ST Asian of the Year 2017: China President Xi Jinping, the new global leader

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The Straits Times editors have given the Asian of the Year 2017 award to President Xi Jinping of China for being a key source of stability at a time of global uncertainty.
Chinese President Xi Jinping in the East Hall of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Oct 25, 2017. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

BEIJING - US President Donald Trump may have hogged world headlines this year, but it is Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has won new respect for displaying the global statesmanship that the world needs.

Mr Xi, 64, who has just been awarded The Straits Times' Asian of the Year award, started 2017 with a bang. He spoke in support of free trade and globalisation at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos that had many in the international audience cheering.

He told the world China would not boost its trade competitiveness by devaluing its currency, as then US President-elect Donald Trump had accused it of doing during his campaign, and vowed to open up his country's markets further.

Coming as the United States signalled a turn inwards with Mr Trump's America First policy, the words of the leader of the world's second-largest economy and its key engine of growth were heartening.

"There is a vacuum when it comes to global economic leadership, and Xi Jinping is clearly aiming to fill it. With some success," wrote former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt on Twitter.

WEF founder and chairman Klaus Schwab said in introducing Mr Xi: "In a world marked by great uncertainty and volatility, the world is looking to China."

Mr Xi did not disappoint at the WEF, or did he at the United Nations in Geneva which he visited the following day. He promised to honour China's commitment to the Paris agreement on climate change even as Mr Trump threatened to pull out of the accord.

More than that, he made a global statesman-like call for the building of a "community of shared future for mankind".

"All countries should jointly shape the future of the world, write international rules, manage global affairs and ensure that development outcomes are shared by all," he said.

Later in April, Mr Xi sought to stabilise the most important bilateral relationship in the world, that between his country and the US, by paying a visit to Mr Trump in Mar-a-Lago, Florida.

The new US President had been threatening to start a trade war with China that could hurt not just their countries' economies but also the rest of the world because of the intertwined nature of global trade.

Mr Xi struck up a friendly relationship with Mr Trump that continued with their subsequent meetings including last month in Beijing, where the Chinese pulled out the stops in feting the US leader on his state visit.

The personal bonhomie between the two leaders has helped to give some stability to a complex relationship where wide differences exist - including over the North Korea nuclear crisis - alongside common interests.

Back home, Mr Xi was consolidating power that culminated in his political thought being written into the ruling Chinese Communist Party's Constitution in October at the party's five-yearly national congress. He also had his allies promoted to the Politburo and its Standing Committee (PSC), the apex decision-making body of the party.

Many see him to be more powerful than his two predecessors, Mr Jiang Zemin and Mr Hu Jintao.

Yet, five years ago when Mr Xi came to power, there was little sign he would come this far so quickly, at home and on the world stage.

He was a compromise choice of two political factions, had no political base of his own and no say in the appointments to the two powerful political bodies, the Politburo and the PSC.

He displayed strength and decisiveness, however, in the speed with which he went about consolidating power. He set up high-level steering committees that guide policies to get round the power-sharing in the party's collective leadership.

He started a far-reaching anti-corruption drive to rid himself of rivals and also clean up endemic corruption in the party to boost its image.

He implemented military reforms that modernised the People's Liberation Army and made it better prepared to meet China's new challenges but also put him directly in command of it.

Most of all, he knew early on what he wanted to do with the power he was planning to amass.

Shortly after he took over the reins of the party in 2012, he spoke at the National Museum about the "China dream" and "the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation".

He saw making China great again as his mission.

He articulated this again in his work report to the party congress in October, saying the goal was to make China a modern socialist country by 2050.

This meant, among other things, eradicating poverty, cleaning up the environment and moving towards the centre of the world stage.

Mr Xi is popular with the Chinese for the anti-graft campaign and the material improvement in their lives.

There are, however, trade-offs in the push to modernise China - tighter media control and crackdowns on dissent that observers hope will be eased as goals are achieved.

Internationally, in 2013, Mr Xi proposed the idea of reviving the ancient land and sea trade routes that involved building infrastructure such as roads, railways and ports along these routes through Asia that will link China to Africa and Europe.

The objectives of what has come to be known as the Belt and Road Initiative are manifold, including exporting Chinese industrial overcapacity and increasing Chinese influence in the economies along the routes even as it helps develop these economies.

Regionally, Mr Xi's more muscular foreign policy has been greeted with some wariness even as countries welcome the positive impact of China's economic growth.

China's island-building in the disputed South China Sea and the militarisation of these islands have caused concern over its intentions, especially after it rejected an international tribunal's ruling last year against its claims in the waters. Its recent reiteration of its willingness to negotiate a Code of Conduct to manage disputes in the waters was therefore welcomed.

Despite such occasional disquiet, China seems more a force for good than otherwise under Mr Xi.

An example is the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank that provides funding for the region's infrastructure projects.

Beijing dismayed the world when it stood with the Myanmar government as the world condemned its harsh treatment of the Muslim minority Rohingya, about 600,000 of whom have fled to Bangladesh.

But last month, it came up with a three-step approach to resolve the crisis that led to an agreement between Myanmar and Bangladesh to allow the Rohingya to return home.

Mr Xi's China is of a different political system and a different set of values from the current Western-led world and this has led to concerns about confrontation as it seeks to provide global leadership.

Still, Mr Xi has tried to bring some stability to a world fraught with uncertainty, and shown a willingness to allow a new international order more to China's liking to evolve rather than disrupt the current one.

As he puts it, China seeks in its foreign policy the goal of "preserving world peace and promoting common development".

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