The Straits Times says

When doubts rise, tweak foreign policy

Chinese President Xi Jinping is visiting Europe in rather different circumstances than his foray into the continent two years ago. Then, at the Davos forum, his stout defence of globalisation and free trade received fulsome praise even if there were sceptics who noted that China's opening up under Mr Xi was slowing down. There was hope then that in the face of American isolationism under the new United States President Donald Trump, China would lead the world in pushing the globalisation agenda. The world, particularly the West, has since felt let down. There has been pushback and criticism against China's muscular foreign policy, unfair trade practices and tightening of social control at home.

This year, what made the Davos headlines was US billionaire investor George Soros' attack on Mr Xi, calling him "the most dangerous enemy of open societies", presiding as he does over a China that is the wealthiest, strongest and technologically most advanced authoritarian regime. This month, ahead of Mr Xi's trip, the European Commission put out a 10-point proposal - described as "hawkish" by some observers - on managing ties with China. It called China, for the first time, a "systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance" and an economic competitor, and recommended actions for a more balanced and reciprocal economic relationship. These include reforming the World Trade Organisation to deal with subsidies and forced technology transfers - two practices deemed unfair and which China has been accused of carrying out. This action plan is being debated at a European summit as Mr Xi swings through Italy, Monaco and France to allay anxieties and to drum up support for his Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that aims to link Asia, Europe and Africa. The European Union's new realism comes amid growing concerns about China's BRI and foreign investments - seen as debt-trap diplomacy - its growing prowess in technology, economic clout, and influence-seeking activities. Even in Asia, which has benefited hugely from China's rise, there has been pushback against the BRI with the cancellation or scaling down of projects in such countries as Malaysia and Myanmar.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 23, 2019, with the headline 'When doubts rise, tweak foreign policy'. Subscribe