Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

After Biding Its Time, China Steps Closer to World Center Stage

President Xi Jinping’s marathon speech Wednesday laid out a sweeping plan for China to a take a central place in the world. Now, lesser officials must square that with the Communist Party’s long-held caution against assertive diplomacy.

Asked at a briefing Thursday whether China was giving up on former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping’s call for “hiding brightness and biding time,” Foreign Minister Wang Yi suggested that he saw no conflict. Wang said Deng’s phrase was “still an important concept for Chinese diplomacy,” even if its meaning and implications had changed in under Xi.

Wang argued that China was taking on broader responsibilities as the world’s second-largest economy, citing Xi’s Belt and Road infrastructure initiative and arguing that China was providing a developmental path for others to follow. The government, he said, also had a responsibility for more than 30,000 Chinese businesses operating around the world and 120 million to 130 million Chinese people traveling overseas every year.

Xi’s speech to almost 2,300 delegates gathered for the ruling party’s twice-a-decade congress, outlined a more muscular foreign policy. China would become a global leader in innovation, influence and military might by 2050, Xi told delegates, adding that “the Chinese nation is standing tall and firm in the East of the world.”

Even before Xi’s speech, many believed that China had already moved beyond Deng’s dictum. Under Xi, China is modernizing its military and has asserted territorial claims in the South China Sea. In May, he pledged 540 billion yuan ($82 billion) and encouraged banks to contribute another 300 billion yuan in overseas capital to finance the Belt and Road Initiative he launched in 2013.

In a speech on Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson accused China of undermining the “international, rules-based order” and called it out for “provocative actions in the South China Sea.”

While pledging never to seek hegemony, Xi reminded the world that “no one should expect China to swallow anything that undermines its interests.”

— With assistance by Peter Martin

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