One of the perennial complaints made during the Hu Jintao years was that China’s top leader seemed unwilling, or incapable, of explaining China’s vision for its future to the outside world. Phrases used internationally to convey China’s intentions (like “peaceful rise”) only made matters worse with their robotic, somewhat ominous abstractness. Ironically, the most lyrical Hu ever became was when lauding China’s close links with North Korea – not a subject on which he found many people outside the Politburo agreeing with him.
Xi Jinping has become many things in the last few years: party secretary, president, and chair of a number of important bodies. But an inspection of his newly published collection of articles and speeches, The Governance of China, suggests that one title he would deserve (if such a post existed) is “China’s flatterer in chief.”
In the last two years, as his comments in The Governance of China testify, Xi has plastered the world with intoxicating kind words. No one can go wrong if they quote Leibniz in Berlin and Chernyshevsky in Moscow. “Love knows no borders,” Xi said in Russia. Beaming at the people occupying the vast country to China’s north, Xi praised their “splendid culture” and “time honored history.”
The soft words come thick and fast. “China and Central Asian countries are close and friendly neighbors,” Xi said in Kazakhstan in 2013. Africa is “a continent of hope and promise” that China “cherishes dearly” (Tanzania, March 2013). Latin America is a “vibrant and promising continent” (Mexico, June 2013). “Arab friends always feel like old friends to me” (addressing the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum in June 2014). China and the ASEAN countries are “close neighbors sharing kinship” (Indonesia, October 2013).
All of these relationships, according to Xi, will be directed according to a vision of a “common destiny.” China’s role in this is to “enhance political trust” and “uphold justice” by opposing “the practice of the big bullying the small, the strong lording it over the weak, and the rich oppressing the poor.”
This is heady stuff. It would be churlish, however, to complain about Xi’s words when for so long the outside world has been nagging Chinese leaders to say more. Nor can Xi be accused of de-linking China’s prosperity from its benevolent ties to the resources and economic benefits of the outside world. He clearly states, on a number of occasions, that China’s energy and resource needs are its key priorities and foreign countries are crucial to that. What’s wrong with self interest if it also helps others?
If the era of more expressive, explicit articulation of Chinese foreign policy by its key leader is upon us, while lapping up the flattery and kind words, the outside world might also ponder the benefits of taking China mostly at its word. If China seeks a global rule where justice is preserved and respect delivered, then there is probably a strategic opportunity for players like the U.S. and the EU. With China’s economy so dependent on Africa, the Middle East, and other developing partners — and with Xi lauding his deep feelings for these places — perhaps it would be opportune to push onto China’s plate some of the onerous responsibility for managing the complex, often worrying geopolitical instabilities of these regions.
The Middle East in particular might be a place to start. Xi could be invited to take a much deeper role in coming up with sustainable solutions to this perplexing region, particularly as it is clear that after the disastrous Blair-Bush era, most ideas originating in the West have proved either bankrupt or actively harmful.
In many ways, getting Xi’s China deeper into Middle East diplomacy is a no-brainer for the West. If China manages to come up with a magic formula that somehow solves some of the problems there, one of the worst headaches in the world disappears. And if it gets sucked into Middle East turmoil, then China (which, as Xi notes, many other countries still view as a threat) will be as incapacitated and distracted as Obama has been. To borrow a phrase from Chinese diplomats, this is indeed a “win-win” for the U.S. and its allies. The only thing perhaps stopping this scenario from playing out is the persistence of the West in pursuing a messianic mission — taking the world’s troubles on its plate and, despite all evidence of its incapacity, trying to solve them.