Opinion: The future is now for China’s challenges and Xi Jinping’s ambitions

China’s president has set out an era-shaping agenda along economic, security and institutional arcs, Michael Kovrig writes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 November, 2017, 11:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 November, 2017, 11:00am

Chinese President Xi Jinping is on a roll. In October, the Communist Party he dominates used its national congress to accord him even more authority for his second term, embedding his core position and “thought” in its constitution.

The party’s Politburo is now stacked with Xi loyalists, and two important players on foreign policy, State Councillor “Tiger” Yang Jiechi and party doctrine-shaper Wang Huning, have been elevated to support their leader’s ambitious global agenda.

This month Xi powered serenely through a series of high-level diplomatic meetings, including a summit parley with US President Donald Trump. Despite all the attention it attracted, the US chief executive’s “state visit plus” was more about pageantry, managing risks and deflecting potential problems. More indicative of Xi’s plans was his speech at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam, where he called for “profound change”, and visits to Vietnam and Laos on which he sought to warm and deepen relations.

Xi’s predecessors governed a relatively weak and inward-focused China. That shaped a policy of hiding strength and biding time, deferring thorny issues for future generations. For Xi, the future will come within the years in which he hopes to continue wielding power in some form.

Today’s China is an emerging great power, but it faces serious demographic, economic and environmental headwinds. That leaves a limited window of opportunity to realise Xi’s “Chinese dream” of national rejuvenation at home and “new era” of regional primacy and global influence.

These grand visions are often dismissed as abstractions, but they are better understood as calls to China’s massive bureaucracy to come up with concrete, incremental steps to realise them. When Xi speaks of a “community of shared future”, he is calling for a paradigm shift away from a balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region in which most countries look to the United States for security, and to China as the economic dynamo. With his predilection for control and centralisation, Xi wants to move the region towards an increasingly Sinocentric order.

Driving this is a foreign policy based largely on chequebook diplomacy rather than security guarantees, and on bilateral arrangements and mutual interests rather than formal alliances. The party calls this approach “major-country diplomacy”. It has three axes of power projection: economic, military and institutional, each of them interwoven with propaganda, public diplomacy and influence campaigns that can change to intimidation when necessary.

The economic framework is Xi’s signature “Belt and Road Initiative”. As a branding campaign that recasts China’s “going out” policy as a set of New Silk Roads, it seeks to leverage China’s comparative advantages in financing, construction and production to reshape international trade and investment patterns in ways that foster geopolitical and economic benefits for China. At its congress, the party embedded the belt and road in its constitution, signalling long-term, top-level political backing. That may increase completion rates for projects, but also makes correcting course trickier.

Backing up Xi’s agenda with hard power is his drive to modernise the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) into a world-class fighting force. In his first term, he focused on ensuring the PLA’s loyalty through tighter supervision, ideological control and a crackdown on corruption.

By empowering Xi Jinping so thoroughly at the 19th congress, the Communist Party has taken a political gamble in binding its own legitimacy to the realisation of Xi’s goals

The PLA also launched structural reforms that were reaffirmed in the party’s political report last month, and has promoted a wave of new officers to implement them. Through the party congress, Xi further centralised command under a leaner, seven-man Central Military Commission that he chairs.

Xi’s third pillar is a greater voice for China in the institutions of global governance, and with it more influence in shaping norms and conventions. Despite its suspicions of the Western-built international system, the party recognises that China has benefited greatly from it and now seeks reform and rebalancing. When stymied, Beijing has pushed alternatives in which it can play a leading role, notably the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, BRICS New Development Bank and regional trade pacts. But this is a diversification strategy, not a revolution.

China craves the respect, accommodation and soft power associated with providing global public goods. It also needs ways to protect its expanding network of overseas interests and citizens. The United Nations serves both ends, and Beijing is stepping up its engagement. China is already the largest troop contributor of any permanent Security Council member, with more than 2,600 personnel deployed across 10 missions. It is supporting new initiatives through a UN Peace and Development Fund, and in September registered an 8,000-strong standby peacekeeping force with the UN. China will nevertheless move cautiously when intervening in active or potential conflicts.

Along these economic, security and institutional arcs, Xi has set out an era-shaping agenda. By empowering the president so thoroughly at the national congress, the party has taken a political gamble in binding its own legitimacy to realising those priorities. To succeed, Xi needs to manage the urgent problem of North Korea’s nuclear programme, the looming threat of disputes with the US over trade and Pacific dominance, and the growing risk that China’s own ambitions could drive nervous neighbours into balancing coalitions that could constrain its rise. Between the complexity of these geostrategic challenges and Xi’s vaulting ambitions, the next few years are unlikely to be tranquil.

Michael Kovrig is senior adviser for North East Asia for International Crisis Group, the independent conflict-prevention organisation