A highlight of China’s biggest political meeting of the year – this month’s “Two Sessions” – will almost certainly be the slew of constitutional amendments proposed by the Communist Party to the country’s legislature, the National People’s Congress.
Among these, the one that by far has gained the most overseas attention is the plan to scrap the two-term limit on the presidency.
To the unseasoned observer, this might appear little beyond an organisational change in China’s domestic politics but it will have profound ramifications for the region and beyond.
Under the prevailing political climate in China, scrapping presidential term limits implies an enduring tenure for President Xi Jinping, who otherwise would have had to stand down in five years’ time. Likewise, the move almost certainly entails extensions for the foreign and economic policies China has adopted under Xi.
That brings reason for cautious optimism regarding the usually tense situation surrounding North Korea. For when dealing with the most protracted issue – Pyongyang’s repeated attempts at developing nuclear weapons – China has under Xi demonstrated flexibility in its foreign policy by taking concrete actions to enforce some of the UN Security Council resolutions sanctioning the Kim regime.
That is a nuanced departure from previous Chinese administrations, who saw upholding the traditionally close bonds between the two communist nations as almost sacrosanct.
A continuation of Xi’s tenure means this working in concert with the mainstream of the international community to deal with a recalcitrant North Korea is likely to continue, despite a temporary thaw in relations brought on by North Korea’s involvement in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics – a thaw which has yet to stand the test of time.
There’s reason for similar optimism in South Korea, where China has for the past two years strongly objected to the deployment of the American anti-missile system known as THAAD on the grounds it compromised its own strategic defence capabilities. As with North Korea, Beijing has been similarly pragmatic in reaching a somewhat compromised agreement with Seoul to reset dampened bilateral relations.
In Japan, the current diplomatic stalemate is likely to continue as long as the two countries’ leaders remain in office. Shinzo Abe is bent on “normalising” Japan’s status as a country, which includes efforts to remove pacifist constraints on its military. Fuelled in part by constant reminders of Japanese atrocities during the second world war, Xi is also building a strong military as part of his “Chinese dream”.
Even so, the economic interactions between the two major global trading nations are too close for bilateral relations to worsen, irrespective of the leadership in either country.
China has always considered Taiwan a renegade province to be eventually reunified with the mainland, by force if necessary, and its policies towards the island – even from long before Xi – have always been quite consistent in their reactive changes. These have mostly involved tackling changes in the Taiwanese leadership (and the island’s consequent ideological stances) with a combination of carrots and sticks.
Under an extended Xi tenure, reunification by means of widespread use of force would remain a remote possibility in any scenario other than a unilateral declaration of independence by Taipei.
Indeed, during that time the independence-leaning administration of Tsai Ing-wen and the Democratic Progressive Party could feasibly lose power to the mainland friendly KMT.
Five more years of Xi (or possibly even more) would mean Southeast Asia would have to get used to China’s more proactive presence in the region. For most countries in the region, this could be a positive scenario. On the one hand, it would mean China’s much avowed “Belt and Road Initiative” with its promised massive infrastructure and business investments in neighbouring countries should continue unabated as a much needed economic stimulant. Many Southeast Asian countries, which have traditionally depended on export-oriented manufacturing as an economic mainstay, would expect Xi to continue to champion free trade in a world in the grip of mounting protectionist sentiment – not least that emitted by US President Donald Trump.
On the other hand, the various South China Sea claimant countries in the region would also have to adjust to China’s assertive territorial claims, which are unlikely to abate. This is especially so given Trump is widely seen in the region as being half-hearted at best in terms of mounting the freedom-of-navigation exercises favoured by previous administrations – and decidedly non-commital in terms of regional military cooperation.
As the consensual decision-making process of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), the region’s pre-eminent grouping of nations, makes it almost impossible to forge a united stance on issues relating to the South China Sea, it can only be hoped that somewhat practical frameworks such as the Code of Conduct can indeed be concluded and adhered to.
Further ashore, while Australia’s relations with China remain rocky at times, they are unlikely to worsen under a continued Xi tenure as trade in commodities is vital to the national interests of both countries.
And India’s periodic skirmishes with China are unlikely to escalate into full-scale war regardless of the make-up of either country’s leadership, mainly because both are nuclear armed powers and any such conflict would be too horrific for either side to contemplate.
Given President Xi looks here to stay for some time yet, the region needs to come to terms with a more assertive presence by China.
Even so, when it comes to future relations with Beijing, that doesn’t mean trade, development and the economy cannot take centre stage. ■
Oh Ei Sun is a senior adviser for Malaysia’s Asian Strategy & Leadership Institute (ASLI) think tank