Around South-east Asia, fear of China’s imperial might is growing

And President Xi has done nothing to dampen them

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If this is to be China’s century, what will it look like? President Xi Jinping’s first 18 months in office give us a pretty good idea of the way things may go.

His recent moves leave little doubt that his plans are extremely ambitious. To achieve them he is deploying personal power greater than anyone since Mao Xedong. And while his language is, as one expert puts it, “increasingly grandiose and even messianic”, his diplomatic touch is both subtle and sharp.

This week saw him on a state visit to Seoul. What he and President Park Geun-hye agreed matters less than the fact that, on his first presidential trip to the Korean peninsula, he touched down in Seoul, not Pyongyang.

In so doing he scored three diplomatic bull’s eyes. He infuriated troublesome ally Pyongyang, which showed its feelings with a flurry of rocket and missile launches, he tweaked America’s tail by buddying up to a vital US ally; and he fired a shot across the bows of Japan by reminding everyone how badly Koreans suffered during their 30-plus years under the boot of Japanese imperialism.

Japan is important to Xi Jinping as he steers China – its new Helmsman – towards global domination. Japan offers a sobering warning of how a rising Asian superpower should NOT go about it.

In its rush through South East Asia in 1942, after Pearl Harbour, Japan made a strong pitch about how it was liberating fellow Asians from the western imperialist yoke, bringing them together in a ‘co-prosperity sphere.’

The rhetoric thinly clad imperial Japan’s belief in its manifest Asian destiny, allied to racist contempt for ‘less developed’ Asians. This was little different from the arrogance and prejudice of the white imperialists they supplanted. And because the Japanese promised so much and behaved so badly, the shock of disgust and disillusionment has never fully worn off.

But how is rising China to avoid exciting similar loathing in the region?

Well, it can’t avoid it. The recent violent protests in Vietnam over Chinese manoeuvres in the South China Sea show that. Fear of China is a permanent factor throughout South-East Asia, and is likely to grow in lockstep with growing Chinese power.

President Xi has done nothing to dampen these fears. On the contrary, his assertion of Chinese rights over 90 per cent of the South China Sea – in flat contravention of the rights of the countries abutting it – is deliberately inflammatory. But it’s also quite different from Japan’s rampaging through the region during World War Two.

Japan was the imperial arriviste, the neophyte, aping the rapacious behaviour of the white man. China, like a once punctured but now repaired balloon, is merely swelling to the size and importance it enjoyed before the Opium Wars. Under Deng Xiaoping, China pursued a foreign policy summed up in the catchphrases “hiding one’s capabilities and biding one’s time” and “never claiming leadership.” Deng’s successors followed the same course. But Xi Jinping promises to be far bolder than that. Firmly in control – unlike his predecessors – of the army as well as the party, he says China is “a lion that has woken up.”

The claim refers to Napoleon’s description of China as a sleeping lion. But Xi was quick to bathe that aggressive image in a tranquil light: on a visit to France in March he said, “Today, the lion has woken up, and it is peaceful, pleasant and civilised.” China’s power, in other words, is inevitable, given its size. Get over it.

With his bold naval moves, his regional diplomacy, the huge gas deal he signed with President Putin, and his studied rejection of President Obama’s proposed “G2” summit with the US, President Xi is putting flesh on the bones of what he called, soon after becoming leader, “the China Dream.” As Steve Tsang, China analyst at Nottingham University, put it, “the China Dream is about requesting and requiring the outside world to pay due respect to China under Xi’s leadership.”

This in turn is about making the Chinese feel good about their country, about its size and importance. But if he also wants the Chinese to feel good about him, and about the party he heads, he knows that is not enough.

That’s why the domestic dimension of his leadership is as important as the foreign.

After 60 years of unchallenged power, it’s not surprising that corruption has infected the Chinese Communist Party root and branch. Many Chinese took Xi’s proclaimed intention to banish it, to do battle, as he put it, “with tigers and flies”, with a cynical shrug. How many hundreds of millions of dollars, after all, have Xi’s own relatives made, by fair means and foul?

Recent action against corrupt senior army officers Xu Guangyu and Gu Junshan, following the prosecution of managers of state businesses and the mining tycoon Zhou Yongkan (who was sentenced to death), show two things: one, that Xi has a wider and stronger power base than his predecessors, and does not hesitate to use it; and two, that he understands how resentful ordinary Chinese are at the spectacle of army officers and party apparachiks growing obscenely rich while their own lives remain hard and their standard of living modest.

Social disorder is China’s greatest bugbear – far more feared than rumblings of displeasure from Tokyo or Washington. Can the return of Chinese hegemony abroad coupled with the enforcement of ethics at home keep the peace? That’s Xi’s gamble.

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