“[We] do not need to chase [after other countries] – we are the road,” declared Chinese President Xi Jinping during a fateful visit to the southern island of Hainan in 2018. Speaking before the country’s most accomplished engineers and scientists, he appealed to their patriotic drive for the “great rejuvenation” of the Chinese nation. Never lacking ambition, the Chinese strongman nodded through a surreal, futuristic effort to build an Atlantis-style submarine centre deep in the waters of the South China Sea. The billion-dollar project is expected to be the first artificial intelligence-operated colony on earth. Just over a year later, Xi formally inaugurated the country’s first domestically built aircraft carrier, Shandong, on the same island, Hainan. It marked another huge step in Beijing’s attempts to reassume its place of pride in the global technological hierarchy. Despite its considerable strides in military technology, however, China faces a tough and challenging path ahead. Perturbed by an ascendant Beijing, the Donald Trump administration and like-minded powers in the region are mobilising a concerted pushback against what they see as Chinese revanchism at the expense of peace and stability in Asia’s maritime heartland. The formal commissioning of Shandong meant a lot to the Chinese leader. Accompanied by his close political aide, vice-premier Liu He, Xi celebrated his country’s ability to produce its own aircraft carrier. China is expected to build as many as six carriers in coming decades, with a third larger, upgraded version reportedly under construction in the Jiangnan shipyard outside Shanghai. The next generation of Chinese-built carriers are likely to have a flat deck with a catapult launch system for more advanced and heavy fighter jets. Without a doubt, it was a tough year, if not an annus horribilis, for the Chinese leader. One on hand, he has had to deal with widespread backlash against China’s Belt and Road Initiative, most especially in Malaysia. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who pulled off a stunning political comeback by tapping into fears of so-called “debt trap” under China, has openly warned against “new colonialism” and called for a renegotiation of big-ticket Chinese infrastructure projects. “We borrow huge sums of money … If you cannot pay your debt, you find yourself subservient to the lender … you are endangering your own freedom,” Mahathir told me earlier this year. In response to the gathering storm of criticisms, China not only renegotiated the terms of major projects in Malaysia, but it also signalled a new approach to its global economic initiatives. During the second belt and road summit in Beijing earlier this year, Xi promised a more transparent and inclusive version of the project, which addresses concerns over “debt sustainability” and ecological impact of Chinese overseas projects. Soon after, however, Beijing confronted widespread protests in Hong Kong. Meanwhile, pro-independence elements in Taiwan, including President Tsai Ing-wen, have seized upon the Hong Kong protests to discredit Beijing-friendly rivals ahead of the upcoming elections in January. The greatest challenge to China’s regional diplomacy, however, are the festering disputes in the South China Sea. In June, blossoming relations with Manila were almost torpedoed following a violent collision between a suspected Chinese paramilitary vessel and a Philippine fishing boat in the contested Reed Bank. This was followed by a months-long naval showdown between China and Vietnam over the energy-rich Vanguard Bank, which prompted Hanoi to threaten international arbitration against its northern neighbour. South China Sea: Vietnam hopes Beijing ‘will show restraint’ in 2020 Of even greater concern is China’s intensifying naval showdown with the United States, with both superpowers deploying an ever-larger number of advanced warships to the contested areas of the South China Sea. Against the backdrop of a bitter trade war, not to mention Washington’s open support for anti-Beijing elements in Taiwan and Hong Kong, diplomatic tensions could easily spill over into aggressive naval jostling in the high seas with potentially devastating consequences. Next year, China will likely confront a more determined pushback by Vietnam, the incoming chairman of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and the Trump administration, which is intent on looking tough on Beijing ahead of a contentious presidential elections. If anything, the past year has seen the emergence of a de facto US-Vietnam alliance against China, as the two former nemeses nudge other regional states to adopt a tougher stance against Beijing, whether on the South China Sea disputes or the Belt and Road Initiative and Chinese technological investments. Vietnam has already upped the ante by threatening China with international arbitration, while rapidly expanding defence ties with Beijing’s rivals, including Western Europe. Meanwhile, almost regardless of who wins next year’s American elections, there is an emerging bipartisan consensus against China in Washington, portending long-term tensions between the two superpowers on a wide range of issues. Far from caving in, however, the strong-willed Xi is expected to forge ahead, albeit in a more measured and conciliatory mode. For him, China doesn’t have to chase after other nations, nor does it have to succumb to external pressure. And in the South China Sea, where the greatest danger of confrontation lies, Beijing will negotiate from a position of strength against determined rivals. Richard Heydarian is an Asia-based scholar.