It is always good to get out in the world to gain a little perspective. I’ve spent the past week in Europe, and from London, to Stockholm to Davos, the message seems remarkably similar: as an economy, China rocks; as a global political player, not so much. While the Chinese Foreign Ministry has not acknowledged any missteps in its year of living dangerously — indeed Foreign Ministry officials are hewing very closely to the more assertive line that got them in trouble in the first place — the rest of the world is clearly a bit nonplussed.
For the Europeans, Chinese intentions and the uncertain political situation appear to be the source of greatest concern. To what extent does the party actually have control over the military? Are the young military officers more brash, potentially even rash, than the old guard? Can the top leadership effectively manage the growing chorus of disparate bureaucratic interests? Will this new leadership of Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang and others actually cohere?
More surprising for me here at Davos, has been the very direct pitch by the large — and very talented — Indonesian delegation that Indonesia (and India as well) is on an equally exciting development trajectory, and by the way, it has the great benefit of being a democracy. While several smaller Asian countries are clearly worried about China’s foreign policy direction, some of the larger ones appear to sense an opportunity from China’s apparent overreach.
My takeaway so far: China’s foreign policy message has clearly gotten off track. If China doesn’t feel it necessary to reassure the world of its peaceful intentions through words and deeds, it should know that there are other large Asian countries eager to seize the moment.