China's foreign policy more proactive under Xi: Expert

(From left) Dr Michael J. Green from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Singapore's Ambassador-at-Large Ong Keng Yong and Professor Jin Canrong, associate dean of Renmin University of China's School of International Studies, at the R
(From left) Dr Michael J. Green from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Singapore's Ambassador-at-Large Ong Keng Yong and Professor Jin Canrong, associate dean of Renmin University of China's School of International Studies, at the Regional Outlook Forum 2018 yesterday.ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID

Chinese leaders see China as a global power but some in US find bid to take the lead 'aggressive'

President Xi Jinping has changed the style of Chinese foreign policy from a stance that is reactive to a more proactive approach where China is not afraid to wield a stick.

Chinese expert Professor Jin Canrong shared this view at the ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute's Regional Outlook Forum 2018 yesterday.

Prof Jin noted that China used to "show a smiling face to everybody" and offer only carrots instead of sticks.

"It used to be that we kept a more reactive approach, waiting for our American friends to take the lead and initiate things, but now China's style has changed a little from being reactive to proactive," said Prof Jin, who is associate dean of Renmin University of China's School of International Studies.

This means that China would now be more active in global governance and "try to take the lead", he said during a panel discussion on United States-China relations and their implications for Asean.

"Unfortunately, our US friends find our new style assertive and even aggressive," he added.

He was responding to a question from Singapore's Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh, who asked how China's foreign policy has changed under Mr Xi.

Prof Jin said China's foreign policy used to have four areas of focus: dealing with big powers, its neighbours, developing countries and multilateral organisations.

But its focus has now shifted to these areas: the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), protecting China's overseas national interests, spreading its soft power and trying to "take the lead in global governance".

He said Chinese leaders now define China as a global power, not a regional power.

Under Mr Xi, who came to power in 2012, China has become more assertive, even aggressive, as it seeks to become a leader on the world stage, a marked departure from the late Deng Xiaoping's cardinal rule to the party to "hide your strength and bide your time".

Mr Xi launched the BRI in 2013, a massive infrastructure project aimed at connecting China by land and sea to South-east Asia, Pakistan and Central Asia, as well as Middle East, Europe and Africa. The plan, while aimed at boosting trade, is also widely viewed as an initiative to spread Chinese influence.

During the session, which was moderated by Singapore's Ambassador-at-Large Ong Keng Yong, Dr Michael J. Green from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies noted that China's "new model of great power relations" has both positive and negative aspects.

While the model tries to avoid confrontation with the US, it also defines the great powers as China, Russia, the US and the European Union, excluding countries such as Japan, South Korea and India.

"From the US perspective, that is a formula that weakens American influence and interests in the region," said Dr Green, who is senior vice-president for Asia and Japan chair at the Washington-based centre.

He added that the US wants India, Japan and other middle and major powers to also be influential in the region because it is confident that "these countries want an open regional architecture, and are going to guard against coercion by China".

"The US is more inclined to favour a kind of multi-polarity in Asia where India, Japan and others are standing forward to maintain a favourable strategic equilibrium," he said.

He also said that while the US has an interest in Asean centrality in the region, it has been given pause after what "Beijing was able to do to break Asean consensus" in 2016.

That year, the Permanent Court of Arbitration denied China's claims in the South China Sea - of which some Asean members have competing claims - but Asean leaders failed to issue a joint response to the ruling because Cambodia blocked any mention against Beijing.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 10, 2018, with the headline 'China's foreign policy more proactive under Xi: Expert'. Print Edition | Subscribe