Xi Jinping is Consolidating Power and Aiming for More Global Influence
China has adopted a more aggressive stance toward its detractors and critics that have singled out Beijing out for a variety of offenses. The criticisms levied against China include its execution of an influence campaign denying its culpability in the COVID pandemic, its push-back against charges that it wasn’t forthright about the virus, its coercion of the World Health Organization to support its narrative, closing the U.S. Chengdu consulate in a reciprocal tactic in protest of the U.S. shutting down China’s Houston consulate, and confronting India on a contentious border issue. Taken collectively, these incidents demonstrate China has adopted a more assertive position on the global stage than in previous years.
Perhaps more important is the fact that this new diplomatic posture is in direct contrast to China’s “Peaceful Rise” strategy that was initially launched under Hu Jintao. This campaign was China’s strategic course of action to prove to the global community that China’s emergence as a burgeoning power was based on being a responsible and helpful world player. However, the above cited incidents, coupled with severe domestic and regional initiatives including but not limited to Beijing’s National Security Law for Hong Kong and increased surveillance of its Uighur population in Xianjiang, and ongoing territorial squabbles with its neighbors in the South China Sea, stand in direct contrast to the “Peaceful Rise” concept and have introduced the world to a more confident and assertive China.
Xi Jinping has been an instrumental tool for this reshaping of China’s foreign policy, raising questions on how Xi perceives himself (and how China perceives Xi) in relation to China’s unapologetic ascension. Since assuming office, Xi has pushed China to “strive for achievement,” eschewing the need to maintain a low global profile. Indeed, Xi underscored this shift during the National People’s Congress in 2018 where he promised that China “would ride the mighty east wind of the new era.” The building of the military base in Africa and the enactment of its counter-terrorism law that gives it legal justification to send Chinese troops into operations without the need for United Nations approval demonstrate China’s departure from being concerned only with being a regional power.
Xi’s vision for China as a more assertive global player has roots with Hu Jintao who pushed military modernization and the predecessor to the Belt and Road Initiative, according to one foreign policy journal. Nonetheless, China’s current aggressiveness is occurring under Xi’s stewardship, raising the question whether Xi will try to remain in power until China has achieved its global aspirations. In 2018, the People’s Congress instituted constitutional changes to remove term limits of the president, effectively allowing incumbents to be in office “for life.” Although Xi has denied wanting to be president for life, two moves certainly suggest that Xi may be seeking to follow in Russian President Putin’s footsteps about staying in power: Xi did not present a possible successor during the October 2017 National Communist Party congress and the Party “enshrining” Xi’s name and political ideology in the Party’s constitution, something that was done for the party’s founder, Mao Zedong. There are other incidents that show Xi consolidating power as well, such as positioning allies in the Politburo and heading up the most important small leading groups and commissions. No doubt Xi’s stature will be reinforced in 2021 during the centenary of the founding of the Communist Party that celebrates its role in China’s development.
It remains to be seen if Xi will try to remain in power, or if he follows the steps of Putin where he steps down after his term only to return at a later time. Nevertheless, Xi has set the tone to be followed by his successors, carving his mark into Chinese socialism. Inclusion of “Xi Jinping thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” into the party constitution is clearly designed to be a lasting manifesto to be carried on even if he decides to follow his predecessors and willingly leave office once his tenure is completed. Shortly thereafter, several Chinese universities created research institutes dedicated to teaching his theories, suggesting that “aggressive” China may be here for the foreseeable future.
There may be positive developments on the horizon. In the past, for various political and economic reasons, governments have been tentative in allying themselves together against China on controversial issues. This has been especially evident in the ongoing 5G question, which had caused dissension among Western country ranks. Now it appears that several countries are not only becoming more publicly vocal about condemning China’s aggressive practices, but may also be coordinating their responses to strengthen their positions. The question of whether this tactic will have any tangible impact is nebulous, particularly if there is no consequence tied to the bluster. There must be something on the line for China to alter or at least temper its behavior.
China will no longer be reserved, embracing an assertive foreign policy in South China Sea disputes, technology matters, trade, and other initiatives involving China’s interests. While it may be too late to temper China’s “rise,” it is not too late to address a China that prefers to bully its position on the international stage. But this is going to require getting similar-minded governments to coordinate diplomatic and economic initiatives to counter China’s questionable activities. At a time when COVID-19 has severely impacted global economies, the window of opportunity may be open enough to apply such pressure. While Beijing may be able to endure U.S. economic sanctions, it will be much more difficult if its other substantial trade partners, particularly those involved in the Belt and Road Initiative, follow the U.S.’ lead. However, that would require those nations that rely on the economic relationship to lay down the law at temporary risk to their own economies, an unfavorable prospect particularly if China’s economy withstands the squeeze and regains its former status.