The Future is Now for China’s Challenges and Xi Jinping’s Ambitions
The Future is Now for China’s Challenges and Xi Jinping’s Ambitions
To Intervene or Not? China’s Foreign Policy Experiment in South Sudan Raises Questions
To Intervene or Not? China’s Foreign Policy Experiment in South Sudan Raises Questions
Op-Ed / Asia

The Future is Now for China’s Challenges and Xi Jinping’s Ambitions

China’s president has set out an era-shaping agenda along economic, security and institutional arcs.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is on a roll. In October, the Communist Party he dominates used its national congress to accord him even more authority for his second term, embedding his core position and “thought” in its constitution.

The party’s Politburo is now stacked with Xi loyalists, and two important players on foreign policy, State Councillor “Tiger” Yang Jiechi and party doctrine-shaper Wang Huning, have been elevated to support their leader’s ambitious global agenda.

This month Xi powered serenely through a series of high-level diplomatic meetings, including a summit parley with US President Donald Trump. Despite all the attention it attracted, the US chief executive’s “state visit plus” was more about pageantry, managing risks and deflecting potential problems. More indicative of Xi’s plans was his speech at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam, where he called for “profound change”, and visits to Vietnam and Laos on which he sought to warm and deepen relations.

Xi’s predecessors governed a relatively weak and inward-focused China. That shaped a policy of hiding strength and biding time, deferring thorny issues for future generations. For Xi, the future will come within the years in which he hopes to continue wielding power in some form.

Today’s China is an emerging great power, but it faces serious demographic, economic and environmental headwinds. That leaves a limited window of opportunity to realise Xi’s “Chinese dream” of national rejuvenation at home and “new era” of regional primacy and global influence.

These grand visions are often dismissed as abstractions, but they are better understood as calls to China’s massive bureaucracy to come up with concrete, incremental steps to realise them. When Xi speaks of a “community of shared future”, he is calling for a paradigm shift away from a balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region in which most countries look to the United States for security, and to China as the economic dynamo. With his predilection for control and centralisation, Xi wants to move the region towards an increasingly Sinocentric order.

Today’s China is an emerging great power, but it faces serious demographic, economic, and environmental headwinds.

Driving this is a foreign policy based largely on chequebook diplomacy rather than security guarantees, and on bilateral arrangements and mutual interests rather than formal alliances. The party calls this approach “major-country diplomacy”. It has three axes of power projection: economic, military and institutional, each of them interwoven with propaganda, public diplomacy and influence campaigns that can change to intimidation when necessary.

The economic framework is Xi’s signature “Belt and Road Initiative”. As a branding campaign that recasts China’s “going out” policy as a set of New Silk Roads, it seeks to leverage China’s comparative advantages in financing, construction and production to reshape international trade and investment patterns in ways that foster geopolitical and economic benefits for China. At its congress, the party embedded the belt and road in its constitution, signalling long-term, top-level political backing. That may increase completion rates for projects, but also makes correcting course trickier.

Backing up Xi’s agenda with hard power is his drive to modernise the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) into a world-class fighting force. In his first term, he focused on ensuring the PLA’s loyalty through tighter supervision, ideological control and a crackdown on corruption.

The PLA also launched structural reforms that were reaffirmed in the party’s political report last month, and has promoted a wave of new officers to implement them. Through the party congress, Xi further centralised command under a leaner, seven-man Central Military Commission that he chairs.

With his predilection for control and centralization, Xi wants to move the region toward an increasingly Sinocentric order.

Xi’s third pillar is a greater voice for China in the institutions of global governance, and with it more influence in shaping norms and conventions. Despite its suspicions of the Western-built international system, the party recognises that China has benefited greatly from it and now seeks reform and rebalancing. When stymied, Beijing has pushed alternatives in which it can play a leading role, notably the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, BRICS New Development Bank and regional trade pacts. But this is a diversification strategy, not a revolution.

China craves the respect, accommodation and soft power associated with providing global public goods. It also needs ways to protect its expanding network of overseas interests and citizens. The United Nations serves both ends, and Beijing is stepping up its engagement. China is already the largest troop contributor of any permanent Security Council member, with more than 2,600 personnel deployed across 10 missions. It is supporting new initiatives through a UN Peace and Development Fund, and in September registered an 8,000-strong standby peacekeeping force with the UN. China will nevertheless move cautiously when intervening in active or potential conflicts.

Along these economic, security and institutional arcs, Xi has set out an era-shaping agenda. By empowering the president so thoroughly at the national congress, the party has taken a political gamble in binding its own legitimacy to realising those priorities. To succeed, Xi needs to manage the urgent problem of North Korea’s nuclear programme, the looming threat of disputes with the US over trade and Pacific dominance, and the growing risk that China’s own ambitions could drive nervous neighbours into balancing coalitions that could constrain its rise. Between the complexity of these geostrategic challenges and Xi’s vaulting ambitions, the next few years are unlikely to be tranquil.

Op-Ed / Africa

To Intervene or Not? China’s Foreign Policy Experiment in South Sudan Raises Questions

China’s growing involvement in South Sudan’s civil war differs from its past approach to non-interference, though there is debate on the long-term implications as its role in African, and global, security affairs expands.

China’s announcement of plans to vastly expand its first-ever overseas military base in Djibouti follows a dramatic display in July, when two Chinese navy vessels steamed across the Indian Ocean towards the dock. On both counts, Asia’s pre-eminent power declared in no uncertain terms that it will sit on the sidelines no longer. China’s growing naval capacity is being put to use in its deepening involvement in the Horn of Africa’s security. For years, it has been testing, refining and growing its clout in turbulent South Sudan – an indication that its adherence to the long-standing policy of non-interference is becoming less doctrinaire.

China initially found itself in South Sudan’s conflicts more by default than design. Just two years after it gained independence, civil war broke out in December 2013. Beijing was faced with the choice of stepping in and supporting mediation or withdrawing and abandoning its assets – most significantly oilfields – to looting and destruction.

It wasn’t an easy decision, as greater involvement went against decades of caution and the aversion to responsibility ingrained in China’s foreign policy doctrine. Since its “Go Out” policy in the 1990s, Chinese companies and diaspora had spread far and wide, often to unstable regions. But when instability turned into crises, Beijing had invariably opted for withdrawal. From 2006 to 2011, China conducted 10 large-scale evacuations of nationals from foreign countries due to unrest, wars and natural disasters. Chinese diplomats had reasoned that the best course was to pack up and cut losses as China had neither the desire nor the capabilities to interfere in another country’s affairs.

Beijing’s sheer economic heft in the region naturally translated into influence over otherwise intransigent parties and their regional backers.

The calculation began to change as Beijing’s diplomatic and military clout grew and its willingness to passively accept loss – and outcomes “imposed” by “meddling” Western powers – shrank. When Horn of Africa nations asked China to help with mediation in South Sudan, China seized the opportunity.

Beijing’s sheer economic heft in the region naturally translated into influence over otherwise intransigent parties and their regional backers. Both Juba and South Sudan’s rebels are well aware that Sudan’s and South Sudan’s economies live and die with Chinese investment in oil, which constitutes almost all of South Sudan’s exports and government revenue. When China speaks, they can ill afford to ignore.

In 2015, the Chinese foreign minister brought together South Sudan’s warring parties and regional mediators to talk in Khartoum. The meeting did not produce concrete new agreements, but secured pacts not to attack oil infrastructure and jolted into life a stalling peace process. More importantly, it framed Sudan – still sore from South Sudan’s independence – in the role of a responsible player and implicitly warned it against inflaming the South’s conflict. For Beijing, convening peace talks was a “groundbreaking” experiment.

Beijing has also skilfully tailored the timing and manner of humanitarian assistance to maximise impact and influence. Since 2013, US$49 million has been given in aid, often in response to Juba’s direct requests and delivered in visible fashion to ensure political goodwill. It was able to leverage its influence over Juba to ensure continued humanitarian access for the UN into rebel-held territories.

Undoubtedly Beijing has been at least partially driven by self-interest, as protecting the oilfields has been a priority. But Beijing also felt the time was ripe to test a new, more proactive foreign policy so it could better protect its overseas interests, assert its influence over international security affairs and live up to the expectations of a responsible power.

As the experimentation continues, China’s role as a peace-builder remains challenged by its aversion to risk. Beijing is comfortable as a table-setter for talks but unwilling to publicly offer solutions or enforce outcomes. It is reluctant to apply pressure, even when necessary, instead deferring to “African solutions” or leaving the tough-talking to African or Western mediators.

Beijing still holds on to “non-interference” [...] as a foreign policy doctrine, but there is a broad-based agreement that its interpretation and application should be more flexible.

China’s risk aversion reflects a calculation to preserve its access and influence but also capacity constraints. When the conflict in South Sudan broke out, China had merely 20 staff members in its embassy in Juba, while the US boasted around 300. Conflict resolution remains a nascent discipline, even for the foreign ministry, and, unlike Western nations, China does not have independent NGOs on the ground that can complement the government’s expertise and support its agenda.

Beijing’s experimentation in its new role has inspired curiosity and even some suspicion among Western powers and regional nations. Not least because China prioritises development over accountability and democratic procedures, and it naturally believes its own model of development and governance is better suited to the region than Western democracy. Yet so far, reviews of Chinese contributions have been positive. Beijing has largely pulled in the same direction as other powers that want peace in South Sudan, and has brought influence and access that others do not have.

The relative success of its South Sudan endeavour is shaping China’s foreign policy debate. Beijing still holds on to “non-interference into one another’s internal affairs” as a foreign policy doctrine, but there is a broad-based agreement that its interpretation and application should be more flexible. “Internal affairs” can be more narrowly defined, and acceptable interference more broadly applied, particularly in cases where regional security is threatened and parties consent to outside mediation. China’s role in African, and even global, security affairs is growing. Although it complements the traditional power players, it also requires accommodation and adjustment.

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