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All eyes on how Xi would project strength after leadership congress, says PM Lee

Xi Jinping attends a press event at Beijing's Great Hall of the People. Photo: AP

Xi Jinping attends a press event at Beijing's Great Hall of the People. Photo: AP

WASHINGTON – Having consolidated power at the end of a critical leadership summit this week, all eyes are now on how Chinese President Xi Jinping would project his - and China's - strength going forward, visiting Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told an audience of academics and policy watchers on Wednesday (Oct 25).

Questions on Mr Xi and the recently concluded 19th Party Congress of China's ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) emerged during Mr Lee's dialogue session at the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank in Washington.

The Chinese leader introduced five new faces to the CCP's apex decision-making body on Wednesday but did not include a potential successor, a move likely signalling Mr Xi's intention to stay in power beyond a second five-year term.

"(Mr Xi's) own leadership position is pre-eminent. At the same time, I think there is a purpose to this, which is a signal that this is the start of a new phase for China, or what they call a new era," said Mr Lee.

He noted how the Chinese have said that under Mao Zedong, China "stood up", while the country became wealthy under Deng Xiaoping. Under Mr Xi's leadership, the Chinese say that they have become strong.

"What does strong mean? That's what everybody will be watching carefully," Mr Lee added.

Asked what he thought a "strong China" would mean, Mr Lee said Mr Xi had outlined this during his opening speech at the party congress, where he spoke on how the CCP must be fully in charge, sustain economic growth and take into account environmental considerations, among other areas.

The Prime Minister added: "So all ingredients are there which any normal great power would have to pay attention to. What we don't know is the balance, the tone, and the wisdom with which these elements will unfold. And we have to wait and see."

Further afield, there are also questions about how a younger generation of Chinese leaders would interpret and project their country's strength.

Chinese leaders who had grown up during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s knew hardship and turmoil, and therefore greatly treasure peace and stability, noted Mr Lee.

But subsequent generations who did not undergo similar turmoil might have a different mindset, he said, adding: "They will feel that now that I am strong, let me show the world what I can do.

"And I think that is a big question. If you ask the present generation, they will swear to you that the next generation will make their calculations and know that peace is important. I hope so."

In his brief opening remarks at the dialogue session, Mr Lee reiterated his call for Washington to be actively engaged in Asia so that it can play a role in managing several pressing security issues, such as the North Korean crisis, as well as the maritime and territorial disputes in the East China Sea and South China Sea.

And above all, there is an overriding need to find ways to accommodate an increasingly influential China into the regional and global system in a stable and constructive manner.

"Do you (the US) want to be engaged, do you want to participate more, do you want to deepen your economic relations or do you want to find some other balance, which really will leave the determination of affairs to other participants in the region?" he pointed out.

He added: "I think you cannot disengage yourself from the region. If you look at North Korea, (the issue) is not going to be easily solved. But it will certainly never be solved if you're not there and actively a participant."

No one in the Trump administration has talked about disengaging from the region, Mr Lee stressed, citing the meetings he has had with top officials this week.

"They're talking about engaging in a different way … there's a feeling in the administration somehow that America hasn't quite got as long an end of the stick as it ought to, and they would like to rebalance," he said.

Mr Lee added: "They know that America's fate depends on what happens in the rest of the world. I think they also know that America, because it has taken a very open and generous approach, has enabled a stability and prosperity in the world which others have benefited from, and so too has the United States."

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