Rise of Xi and the Asian dream

By Ameen Izzadeen
China’s President Xi Jinping is now a virtual leader for life after the Communist Party on Sunday removed the presidential term limits from the constitution. Xi is undoubtedly the most powerful world leader today.
What does Sunday’s landmark event mean to the people of China and the rest of the world? Though the move is certainly not in tune with democratic principles, to the ordinary Chinese people, who do not have much yearning for western-style democracy, Sunday’s historic change could mean development at double speed.
First, it must be made clear that Xi becoming president for life is, by no means, China endorsing dictatorship. Xi cannot be compared with a dictator like Saddam Hussein, who was a law unto himself. In China, the Communist Party regulates politics and Xi will have to abide by party rules and the constitution.
The ultimate aim of politicians is to grab power. But freedom from fear and hunger is the people’s ultimate expectation from politicians. For the people, it does not matter whether a politician given to democratic ideals or an undemocratic ruler fulfils their expectations. The bottom line is, as poet Alexander Pope said, ‘For forms of government, let fools contest, whatever is administered best is best.’
In rich countries such as Switzerland and Singapore, party politics does not play a significant role in people’s lives. People in these countries do not worry about their next meal. Neither do they live in fear, for they see the supremacy of the rule of law in practice. In China, a country known for the rule of law, what people expect is freedom from poverty. China, through its controlled economic liberalization policies, has enabled hundreds of millions of people to free themselves from the poverty trap over the past ten years. Some 20 percent of China’s 1.4 billion people – that is a staggering 280 million people –are in the US$ 40,000+ a year (more than Rs. 6.2 million a year or Rs. 512,000 a month) income bracket. The only other country which has so many people in the US$ 40,000+ income bracket is the United States.
Experts believe if China’s economy grows at a healthy rate of 5-7 percent, 40 percent of China’s population will enter the US$ 40,000+ income bracket in the next 15 years. The achievement could come much faster if the economy grows at more than 7 percent a year. This is what President Xi is targeting – to make China great again by freeing its people from the poverty trap. There are some 2,200 dollar billionaires in the world – of them 568 are in China. The US comes a close second with 518 billionaires. Xi wants to make more and more Chinese people rich and he has a great vision for it.
He believes his giga project — the One-Belt-One-Road Initiative also known as the Belt-and-Road Initiative (BRI) – will catapult China into the sphere of prosperity.
It is with this multitrillion-dollar BRI that China is trying to create a new world economic order. Yes, it is inevitable that the new order will be China-centric, though, through regional cooperation, it could be made Asia-centric.
In October last year, President Xi got his name engraved in the Constitution, thus becoming the third leader to do so after Mao Zedong, the founder of the Communist State in 1949, and Deng Xiaoping, who introduced the socialist market economy.
Addressing the October sessions of the People’s Congress, Xi spelt out his ‘Thoughts on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’. He outlined specific policies on the BRI, the modernisation of society and the armed forces; and target dates for establishing China’s position in the world. He said the policies were aimed at making China a top innovative nation by 2035 and a nation with global influence by 2050. This Sunday, Xi took a giant stride towards making these goals a reality.
Now that Xi has become a life-long feature in world politics, the rest of the world needs to treat him and his pet BRI project with the seriousness they deserve.
There is much at stake for smaller countries which try to balance their China relations with equally strong relations with the United States, Japan and India – countries which view China’s global ambitions with suspicion. Sri Lanka’s foreign ministry should assess the emerging Xi-led world economic order and take measures to benefit from it. A point to keep in mind: China will step up its assertive diplomacy.
Xi’s BRI project is a boon for Asia. Asian powerhouses such as Japan and India should view China as an opportunity rather than a rival. Together they can chart the course for world peace through greater economic relations.
India, especially, need not get dragged into moves to counter China’s growing global influence. In recent months, India together with the US, Japan and Australia – the so-called Quad — has been mulling over the possibilities of launching a counter BRI. India is building Iran’s Chabahar port as a joint venture and a corridor linking the southern Iranian port with Afghanistan’s iron rich Hajigak area. In addition, India has also invested in a road network connecting India with Myanmar and Thailand in moves seen as countering China’s BRI. Now the Quad plans to revive the former US President Barack Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The Donald Trump administration which withdrew from the TPP is now having second thoughts about it. Obama vowed he would not allow China to dictate the terms of the world economy when he launched the TPP as part of his ‘Pivot to Asia’ strategy to contain China.
Officials from the Quad countries have clarified that this plan was not a “rival” but an “alternative” to the BRI. The project is being given an Indo-Pacific characteristic, highlighting India’s pivotal role.
Although China has extended a cautious welcome to the alternative BRI, the countermove by the Quad has the undercurrents of a growing cold war and will add to world tension. Already Russian President Vladimir Putin – who will also, like Xi, remain president for long years to come – has fired warning shots at the West, boasting about Russia’s one-upmanship in smart weapons. Moreover, Britain’s dispute with Russia over the nerve gas attack on a former Russian double agent and his daughter is also threatening world peace.
China and India were the best of friends before the two countries went to war in 1962 over a border dispute. It was India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru who brought Communist China to the world stage. Nehru, who invited China’s Premier Zhou Enlai to the 1955 Afro-Asian conference in Bandung, was a true Asian. Together they worked out the Panchaseela principles for co-existence. Even before India got independence, Nehru dreamt of Asian unity and in March 1947, he convened the Asian Relations Conference in New Delhi.
But sadly, the right wing Narendra Modi Government has abandoned this Asian dream and is seen to be delighted over the fact that the US is relying on it in its power rivalry with China.
But this policy in the long term will not serve India. This is because China under President Xi is likely to prevail. India needs to revive Nehru’s Asian dream. If India needs to check China’s dominance, then it, together with Japan and Australia, should join China’s BRI project as equal partners. Asia’s economic powerhouses together need to shape the world economic and political order. That’s the way forward for Asia.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

About ameenizzadeen

journalist and global justice activist
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