Xi still needs Deng's way

Since taking power in late 2012, Chinese President Xi Jinping has surprised many with his strong powerbase and assertive diplomatic moves, in some ways pushing the boundaries set by the late Deng Xiaoping. Straits Times China Bureau Chief Kor Kian Beng examines the Xi brand of politics and diplomacy.

Capping a year of high-profile and at times provocative diplomatic moves that have stirred unease in Asia and beyond, Chinese President Xi Jinping recently described China as "a lion that has awakened".

That remark, which referenced Napoleon's description of China as a sleeping lion, has prompted many to wonder if Mr Xi intends to end late strongman Deng Xiaoping's foreign policy strategy of taoguang yanghui or "hiding one's capabilities and biding one's time". Some even think he has already done so.

Mr Xi's foreign policy moves have taken many by surprise, as most thought that he, like past Chinese supremos, would not move as forcefully on foreign policy but spend his first year mostly on domestic priorities, such as consolidating his powerbase, tackling corruption and keeping a lid on social dissatisfaction.

But Mr Xi did signal early on that he would be a different kind of leader.

In December 2012, a month after assuming power at the 18th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, he launched his "China Dream" political slogan, which is aimed at rousing nationalism over the rise of the Chinese people as a strong nation.

Since 2012, Chinese foreign policy and military diplomacy have arguably developed into its most pro-active - in some instances, assertive - since China opened up to the world in 1978.

One firm piece of proof is Mr Xi's "new model of major-power relationship" with the United States which seeks to avoid the conflict that some see as inevitable when an established superpower tries to curb a rising one.

He is deemed to have scored a coup when he got US President Barack Obama to publicly commit to the building of such a model at their landmark summit in California last June.

The past year has also seen Mr Xi mounting a diplomatic charm offensive on China's fronts.

Up north, he has visited Russia four times, seeking alliance with China's closest and most powerful neighbour; down south, he and Premier Li Keqiang visited Southeast Asia last October to quell concerns over Beijing's assertiveness in the South China Sea; and to the north-west, he has proposed a "Silk Road economic belt" with Central Asian states to cement China's influence there to counter that of the US and Russia.

On the military front, China has also scored several firsts under Mr Xi.

The military has staged unprecedented shows of force: its naval vessels sailed twice in the past year to the southernmost tip of China's nine-dashed-line claim to 90 per cent of the South China Sea, where troops swore publicly to protect its territories.

The most important piece of proof might be China's launch last November of the air defence identification zone in the East China Sea that covers the Japan-controlled Senkaku islands that China claims and refers to as Diaoyu. The area has seen ramped-up Chinese military efforts to stake Beijing's sovereignty claims.

Such events lead some analysts to conclude that Mr Xi has ditched Deng's strategy, developed in the late 1980s and early 1990s amid pressures from the West after the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown on student-led protests and worries in China over the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Said Nottingham University analyst Steve Tsang: "Xi has quietly put aside taoguang yanghui. Now he wants China to be more assertive without appearing aggressive. The China Dream is about requesting and requiring the outside world to pay due respect to China under Xi's leadership."

Professor Tsang believes Mr Xi's remarks that China is a sleeping lion that has awakened underscores the shift.

On March 28 during his visit to France, Mr Xi cited Napoleon's portrayal of China as a sleeping lion and said: "Today, the lion has woken up, and it is peaceful, pleasant and civilised."

Said Prof Tsang: "Xi knew what he was saying. China under Xi is meant to be an awakening cuddly lion, but it is first and foremost a lion, with all that it entails."

But others differ, citing how Mr Xi has repeatedly stressed China's commitment to peaceful development and never to seek global hegemony.

"Of course, now as China's power continues to grow, it is more willing to assume corresponding international responsibilities and in fact has been active in the provision of regional and international public goods," said Peking University analyst Wang Dong, citing China's participation in United Nations peacekeeping missions and counter-piracy efforts.

Similarly, analyst Yun Sun of the Stimson Centre, a foreign policy research institute in Washington, does not think Mr Xi has ended Deng's taoguang yanghui strategy.

However, "he wants China to be more assertive on issues that matter to China and command the respect from other countries that it deserves".

It is not easy to ascertain whether Mr Xi has discarded Deng's strategy because of how nuanced it is. Taoguang yanghui is just a part of a larger, 24-word principle that also includes elements such as juebu dangtou, which means "never claim leadership".

China Foreign Affairs University analyst Zhou Yongsheng said China's refusal to discuss a Group of 2 (G-2) world order with the US reflects its adherence to Deng's words and strategic thinking that doing so now might alienate the developing countries that have helped China's development and whose support remains crucial.

There are indeed benefits for China if it abides by most of Deng's exhortations before attaining true superpower status and the commensurate military might.

A premature display of true might could be counter-productive as it could disenchant allies and provoke rivals into action to thwart China's rise - a no-win outcome for all especially if conflicts ensue.

Meantime, it may not be a bad thing that China is more willing to face up to its responsibilities as a major power and punch according to its weight.

The world needs China to play a bigger, pro-active role on key issues, instead of shirking its global responsibilities behind the excuse of being too weak.

Treading a fine line between flaunting China's capabilities and taoguang yanghui is useful for now, until such a time when Mr Xi or his successors can afford to fully discard Deng's way.