Charles Clover, reporting from Beijing in the Financial Times, reminds us that “China’s foreign policy was long guided by a doctrine that was summed up in 1990 by Deng Xiaoping, the former paramount leader, as “hide your strength and bide your time”.“
No longer, he says, because “This week, China appears to have parted decisively with that three-decade logic of keeping a low profile when President Xi Jinping delivered his most important speech in five years … [and] … In a three-and-a-half hour address to the great and the good of the Communist party of China, he stressed that Beijing would no longer shy away from world leadership, and would even aim to promote its economic model around the world, harking back to an earlier era in China’s 20th century history.“
This should not be surprising, as Graham Allison wrote, earlier this year, in The Atlantic, “Ask most China scholars whether Xi and his colleagues seriously believe that China can displace the United States as the predominant power in Asia in the foreseeable future. They will duck the question with phrases like “It’s complicated … on the one hand … but on the other …” When I put this question to Lee [Kwan Yew] during a meeting shortly before his death, his eyes widened with incredulity, as if to ask, “Are you kidding?” He answered directly: “Of course. Why not? How could they not aspire to be number one in Asia and in time the world?”” This is, I suspect, what Xi Jinping is thinking. Professor Allison goes on ask: “How will Xi “make China great again”?” He answers his own question thusly: “After studying the man, listening to his words, and speaking to those who understand him best, I believe for Xi this means:
- Returning China to the predominance it enjoyed in Asia before the West intruded;
- Reestablishing control over the territories the Communist Party considers to be “greater China,” including not just Xinjiang and Tibet on the mainland, but Hong Kong and Taiwan;
- Recovering its historic sphere of influence along its borders and in the adjacent seas so that others give it the deference great nations have always demanded;
- Commanding the respect of other great powers in the councils of the world.
At the core of these national goals is a civilizational creed that sees China as the center of the universe. In the Chinese language, the word for China, zhong guo (中国), means “Middle Kingdom.” “Middle” refers not to the space between other, rival kingdoms, but to all that lies between heaven and earth. As Lee summarized the worldview shared by hundreds of Chinese officials who sought his advice, they “recall a world in which China was dominant and other states related to them as supplicants to a superior, as vassals that came to Beijing bearing tribute.” In this narrative, the rise of the West in recent centuries is a historical anomaly, reflecting China’s technological and military weakness when it faced dominant imperial powers during a “century of humiliation” from roughly 1839 to 1949. Xi Jinping has promised his fellow citizens: no more.“
The Economist, in a lengthy article devoted to the ongoing Party Congress, says “The congress will consolidate Mr Xi’s already enormous power with the help of the largest turnover within the ruling elite since 1969, the height of the Cultural Revolution. About 70% of the nearly 400-strong Central Committee—the body from which the highest leaders are drawn—have reached retirement age or have been purged for corruption. “Electing” replacements (the more than 2,300 delegates at the Great Hall of the People will have few choices to play with) will result in yet more plum jobs for the party leader’s allies … [and] … Mr Xi’s opening speech to the congress has been made out to be the product of consensus. During previous congresses, state media reported on the months-long process of drafting such documents, involving consultations with thousands of people. But this one, more than previous such speeches since Mao’s day, bore the personal stamp of the orator.“
“Mr Xi stuck to a formulaic style,” The Economist reports, “repeating oft-used phraseology. But there were significant differences, such as in the unlovely title of one section: “Thoughts on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”. Deng Xiaoping coined the clunky term “socialism with Chinese characteristics” in the 1980s. Mr Xi’s contribution is the catchier bit, “new era” … [thus] … China, he said, was at a “new historic juncture”. The coming era would see it “moving closer to centre stage and making greater contributions to mankind”. But achieving what he called the “Chinese dream”—another of his catchphrases—would be “no walk in the park”. He said it would “take more than drum-beating and gong-clanging to get there” … [and] … Mr Xi talked in some detail about a “two-stage development plan” that will make China a “great modern socialist country” in the era between now and 2050. According to this, China will become a global leader in innovation by 2035, with “rule of law” in place and much greater “soft power” globally. In the 15 years after that, it will become “prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced, harmonious and beautiful”. (Mr Xi does not mean democratic in the normal sense: he gave no hint that there would be any erosion whatever of the party’s control.)”
The Economist goes on to say that “It is clear that Mr Xi wants to be seen as the founder of this new era. He mentioned the term 36 times in his speech. Even if it is not entirely clear what the new era will entail, the phrase has a better chance of taking off than the now largely forgotten contributions made by Mr Xi’s two immediate predecessors to the party’s ideological lexicon: the “scientific outlook on development” of Hu Jintao, and the oddly named “Three Represents” of Jiang Zemin … [and] … Mr Xi described his new-era thoughts as “a compass for the party and people”. People’s Daily, the party’s main mouthpiece, hailed them as “the latest achievement in adapting Marxism to the Chinese context”. This implies that the term will be written into the party’s constitution during the congress. There is much speculation that Mr Xi’s name will be attached to it, making him the first leader since Deng to be named in the document … [further, The Economist explains, in the labyrinth of Chinese political discourse] … Should the revised charter refer to “Xi Jinping Thought”, then Mr Xi will become an ideologue on a par with Mao. The party has a hierarchy of words describing systems of ideas, with “thought” (sixiang) nearly at the top, “theory” (lilun) in the middle and “view” or “perspective” (guan) at the bottom. Which word is used depends on how important the originator of the idea is considered to be. Mr Hu’s scientific development is a view. Even Deng’s Chinese characteristics are just a theory. Only Mao, so far, has achieved thought … [but] … Messrs Hu and Jiang were sitting on either side of Mr Xi in the hall, applauding. But Mr Xi’s new-era idea clearly eclipses any musings of theirs. The words for new era, xin shidai, come first when joined together with Deng’s formulation.“
I have been saying, for more than a couple of years now, that I suspect ~ and it is only a guess ~ that Xi Jinping sees himself as a transformative leader, à la Mao and Deng and that he intends to rule China for a long time, perhaps formally, as Mao did, perhaps from behind the scenes as Deng did, even throughout much of Jiang Zemin’s time in power as paramount leader (最高领导人) of China. I think that Xi is exploiting what I described as frightening prospects to solidify his hold on power and to use the rise of Donald Trump and the concomitant decline in America’s real power to move China in a position of global leadership. I have said many time and i remain convinced that China does not want a hot war, a shooting war but it is using a form of long term, strategic, “unrestricted warfare,” to undermine America and Europe and extend its influence around the globe.
The Economist concludes that “Perhaps most important, [Xi] suggested there would be no let-up in his more assertive foreign policy. In his speech to the previous congress in 2012, Mr Hu had said the army’s job was “to win a local war in an information age”. Mr Xi dropped the word local. He toughened up the language on Taiwan. Where Mr Hu had talked of opposing Taiwanese independence, Mr Xi threatened to destroy it. If he is under pressure to concentrate more on domestic matters, he has resisted it in his rhetoric … [and the world’s] … Attention now will focus on the people Mr Xi will put in place at the end of the congress to help him lead China into the new era he envisages. [Who will fill those empty seats?] But whereas, after previous congresses, observers tried to work out the balance between reformers and conservatives in the new line-ups that emerged, few will be wasting much effort on such calculations this time. The central message of this event will be that Mr Xi is in absolute command; the new era will be his. That is a risky assertion in a country where many are prospering but many feel left out. In effect, Mr Xi has assumed responsibility for the way the coming era turns out.“
The Financial Times (linked above) also concludes that “Since coming to power in 2012 Mr Xi has pushed an aggressive plan to reform and modernise the command structure and battlefield technology of the People’s Liberation Army … [and] … A deadline of 2035 has been set for China to have a “world-class” military. “A military force is built to fight. Our military must regard combat readiness as the goal for all its work and focus on how to win when it is called upon,” he said … [but, while] … “This language might be quite worrying to some other countries in Asia,” said Zeng Jinghan, an expert on Chinese politics at Royal Holloway, the University of London. Previous speeches about the military had focused on deterrence rather than actual combat, he noted.“
All in all observers I think are fair and balanced suggest that China will continue on a course of aggressive commercial, economic-trade, cultural and military expansion around the global ~ mostly a soft power approach but with enough military muscle to ensure that China is, always, listened to respectfully.
What does this mean for Canada?
I think we must consider, at least, five factors:
- First, we must recognize and acknowledge and plan around the fact (and I assert it is a fact) that America has abandoned a global leadership role and may not try to recover it until after 2024, if then;
- Second, China will move to fill that gap and we will not like all of what China has in mind for the world;
- Third, therefore, we need to strengthen ties with traditional friends and allies like the Anglosphere, which includes, of course, Australia, Britain and New Zealand, (CANZUK) but also includes e.g. India, Malaysia and Singapore and, perhaps, the Philippines, too;
- Fourth, engage with China in friendly (but not allied), and especially free(er) trading, relationships ~ China is not our enemy, it is, simply, a competitor in many markets, including the marketplace of ideas and values; and
- Fifth, shoulder more, and More and MORE of the burden of leadership of the middle power because we have the resources and the strength … we just lack the will. That middle power leadership should include taking on a share of the Freedom of Navigation exercises which, currently, the US does on its own in the South China Seas. Taking a share will help the US in several ways, including by making it clear to China that most nations expect China to keep the sea lines of communications open for all peaceful users.
I think that five step programme will require a new government for Canada … a Conservative one.
But any Canadian government needs to avoid on pitfall … we must not make China into an enemy. Some people, especially in the USA and especially in the American defence-industrial-intelligence complex need a “peer enemy” ~ an enemy that is so big, so powerful, so sophisticated that the US must build more and more and more ultra-sophisticated, über-expensive weapons to counter the threat. It is, in a way, the reverse of the bluff that US President Eisenhower played on the Soviet Union in the 1950s ~ Ike refused to take the bait of “no first use” (of nuclear weapons) and, thereby, forced the Soviets (according to Soviet propaganda, anyway) to build and sustain HUGE conventional combat forces while America diverted excessive defence spending to consumer goods. That’s what the Chinese are trying to do, I suspect, to the USA: they are bluffing. China doesn’t want a shooting war with anyone ~ shooting wars are expensive and hard to manage; they are unpredictable; the Chinese hate unpredictable and they hate taking unnecessary risks. The Chinese plan to beat us with soft power ~ building just enough (credible) hard power to make sure that everyone pays respectful attention. But they don’t want to be anyone’s enemy and we should not make them one.