The Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Dr. Chin-Hao Huang – author of “Power and Restraint in China’s Rise” and associate professor of political science at Yale-NUS College and NUS Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy – is the 388th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”
Identify the key elements of China’s statecraft under Xi Jinping.
Domestic stability remains a fundamental priority in China’s statecraft. The regime continues to be guided by the overarching tenet that maintaining a stable external environment is essential for much-needed structural reforms, domestic growth, and development, all of which would help China attain the status of a fully developed nation within the next three decades. The socioeconomic goals, when achieved, would strengthen China’s comprehensive national power, wealth, and influence in the region and the world, placing it on a level playing field vis-à-vis other industrialized economies.
Throughout this process, Chinese leaders will continue to staunchly defend a traditional understanding of state sovereignty that justifies Beijing’s absolute authority over China’s expansive territory, strengthens regime legitimacy, and deflects foreign encroachment in its core sovereignty interests. China’s approach toward safeguarding sovereignty and its general reluctance toward foreign intervention stem in large part from historical lessons. Most importantly, Chinese history has judged the survival of its leadership by its ability to exercise control and maintain order and stability over a large land mass.
This challenging and complex terrain includes the world’s longest land border, extending over 22,000 kilometers, and an expansive frontier that borders 14 states, as well as a diverse population made up of nearly 60 ethnic groups. As such, quelling domestic unrest and deflecting external influences remain at the forefront of the Chinese leadership’s thinking about safeguarding territorial integrity and maintaining order and stability, which are key priorities that date from the imperial dynastic times to the contemporary era. Similarly, when Chinese leaders look beyond their borders, these strong, traditional views on sovereignty, territorial integrity, and non-interference continue to be reflected in its foreign policy when it comes to foreign interventions in global affairs.
All in all, the emphasis on maintaining a peaceful external environment hints at China’s fundamental interest to ensure a stable U.S.-China relationship as well. This does not mean, however, that China will not take steps to delimit and respond to what it deems as excessive influence from the United States in the region. In fact, Beijing has been unrelenting in exerting its influence through varying degrees of charm offensive in its regional foreign policy to test the resolve of the United States as the region’s security guarantor. On occasions, China has succeeded in exercising its increasing material power capabilities. Other times, its actions reflect conflicted policies at odds with regional concerns and interests of sovereignty, independence, and stability – all of which suggest that the actual implementation of Chinese strategic vision remains a work in progress and is reactive to exogenous shocks and developments in a rapidly changing international security environment.
What do the sudden disappearances of Li Shangfu, China’s defense minister, and Qin Gang, former foreign minister, signal about China’s political elite, CCP leadership, and more broadly, Chinese governance?
With centralized authority under Xi Jinping, all eyes are on him in his third term. His full command of power means there is a greater scrutiny by supporters and critics alike, especially those within the different factions of the CCP. Any corruption or politically embarrassing scandals would need to be dealt with swiftly to avoid tarnishing Xi’s reputation and ensure his leadership and the party’s overall legitimacy.
Apart from rooting out corruption in the party, examine deeper divergences within the CCP senior ranks that could be underpinning policy decision-making.
The decision-making process within the Politburo remains a collective effort. While Xi has hand-picked most if not all of the Politburo members, there are still factions and forces within the party that he needs to reckon with, balance, and manage, hence the continued shuffling of political leaders within the state, party, and military apparatuses. As more power centralizes under his grip, we can also assume that equal and opposite forces could be brewing in the party at its core and at the local levels.
Analyze the viability of China’s governance model and global leadership as an alternative to shore up support from Global South countries.
Chinese officials believe that its growing material power capabilities will in due course persuade others that there is more to gain from working and aligning with Chinese interests than from deterring and challenging them. This comes with the added benefits of preventing the formation of a containment coalition against China on its periphery.
As has been seen by the response of countries to such new endeavors as the BRI, RCEP, and AIIB, countries in Asia are actively joining and participating in these China-led initiatives. Key allies of the United States such as the Philippines and Thailand have all agreed to partake in one or more of these signature initiatives, as have Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam, among others.
Many countries in Southeast Asia base their economic decision on the recognition that there is an estimated infrastructure financing gap of nearly $8 trillion in the region over the next decade, and that participating in these regional economic priorities would provide a significant opportunity for expanded trade, the digital economy, commodities and minerals, agriculture, and services in the region. For most countries in Asia, searching for alternative or complementary institutional means and relations by which to deal with their economic and security situations is not new, and is not a function of China’s rise, per se. Rather, the region has always engaged in what some observers call “complicity and resistance” vis-à-vis large powers external to the region.
China has gradually emerged as a regional great power, and it has been eager to offer policy alternatives in its peripheral diplomacy. In contrast to previous Chinese leaders who emphasized common ground with the United States and long avoided serious problems with Washington, Xi has sought to demonstrate more visibly China’s resolve to carve out its own sphere of influence regionally and globally, albeit in an incremental manner, to test the reactions of the United States. Some of these activities, as seen in the region, are occurring at the expense of the interests of the United States in the regional order. Such a policy pursuit, in Beijing’s calculations, would deter neighbors in the region from pursuing policies that run counter to Chinese interests, with the larger and longer-term goal of constraining the influence of the United States in Asia.
Explain how the U.S., EU, and Indo-Pacific allies and partners should interpret China’s senior leadership shifts and assess implications for Chinese statecraft.
Where there is opacity in China’s decision-making process and governance structure, it is easy for external observers to speculate; it is much more difficult, however, to discern actual intentions. As such, to understand the broader implications of these recent shifts in China’s senior leadership, it would be useful for the U.S., EU, and Indo-Pacific partners to increase and intensify dialogue and exchanges with Chinese counterparts at all levels – official, local, civil society, think tanks, universities – rather than closing down channels of communication. Only by continued engagement, no matter how difficult and laborious the process may be, would observers be able to determine whether rule by fiat is etched into Xi’s regime or he might be persuaded to moderate his policies in his third term.