Two weeks after an international tribunal ruled China has no historical rights in the South China Sea, the Chinese Defense Ministry announced on Thursday it will hold military exercises in that very sea with Russia this September. Yet defense spokesman Yang Yujun claims the exercises are “routine.”
Here at last, we may see deeper into Beijing’s thinking than arguably ever before.
In a recent Sinica podcast, Mary Kay Magistad, a China correspondent for Public Radio International, said the Philippines, Thailand, and South Korea once welcomed the notion of China’s peaceful rise, which was first touted by Chinese leaders in 2003. But she noted it was only a few years later in 2010 when Yang Jiechi, the Chinese foreign minister, stormed out of an annual security forum of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and then came back into the room, threw accusations at the United States, insulted Vietnam, threatened Singapore, and said, “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.”
“Maybe it’s not the tributary system,” Magistad said, “but it is saying, ‘we’ve got more muscle than you do … and you’d better come along cause we have ways of making you come along.’”
Also featured in the podcast was Gady Epstein, former Beijing bureau chief for The Economist, who said China wants to “write the rules for Asia” and that “China feels it’s its right, at least the Communist Party does, to do so.”
It’s only natural as a nation gains more political and economic power that it will want to wield such power in order to safeguard and advance its own regional interests. And of course, as Magistad points out, there are those who believe China deserves even more and that it ought to be the world’s leading superpower.
Because so much power rests in the hands of President Xi Jinping, we have to try to understand what he wants in order to better understand where he’s trying to take his country and what its fate might be over the next decade. In the Financial Times this week, Tom Mitchell lays the matter flat.
“Widely seen as the country’s most powerful leader in 40 years,” he writes, “President Xi Jinping has strengthened his grip over all aspects of China from its politics to the military and civil society.”
He then references Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, adding, “One of the core aims of the crackdown has been to clear out the rot in the People’s Liberation Army, transforming it into a lean military capable of enforcing the country’s territorial claims.”
The anti-corruption campaign under Xi has been likened to a Stalinist political purge, notably by social commentator and blogger Murong Xuecun. If Mitchell is correct, this purge is the sharpening of a blade intended to defend the nation’s South China Sea claims. Or to put it another way, the purge isn’t as focusing on eliminating corruption as it is on militarizing its political body. Beijing could be preparing for war.
Cheng Li, director of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution, disputes criticisms of the anti-corruption movement.
“If there were ever any doubts that Xi could restore faith in a party that had lost trust among the Chinese public,” he argues, “many of those doubts have been dispelled by the steady drumbeat of dismissals of high-ranking officials since he took office in late 2012.”
Li adds, “The drums began to beat louder in 2013 with the successive convictions of former Politburo member Bo Xilai and former Minister of Railways Liu Zhijun and have continued to crescendo [… with the] expulsion of Zhou Yongkang, the former overseer of China’s vast security and law enforcement apparatus.”
Given the counterargument, it’s interesting that Li chose to liken Xi’s progress to what seems to be the beating of a war drum. Li admits that Xi has consolidated his power, but writes that arguments suggesting Xi “has dissuaded officials from making decisions” are “inaccurate and misleading” and “distract from the critical positive changes that the anti-corruption campaign and associated reforms can bring to Chinese society.”
Less corruption would undoubtedly be good for Chinese society, and it’s probably true that the campaign has done little to dissuade officials from making decisions. Or at least, it’s not necessary for the campaign to assume that responsibility because Xi is capably controlling officials already.
Probably the best insight we can have into the nature of Xi’s grand plan is how China will proceed in the coming months with regard to the South China Sea. As the country reaches out into the world, how it chooses to interact in the face of conflict, whether its position is justified or not, speaks volumes.