As Xi Jinping plays the long game, China will push to strengthen its national power.
In a three-hour speech at October’s Communist Party Congress, General Secretary Xi Jinping proclaimed China’s rightful return to the center of the world and promised to “make greater contributions for mankind.” He also put forth China’s governance model (socialism with Chinese characteristics) as “a brand-new choice for … countries … that wish to accelerate development and maintain their own independence.”
It remains to be seen whether Beijing will actively promote the China model abroad, but there is no doubt about Xi’s ambitious agenda. Xi projects that, by 2035, China will “become a country whose comprehensive national power and international influence will be at the forefront.” By mid-century, the People’s Liberation Army is expected to be one of the world’s top-ranked militaries. According to Xi, when these goals are met, “the Chinese nation will stand tall among the nations of the world with an even more high-spirited attitude.”
As with all things Chinese, Xi is playing the long game. China will continue to strengthen its “comprehensive national power” and cement its place on “the world’s center stage” through initiatives such as One Belt, One Road (OBOR), multilateral trade deals and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Under Xi, China’s foreign policy will remain calculated and highly choreographed. The name of Xi’s game is control.
Xi intends to use his new-found muscle to create favorable global conditions for China and to prevent the emergence of threats. Key to this approach is being able to recognize strategic opportunities when they arise and use them to China’s advantage — as evidenced in the Asia-Pacific, where China aims to create a zone of deference and restore China’s primacy. According to Singaporean diplomat Bilahari Kausikan, China “does not merely want consideration of its interests. China expects deference to its interests to be internalized by ASEAN members as a mode of thought.”
But, the main obstacle to China’s inculcating this Asian mindset is the United States.
Many in Asia see Washington actively shedding its international obligations month by month even as its long-term, passive decline continues. U.S. President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Paris climate agreement, his complaints about America’s trade deficits with Asian allies and his calls for Tokyo and Seoul to pay more of the costs of having U.S. military forces stationed in their respective countries reinforce these perceptions. Trump’s recent trip to the region was meant to reassure allies and partners, but his repudiation of multilateralism and “America First” finger-wagging reinforced the perception that America is an unreliable partner. China does all it can to underscore the point.
This wouldn’t matter so much if Trump had a coherent Asia policy. The president unveiled his administration’s vision — or is it just a slogan? — for the region while in Asia, calling for “a free and open Indo-Pacific,” which appears to be an effort to increase cooperation between the United States, Japan, Australia and India. It remains to be seen, however, how the “Indo-Pacific” formulation will be implemented and what exactly distinguishes it from Obama’s Rebalance strategy.
The absence of a blueprint for America’s role in Asia undermines U.S. leadership in the region and leaves a void China is happy to fill. As President Trump becomes more enraptured with North Korea and his own domestic challenges, Beijing continues to press its claims in the South China Sea.
The BBC reported in July that Vietnam terminated a gas-drilling expedition 250 miles off its southeast coast “following strong threats from China.” In August, a Philippine lawmaker released photos of Chinese vessels surrounding a disputed atoll in the Spratly island chain — presumably to block access. The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative confirmed the presence of nine Chinese fishing ships and two naval/law enforcement vessels near the Spratlys on the day in question. In September, the Washington Free Beacon reported a shift in China’s legal justification of its claims in the South China Sea from the “nine-dash line” narrative to “Four Shas.” According to the Beacon, a Chinese Foreign Ministry official told a group of State Department officials in a closed-door meeting that China is “asserting sovereignty” over four island groups, collectively known as the “Four Sha.” In English, these groupings are the Pratas Islands, Paracel Islands, Spratly Islands and the Macclesfield Bank area. Although writers at Lawfare argue that “China’s legal justification for the Four Shas is just as weak, if not weaker, than its Nine-Dash Line claim,” these moves illustrate Beijing’s laser-like focus in the region.
This does not mean, however, that China is merely opportunistic. China was systematically making deals and building roads, pipelines and ports in Asia long before President Trump arrived with his “America First” agenda. In a 2014 speech, Xi advocated for the creation of a “new regional security architecture” in the Asia-Pacific — one that specifically excludes the United States. Xi’s alternative vision for Asia rejects the historical American-centric alliance system in favor of an all-inclusive framework, sans bilateral alliances. In another attempt to marginalize the United States, Xi called for Asia’s problems to “be solved by Asian countries themselves.”
Xi envisions “Asia for Asians”, with China smack dab in the middle.