Dragon Days are here
This is a very crucial year for the People’s Republic of China. In autumn the Communist Party of China (CPC) will hold its 19th national party congress. At the center of the big event that happens every five years are major personnel decisions that determine the fate of various top level leaders and determine the power equations within the party for the coming five years or even beyond them.
At present nobody doubts that president Xi Jinping will be confirmed as secretary general of the CPC and that the composition of the highest organs of the party, most notably of the Politburo Standing Committee, will reflect his pre-eminence. Many commentators describe Xi Jinping as the most powerful party leader since the great reformer Deng Xiaoping. There is even talk of him having designs to stay in power beyond 2022 when his second five years term will end.
Of course, there is a lot of speculation about the composition of the next Politburo Standing Committee. According to age regulations five of the seven current members of this body have to resign. Only president Xi himself and prime minister Li Keqiang are up for reelection. It will be interesting to see who manages to place his favorites in these powerful positions. There is talk also of reducing the number of Politburo Standing Committee members from seven to five giving even more power to Xi.
The strong position of Xi is primarily due to his skillful management of internal party affairs and domestic policies. Without any doubt his rigorous campaign against corruption makes Xi very popular amongst the Chinese masses who are upset about the increasing wealth gap in the country. Of course, Xi’s campaign against corruption on all levels, even on the highest circles, has also an element of internal rivalries. Important people who could have threatened the position of Xi have been eliminated from the party during the past few years. The most notable case was the public trial and incarceration of the ambitious Bo Xilai.
Foreign policy and reputation abroad tend to be of limited interest for the broader public. All politics is local, is a well- known proverb. However, in the present stage of China’s development the status of the country in the world at large is of great importance. During the 19th century and a large part of the 20th century China had been marginalized and even humiliated. All the more important for the national dignity of the Chinese is, therefore, the return of the Middle Kingdom.
The spectacular socio-economic modernization of China has led the country within half a generation to the second spot in the world ranking of national economies. Some observers see China even overtaking the US in not too distant a future. Economic power enhances the general standing in the world. Most recently we have been witnessing the spread of Chinese military power and geopolitical influence in its neighbourhood and most importantly in the South China Sea. Once again the Middle Kingdom is Asia’s hegemon.
The only country capable to face up to Chinese influence, particularly on the high seas, is the US. President Barack Obama with his “pivot Asia” policy had faced the challenge. On many fronts in domestic and foreign policy President Donald Trump is unravelling the positions taken by his predecessor. For the Far East the most important changes undertaken by Trump are the abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the manifest acquiescence of Washington to the Chinese takeover of the South China Sea.
While many of the recent actions undertaken by the US administration are erratic and short term, Beijing has stuck to its long term policies and has managed to project the image of a reliable world power. This, to a very large extent is the work of president Xi Jinping. The Chinese leader is seen by the world as a much more sophisticated and more statesmanlike politician than President Trump. Significantly, at this year’s Davos conclave Xi Jinping was hailed as the defender of values such as free trade and global interaction!
Much can and will happen during the next five years, when Xi Jinping completes his second five year term. Increasingly, the world has to come to terms with an American government that withdraws from costly enterprises abroad and focuses on “making America great again”. While Beijing may not want to follow in every step of the US, it most certainly will be ready to mark its forceful presence wherever this serves and suits the national interests of the People’s Republic.
Washington still maintains that the freedom of navigation in the South China and East China Seas is of paramount interest, but the nations in these regions have taken note of the shift in American priorities and are aware that to protect their own interests they have to take matters into their own hands. Accommodation with an increasingly powerful China is one of the most obvious goals. It is a coincidence that exactly at a time when Chinas is led by a skillful international statesman the US is withdrawing, creating a vacuum that will be eagerly filled by China.
(The writer is Tokyo-based Far East correspondent of Neue Zurcher Zeitung)
Urs Schoettli