Pouring new wine into old wineskins

BEIJING • A replica of an ancient ceremonial wine container featuring dragon- shaped decorations and seven doves of peace was China's choice of gift to the United Nations for its 70th anniversary this week.

The Zun of Peace is an apt symbol of China's attempt at pouring new wine into old wineskins - by injecting new ideas into the world order - as set out in President Xi Jinping's maiden address to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).

Depicting China as a champion for developing states, a responsible global power and a lover of peace, Mr Xi has also signalled the end of China's foreign policy adage of "taoguang yanghui" - hiding one's capabilities and biding one's time - espoused by late strongman Deng Xiaoping and leaders who followed.

Mr Xi's speech was significant in that it differed from those of his two predecessors. It was longer and included pledges of China's commitment in specific areas: peaceful development, global development and to uphold the world order underpinned by the UN Charter. His UNGA speech can also be seen as an exposition of his vision of China's ambitions, and its ability, to play a bigger role in the Asia-Pacific, which he had outlined in two previous key speeches.

In May last year, he unveiled a new "Asian security concept" that calls for Asian security to be left to Asians and portrays China as the region's economic driver and policeman with no need for Western states to get involved.

At the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit in Beijing last November, he rallied the group towards an "Asia-Pacific dream" - a mirror of his "China Dream" slogan of a rejuvenated Chinese nation - and depicted China as a growth engine for the region with 40 per cent of the world's population and almost half its trade.

President Xi Jinping of China making his maiden address to the United Nations General Assembly in New York last week. His speech included pledges of China's commitment in specific areas: peaceful development, global development and to uphold the world order underpinned by the UN Charter. - PHOTO: REUTERS

In his UNGA speech, Mr Xi again underscored China's economic prowess as he welcomed others to "board China's express train of development so that all of us will achieve common development".

Mr Xi also unveiled more initiatives than other key world leaders, ranging from climate change, global development and developmental aid. They include a 10-year, US$1 billion (S$1.42 billion) China-UN peace and development fund and an 8,000 standby force for the new UN Peacekeeping Capability Readiness System. The move would see a marked spike in China's current peacekeeping strength of 3,079 troops, the ninth- highest among UN members and largest among the five UN Security Council permanent members.

University of Pennsylvania international relations expert Avery Goldstein told The Straits Times that Mr Xi's pledges suggest a recognition "that a wealthier and more powerful China must begin to meet international expectations that it will shoulder more of a burden and play a more constructive role in addressing pressing global problems".

Sydney-based analyst Kerry Brown said Mr Xi's pledges were partly aimed at showing that "China is not just a freeloader, but is willing to be a stakeholder". "This is a relatively unproblematic way of doing this, and at least creates a positive image for China now."

But China's pledges may also be self-serving to advance its soft power and economic interests. Mr Xi's pledge of support for the current world order could be aimed at raising the influence of developing countries, especially China, at the UN, and curbing the US' interference in the developing world. Giving money to developing states may also be aimed at opening doors for Chinese investments.

Still, China, pleased with the reaction to Mr Xi's UN performance, has hailed it as the start of a new chapter in its diplomacy and an adequate response to criticism of Beijing as an international freeloader.

A commentary by state Xinhua news agency on Thursday wrote: "With growing financial pledges to address global challenges, China has turned from being a participant to a leader in global affairs."

But there are also detractors both within and outside the country.

Mr Xi's pledges to the UN agency for women were met with derision by former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who has supported a campaign to release 20 women activists globally including five in China. She wrote on Twitter: "Xi hosting a meeting on women's rights at the UN while persecuting feminists? Shameless..."

Mr Xi also faced domestic resistance over his pledge to help the poorest countries. State media published rebuttals against criticisms why the funds were not used at home, where 200 million people live below the poverty line.

But analysts mostly welcome China's bid to play a bigger global role though they point out what it could do to quell criticisms.

Singapore-based analyst Li Mingjiang said critics in China should understand its domestic problems, such as poverty, will have to be resolved through effective domestic policies. "Reducing China's international responsibilities will not have much impact on the alleviation of those domestic problems and challenges," he said.

International relations professor David Arase of Nanjing University notes that China is trying to contribute to development of the Global South and to make global governance more inclusive.

"But it is doing so very selectively, in ways that are in fact exclusive in order to promote its own interests," he added, citing how China favours a more inclusive UN Security Council but wants to exclude major powers it dislikes, like Japan.

Professor Brown of the University of Sydney said Mr Xi needs to be consistent by showing the Chinese people that China taking a more active role is in its interests and "by supporting similar initiatives internationally in the future".

Overall, there should be more cheers than jeers at China's efforts in stepping up to the plate.

New ideas from China could spur competition and lead to improvement. The world is a poorer place if China, given its growing clout, continues to do little, as many global issues require its involvement.

Supporting China in doing more in the existing world order could also prevent it from setting up its own architecture, possibly the West's worst fear after China set up the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, seen as a counter to the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and the Japan-led Asian Development Bank.

But China should also know that to gain respect and support as a global power, it must be seen not only to be acting responsibly on these pledges. It should also be seen to be acting fairly and responsibly on other fronts such as its handling of maritime disputes in the South China Sea and East China Sea, and its treatment of its citizens fighting for causes within legal boundaries.

Like it or not, China has poured new wine into the old wineskins. It will take effort from all sides to ensure China's new ideas and its bigger global role would make for a pleasant experience and not burst the old wineskins.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 03, 2015, with the headline 'Pouring new wine into old wineskins'. Print Edition | Subscribe