On Oct. 26, 2022, Pacific Forum held a Comparative Connections Roundtable that discussed the events of the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, and the foreign policy implications of Xi Jinping securing his precedent-breaking third term as the party’s general secretary. The session was moderated by Mr. Rob York (Pacific Forum), and featured Dr. June Teufel Dreyer (University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida), Dr. Satu Limaye (East-West Center in Washington, DC), and Mr. Ralph Cossa (Pacific Forum). The following are the key findings from the session.
A Dramatic Consolidation of Power
Xi Jinping secured his third term as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in mid-October of this year, breaking from the two-term precedent that had been adhered to since the era of Mao Zedong. While neither his electoral victory, nor his continued consolidation of political power come as much of a surprise, the complete extent to which any opposing factions and figures were eliminated is astonishing. The replacement of Premier Li Keqiang and three other members of the seven-person Politburo Standing Committee with four longtime Xi loyalists represents a stark departure from collective leadership practices that has continued since Xi assumed office a decade ago. Up until that point, Li Keqiang had been the only remaining Standing Committee member to have served alongside Xi Jinping since 2007.
The final day of the highly televised event was punctuated with the forceful removal of Xi’s predecessor, former General Secretary Hu Jintao, from the Party Congress chamber. Hu was reluctantly led away from his seat, expressing confusion, and then patted Li Keqiang on the shoulder while Xi looked on. Though the official explanation given for his escorted exit was health challenges, some have speculated on deeper political reasons for the scene. Between Li Keqiang and Hu Jintao, the two high-profile departures represent an evisceration of the China Youth League faction in Beijing politics, and go to show that no one beneath Xi is untouchable.
Xi Jinping’s Agenda and the Weight of Responsibility
With all political rivals gone, Xi Jinping has clear and total command of top-down policy. Gone are the days of cautious and collective decision-making, as well as the pragmatic wisdom left by the legacy of Deng Xiaoping. Rather, Xi has shown himself to be an ambitious, but impulsive and obstinate leader: tactically clever yet strategically foolish. Over the last several years, China’s overt assertiveness and forays into the sovereign interests of other nations has done more to rally the West against it than any active measures taken by its opponents.
In his keynote speech at the 20th National Party Congress, Xi communicated his top priorities moving forward, seemingly promising “all things to all people.” This included further commitment to “common prosperity” by means of wealth redistribution, a strong focus on pollution reduction, a constructive environment for entrepreneurship, and continued vigilance against corruption. Contrary to the upbeat expectations that these political promises paint, it will be difficult to make progress in all these areas simultaneously, as many come into direct conflict with one another.
China already faces strong headwinds on multiple fronts. The economy is still limping along at its lowest growth rate in decades, navigating the fallout of a real estate crisis, a falling cohort of young workers, and draconian zero-COVID policies. With six yes-men now surrounding Xi in the standing committee, the Politburo also runs the risk of becoming an echo chamber, in a circle where no one wants to provide dissenting opinions or differing perspectives. Xi has established himself as no less than a modern emperor, and in return, he alone will bear full responsibility for Beijing’s successes and failures going forward. Some of those problems are already manifesting—from the reshoring of Western-owned industries to grassroots responses to government oppression, Xi’s hardline tactics could bite back hard further down the road.
The State of China-India Relations
While the 20th National Party Congress made no mention of neighboring India, without a doubt, the Beijing-New Delhi relationship is one of the most consequential elements of foreign policy for the future of the Chinese Communist Party, and the world at-large. Though it has been 60 years since their 1962 war on the Himalayan border, underlying tensions persist, and were again unearthed in fatal border skirmishes during 2020. This recent round of disputes was deescalated relatively successfully, but Modi and Xi have not held any express visits or substantial dialogues since. In addition to the ongoing border issues, China’s dominance in geopolitical influence, economic development, and trade imbalances between the two continues to stoke wariness in New Delhi, preventing a more stable security environment from setting in.
Indian public opinion has also turned notably negative against China in recent years, though not to the extent of the vehement rhetoric that has often been applied towards Pakistan. Beijing’s economic coercion and increasingly authoritarian bent is pushing India to deepen other bilateral ties across the region and lean further into the Quad partnership with Japan, Australia, and the US. The world’s two most populous nations may be nuclear-armed and muscling over overlapping realms within Asia, but they are not diametrically opposed. Foreign relations continue to operate normally, and bilateral trade is at record high levels. It appears that the loosely defined status quo is comfortable enough to keep in place, for now. China’s naval expansions and provocations in the Indian Ocean is one growing powder keg to watch going forward that is well capable of complicating this peace.
Reactions to Russia’s War in Ukraine
In February of 2022, China declared “no limits” to its friendship with Russia, and just three weeks later, Russia invaded Ukraine, scrambling NATO into response mode and triggering a tidal wave of war funding from Western nations. Over the several months since, Beijing has been forced to awkwardly reposition its stance towards Russia, particularly condemning the rhetorical use of nuclear weapons, but stopping far short of condemning the war itself. Even prior to the invasion, signals between the two countries have been far more mixed, despite official proclamations. China is likely uncomfortable with tying itself too closely to a rogue autocrat like Putin, while Russia surely feels the pressure of China’s overwhelming influence as a rising world power with an assertive agenda—and that is to say nothing of the history of distrust between the two nations. The limits to their “friendship” may lie in the Central Asia region, which both consider to be within their sphere of influence, and vital to their own strategic interests. The relationship with Moscow will continue to be one of the most interesting dynamics to watch in Chinese foreign policy.
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent reactions from the West has allowed Xi to observe the international consequences of outright invasion in the 21st century, and apply those learnings towards the calculus in his own plans for Taiwan. The force and unity displayed against Russia between the United States and European Union have rebuffed the notion that Taiwan could be assaulted without a very serious price to pay. China once sought to pull Europe away from the US in the making of a new multipolar world order, but now has written off that idea, seeing that when push comes to shove, the two superpowers of liberal democracy will stand together. Xi Jinping may have cleared Beijing of political rivals, but between a deluge of domestic challenges, and a global security environment where China is increasingly viewed as antagonistic, he has his work cut out for him going forward.