line from English author Jane Austen, who had written that "selfishness should always be forgiven, because there is no hope of a cure", he noted that this thinking might apply to sceptics about China and its intentions.

"You cannot talk people into believing, no matter how nice the words you have. Just forget about (convincing sceptics); just do your job," he declared.

The scepticism, however, is not confined to editors who, like all good journalists, are instinctively and rightly sceptical over just about everything.

And understandably, some of China's leaders might chafe at being put on the defensive by those sceptical of its intentions, and how it might wield its growing power.

Yet, the willingness to engage on the subject, and the equanimity which Mr Li and Mr Jin displayed in fielding the questions that came thick and fast from the editors, was reassuring.

Hopefully, the message was conveyed both ways: clearly, China's neighbours are concerned about its growing might and muscularity. Equally, to be fair, China's leaders appear aware of this and seem to recognise that being too pushy might not be the best way to drive its much-desired development forward.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 02, 2016, with the headline 'Room for give and take on China's road to modernisation'. Print Edition | Subscribe