A Strongman in China: Implications for Asian Regional Politics

At the end of the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) 19th Congress, Xi Jinping was elected to a second five-year term as General Secretary. As expected, he was able to pack China’s top ruling body, the Politburo Standing Committee of the CPC (PBSC) with his allies but contrary to expectations did not choose potential leaders-in-waiting from the so-called ‘sixth generation’ of China’s leaders (those born in the 1960s). The grooming of potential successors has been a Party norm since the demise of Mao Zedong, adopted to ensure that greater political stability and institutionalization within the CPC.

However, the record shows that Deng Xiaoping – who wrested power from Mao’s chosen successor – had to remove two of his own nominees before settling for Jiang Zemin. Even Hu Jintao was handpicked by Deng to succeed Jiang just as Xi’s selection as leader-in-waiting was not entirely in Hu’s hands. Similarly, Sun Zhengcai and Hu Chunhua, two of the sixth generation – widely expected to be brought into the 19th PBSC as Xi’s potential successors – had also been groomed over time by Xi’s predecessors.

Such plans soon fell by the wayside when Sun was accused of corruption and dismissed from the Party and the younger Hu and Chen Min’er, believed to be a Xi protégé who replaced Sun in the punters’ bets, not making it to the PBSC. With this departure from established norms and the fact that he was able to get his own ‘theoretical contribution’ of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era’ canonized in the Party constitution as ‘Xi Jinping Thought’, it is now widely speculated that Xi is setting himself up to remain in power beyond the normal second term as CPC General Secretary. Or at the very least, to remain a powerful force even if he does step down in 2022.

Impact on Chinese Foreign Policy

Meanwhile, Xi’s decisiveness in foreign policy in his first term suggests he will continue to move full steam ahead with his ambitions for China as a global player. He has practically abandoned Deng’s long-held injunction to ‘hide one’s capabilities and bide one’s time’ by his assertiveness on the South China Sea island disputes, the continued provocations of Japan over the Senkaku islands that China has reasserted its claims over, and the launch of his ambitious ‘belt and road’ initiative (BRI).

Alongside, of course, there have been run-ins with India, most notably in the case of the Chumur incident in Ladakh during Xi’s visit to India in September 2014, and the recent Doklam incident in Bhutan.

Equally importantly, Xi has managed to push through far-reaching restructuring and reforms in China’s military, including placing greater emphasis on joint operations by the different arms. While this is a work in progress and should take several years if not decades to come to fruition, Xi’s domestic power and credibility gained through his anti-corruption campaign will ensure that these reforms will proceed at the fastest clip possible. Xi’s nationalist concept of the ‘Chinese dream’ – of national self-strengthening and rejuvenation – helps lubricate the wheels further.

The Chinese leader’s call for the People’s Liberation Army to take on greater global responsibilities also helps push the Chinese military towards greater reforms and learning. China is already the largest contributor to UN peacekeeping troops among the permanent members of the Security Council and has run anti-piracy patrols in the Indian Ocean since 2009. Its opening of a ‘logistics base’ in Djibouti is the first of what one can logically conclude will be other military bases or facilities around Asia and elsewhere as China seeks to increase its global military presence.

Meanwhile, with respect to India, the peaceful resolution of Doklam should also indicate that Xi’s China – despite all the martial rhetoric – is a rational actor that is quite conscious of its disadvantages whether of military capabilities or of terrain. And if the Indian government continues to respond in the same cool, firm manner that it handled the Doklam incident, then it should do pretty well no matter what the Chinese provocation.

And provocation there will be – Doklam was a loss of face the Chinese will not forget and it is hardwired into their way of thinking and action to respond. And especially to a country like India that the Chinese leadership and elites think is weaker or has to be shown as being weaker, so that China is unequivocally seen as the logical, most eligible competitor to the US for its position as global superpower. The place and time will be of China’s choosing and nor will the response necessarily be a military one. It will be incumbent upon the Indian leadership then, to anticipate and plan accordingly.

Xi’s China is not inclined to sharing leadership or space with anyone else. Previous talk of a G2 condominium of the US and China is now well and truly out with China seeking to get the US out of Asia and challenge it elsewhere politically and economically. And under a Donald Trump presidency, which has still not filled key administration and diplomatic positions related to Asia over nine months after taking office, and ceded the ground on important global issues such as climate change, Xi’s task of putting pressure on US allies in Asia and influencing the fence-sitters around the world seems easier.

Unequal Strongmen

Alongside the reconfirmation of Xi’s power in China, came an equally importantly development in neighbouring Japan just a few days earlier. Shinzo Abe was reelected as Japanese Prime Minister for the third time since 2012, this time with a majority for his Liberal Democratic Party alongside a two-thirds supermajority for the ruling coalition. Counting Prime Minister Narendra Modi in India, it is worth noting that Asia’s most significant security actors are all led by strongmen. This cannot fail to have an impact on the region. In fact, it probably already does given the ramping up on nationalism as an instrument of state policy in at least China and India. And there is Abe’s drive for Japan to be a ‘normal country’, that can have a military capable of taking offensive actions like those of other countries but which is currently proscribed by its constitution.

Throw in Russia’s Vladimir Putin, the original strongman, Trump with his pretensions to being a strongman, and a couple of wily operators like North Korea’s Kim Jong-un or the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, with their capability to upend what might be seen as rational behaviour, and we have a potent mix in Asia.

Not all strongmen are made equally, though. Putin is the leader of a declining power forced by Western economic sanctions into an uneasy embrace with China, which the latter is taking full advantage of. Abe is actually deeply personally unpopular and his win is no indication that the Japanese wish to go down the military road he envisions; any attempts to change the country’s constitution will require a popular referendum, which he is likely to lose as of now. In the meantime, Abe will give China and North Korea plenty of ammunition to criticize Japan and use the excuse to increase their own military spending and provocations.

Trump is almost completely unpredictable and nor is this the rational unpredictability or cunning of North Korea’s Kim, but largely it would appear, of being generally ignorant of Asia’s dynamics and unwilling to learn. Duterte’s willingness to ignore an international tribunal ruling on the South China Sea dispute in favour of his own country and to do business with China instead, also threatens to undermine already fragile ASEAN unity and gives China still more space to engage in its divide-and-rule in the region.

Of the lot, therefore, India’s Modi with his own absolute majority in Parliament looks the most capable of standing up to China and taking a leading and dynamic role in Asian geopolitics. Except that he is not.

Modi has been quick to abandon the one lesson the Chinese have learnt well which is that you cannot rise as a power, if you do not dominate your own neighbourhood first, and not just militarily. While the Chinese now ignore the interests of their smaller neighbours, they were careful to first make the necessary political compromises – including with Japan – in order build strong economic linkages, which especially where the smaller countries are concerned, have turned into relationships of dependency on China. As a result, even Vietnam, China’s most vaunted foe in Southeast Asia, and in whom India lays much in store by, is severely constrained in its responses to China.

Modi, on the other hand, continues the policy of his predecessors of letting Pakistan be part of the sphere of influence of one or the other extra-regional power – either the US or China. He also has neighbours most of whom have China rather than India as their biggest trading partner. And while his government has been resolute in its opposition to China’s BRI, it has as of yet, no viable alternative to compete for the affections of its neighbours or countries further afield.

Meanwhile, if the Indian economy cannot be revived or domestic employment generated in the numbers needed to lift the masses out of poverty, Modi the strongman is unlikely to be an Asian leader except by virtue of geography.

A version of this article was published as Jabin T. Jacob, ‘Xi Jinping is Communist Party head for second term: Chinese president’s political rise deeply impacts his country and Asia’, Firstpost, 30 October 2017.


Published by Jabin T. Jacob

China analysis from an Indian perspective

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