In the 172 years of its existence, the Straits Times has meticulously chronicled the rise of nation states, the ascent to power of men and women who have made and marred the fortunes of their countries, conflicts and entente, and the great and small trends that shape societies.
Drawing on that rich heritage, our editors, since 2012, have announced every December their choice of the Straits Times’ Asian of the Year. The criterion is simple: Individuals, people or institutions who have had a profound impact on their society, nation or region. While a single person is the norm, there have been instances of more than one awardee. Last year, it went to a cluster of Asian tech entrepreneurs called The Disruptors.
This year, the winner should have been evident to all except those who did not pick up a newspaper, switch on television and radio, or have a social media account. No one has put his stamp on his nation and the wider Asian region in so pronounced a manner as has President Xi Jinping of China.
China has had dominant leaders before; Chairman Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping come to mind instantly. Xi not only towers over his nation in the manner of his forbears, but he also looms large on the horizons of the Asian continent. Indeed, he has parlayed China’s economic clout and influence into global power, influencing events in places as distant from his shores as Brazil and Zimbabwe. In January, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, he made a ringing call for keeping faith with globalisation, days after new US President Donald Trump pulled his nation out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. Yet, it cannot escape mention that Europe and the US demand that the World Trade Organisation deny China market economy status, citing its unfair trade practices. Xi has leaned on the Philippines and South Korea with economic sanctions when their actions displeased him. His assertiveness in the South China Sea, which China claims almost in its entirety, and along the border with India, has left sections of Asia unsettled.
This is the part of the ST Asian of the Year award citation that Xi would do well to heed. Just as in 2013, when Xi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe were declared joint winners in the hope that this might prompt them to work together to improve bilateral ties, the hope today is that Xi, as he chases his China Dream, will do so in a manner that takes the region along and in a manner it is comfortable with. A reassuring signal would be China’s early assent to a legally binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. Generosity, especially in the matter of tied aid, in Belt and Road Initiative projects would be another article of good faith. It would be a matter for celebration were Xi to turn his vision into an encompassing Asian Dream.