Steel in Xi's message

Respect for China, not romantic notions of an Eastern bloc, must guide Indian diplomacy

Chinese leader Xi Jinping's first tour abroad as the president of the People's Republic should give the world a good measure of the personal style and worldview of a man who will be at the helm in Beijing for a whole decade. Few successors of Deng Xiaoping have begun their tenure at the top with the kind of power that Xi has accumulated at home. And no modern Chinese leader has had as much say in world affairs as Xi is bound to enjoy in the coming decade.

Xi has already broken a major taboo by deciding to travel with his wife, Peng Liyuan, a celebrated singer and star in her own right in China. In the Chinese communist political tradition, the wives of the top leaders were neither to be seen nor heard. If the wooden Hu Jintao could not go beyond communist jargon, Xi has already demonstrated carefully scripted political spontaneity in his public appearances at home. Unlike Hu, Xi is likely to be an engaging and energetic leader on the diplomatic stage.

If personal style makes Xi an attractive leader, there is no mistaking the steel in his political message. At home, Xi has emphasised the "renewal of the Chinese nation". Abroad, Xi is leaving no one in doubt that China will be uncompromising in the defence of its core national interests. Equally important is the message that China will no longer hide its capabilities and bide its time. China under Xi is ready to lead. It is not clear if China's interlocutors — both friends and foes — are prepared for this.

At the first stop on his tour, Moscow, Xi underlined the importance of Russia as the most valued great-power partner for China and touched on the familiar anti-Western themes — including the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of other nations — that have much resonance in Moscow these days. At the Durban summit this week, Xi will lead Russia, India, Brazil and South Africa in laying the foundations for non-Western financial institutions like the proposed BRICS Bank.

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