Looking back at Chinese official public statements, authoritative media reports, and government-sponsored think tank commentaries during the past year, it seems that China had a lot to be happy about. Beijing generally believes that it made substantial progress to expand and bolster its rising economic power, increasing military might, and growing regional (and international) role.
In part one of this two-part series, I look back at 2017 for hints of Chinese strategic intent, and more importantly, for possible glimpses to 2018 and beyond. In part two, I will assess strategic actions that Beijing will probably undertake in the next 12 months.
At the end of 2017, China felt content that it had significantly advanced its regional and global standing at the expense of its strategic rival the United States, and was more confident about carrying out its national ambitions in the coming years. At the year-end 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), President Xi Jinping emphatically reaffirmed a strategic roadmap for national rejuvenation (the Chinese Dream) and officially heralded a new era in Chinese national development.
Beijing seems determined to move forward from Mao Zedong’s revolutionary legacy and Deng Xiaoping’s iconic dictum (“observe calmly, secure our position, cope with affairs calmly, hide our capacities and bide our time, be good at maintaining a low profile, and never claim leadership”). Xi’s China is poised to expand its global power and influence through the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), expansive military build-up and modernization, assertive foreign policy, and forceful public diplomacy. As a universally acknowledged economic juggernaut and global force that can now manifest its own national destiny across the interlinked and contested global commons, China wants to be treated accordingly. In terms of great power relations, Beijing views itself as a rising power and Washington as a declining power – with both seen as being interlocked in a strategic competition for regional and global preeminence.
Net Assessment of U.S.-China Engagement
China started the year slow, but made up ground in the strategic competition by year’s end. Xi underperformed at the first Trump-Xi summit, held at Mar-a-Lago in the United States from April 6 to 7. For the most part, U.S. President Donald Trump came out of the summit stronger than Xi in terms of managing expectations and creating and shaping favorable visuals. Trump controlled the setting, atmospherics, and strategic narratives from start to finish due to what can essentially be boiled down to home advantage. Xi gained little and Trump gave little away during the summit. The summit itself did not yield any concrete accomplishments for China beyond pledges of increased cooperation, new frameworks for dialogue, and a state visit to Beijing by Trump later in the year.
The trend continued with the inaugural U.S.-China Diplomatic and Security Dialogue in Washington on June 21, which resulted in no joint U.S.-China readout, fact sheet, or outcomes document. Nor was there any significant progress made on the pressing issues of North Korea and the South China Sea.
China hosted the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing from May 14-15. The forum, more about atmospherics than substance,was largely a nod to China’s diplomatic influence ( or ‘soft power’) in getting the ambitious project accepted by as many countries as possible rather than a serious and substantive dialogue on the opportunities and challenges presented and faced by the Belt and Road. Geopolitical ramifications aside, the most important audience for the forum may have been the Chinese people. The forum showcased Xi as a global statesman with visionary ideas that will transform China and the world for the better.
On a related note, Premier Li Keqiang acquitted himself (and China) well at the China-European Union (EU) Summit in Brussels (Belgium) June 1-2. His message — “China and the EU are contributors and beneficiaries of world multi-polarization and process of economic globalization, and under the current situation, China and the EU should confront the instability of the international situation with a stable bilateral cooperation” — resonated with the EU constituencies at the summit. Overall, the summit reinforced the significant Chinese economic and political inroads into Europe as part of the BRI, advanced the growing strategic partnership between China and the EU, and reaffirmed mutual full commitment to the 2015 Paris Agreement – sending a strong message to the world one day after the United States decided to unilaterally pull out of the landmark climate deal.
China curiously sent a relatively low-ranking official to the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore from June 2 to 4. Beijing may have miscalculated in terms of public diplomacy. By downgrading its presence at the dialogue, China ceded the strategic narrative and initiative to the United States. Beijing yielded to Washington and its regional allies a public platform to stake out their strategic positions, counter Chinese strategic messaging, and call out China to become a more responsible global stakeholder that contributes positively to the international system. Beijing also canceled the Xiangshan Forum – an annual regional security conference organized and hosted by China and widely seen as a rival (counter) to the Shangri-La Dialogue – citing major leadership reshuffles ahead of the Party Congress, clashes with other events, and a desire to allay fears of Asian neighbors.
However, the United States and its regional allies received a disappointing outcome from the 24th Meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum in the Philippines on August 7. The joint communique of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting favored Beijing’s positions over those of Washington, Canberra, and Tokyo. The communique wording was far less forceful and China-specific than Vietnam and the United States and its allies preferred. Indeed, it was sufficiently ambiguous that Beijing and its supporters within ASEAN could tolerate and accept – another successful diplomatic obstruction on China’s part.
Toward the end of the year, Xi recovered from his poor showing at the first Trump-Xi Summit, and delivered a strong performance at the second summit in Beijing in November. Having consolidated his personal power at the 19th National Congress of the CCP, Xi was keen to affirm China as a world power respected by the other global powers and to demonstrate to the Chinese people that he was deserving of the power, authority, and honor bestowed upon him at the recently concluded Party Congress.
He succeeded on both counts. He staged a grandiose “state visit plus” to flatter and cajole Trump, while at the same time projecting an image of himself as a gracious host, strong leader, and global statesman. So much so that Trump did not publicly mentioned the disagreements on human rights, Taiwan, and the South China Sea, and oddly blamed the trade imbalance on his predecessors rather than on Chinese leaders, saying that he could not fault Beijing for taking advantage of the weak U.S. trade policy. Chinese media characterized the state visit as a major diplomatic victory for Xi, and framed the visit as “China’s emergence as the alternative pillar of prosperity and stability in the world’s most dynamic geopolitical theater… Trump embarked on his Asia trip to assert American centrality in global affairs, but left Beijing as a humbled leader of a declining superpower.”
Xi also struck the right geopolitical chord at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders Meeting in Da Nang (Vietnam) shortly after hosting Trump. His keynote speech promoted globalization, free trade, and multilateral organizations, and called for further cooperation and integration in the Asia-Pacific region – in sharp contrast to Trump’s keynote speech reaffirming “America’s First” policy and criticizing the general notion of multilateral and intergovernmental trade organizations. Xi reassured the APEC members that China will “stick to the path of peaceful development and promote the building of a new type of international relations based on mutual respect, fairness and justice, and win-win cooperation.” Whether or not China stands by its assurances, Xi’s remarks sounded more appealing to the region and the world.
In an own goal for the United States, Trump departed early from the East Asia Summit in Manila from November 13-14. Beijing took advantage by advancing and strengthening its bilateral ties with Manila, toning down discussion on the South China Sea (including announcing the start of negotiations on the details of the Code of Conduct in the SCS), and framing Trump’s absence as a retrenchment from Southeast Asia.
In a sign of potential trouble ahead, however, Washington passed the National Defense Authorization Act for FY18 on December 12, and released the new U.S. National Security Strategy six days later. Both documents explicitly and implicitly acknowledge that the strategic environment vis-a-vis China is competitive in nature (pointing to great power rivalry), and posture the United States plan to act on accordingly to “protect the homeland, promote American prosperity, preserve peace through strength, and advance American influence” – in other words, sustain U.S. global preeminence to maintain the American way of life. Needless to say, Beijing was not happy with the language of either documents.
This review of 2017 sets the conditions for possible glimpses into the near future, and more importantly, an assessment of strategic actions that Beijing will probably undertake in 2018 — coming in part two.
Tuan Pham has extensive experience in the Indo-Pacific, and is widely published in national security affairs and international relations. The views expressed therein are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Government.