China’s time to shine

With a disinterested US administration, China’s power and influence will grow faster than anticipated

Xi Jinping
Xi Jinping

Last month, China’s President Xi Jinping spoke before a Communist Party congress seeking to outline his achievements in the last five years, and to provide some insight on China’s priorities for the five years to come. Mr. Xi has tightened his grip over the Chinese Communist party in recent years, and has sought to put his allies in key positions within the party. His position domestically is unquestioned, which allows him to consider other priorities and potential opportunities.

The current global political environment lacks traditional American leadership. President Trump has made it clear that the US will be focusing on its own interests, and will not seek to lead the Western world in the same way that it has since the end of the Second World War. This a golden opportunity for China to seek to expand its influence and reach. Whereas China has previously shied away from taking centre stage on geopolitical leadership, Mr. Xi has become the first Chinese leader of modern times to openly embrace the opportunity in a public forum.

Xi Jinping has made it clear that China seeks to be a major part of the global community. He denounced isolationism, a pointed remark directed at the current US administration. He made it clear that China would lead on issues like trade and climate change, two issues in which President Trump has pushed his “America First” line the strongest. The Chinese leader said that “No country can retreat to their own island, we live in a shared world and face a shared destiny”. Nowhere is that remark more relevant than on the topic of climate change, where scientists are unanimous on the threat posed by global warming. Donald Trump had pulled the US out of the Paris Accords which seek to reduce global carbon emissions (citing the deal being unfair on the US, and would also limit his ability to expand the coal industry, a key campaign promise), and this has given Beijing the opportunity to take the political high ground. Even though China has the worst record on CO2 emissions, emitting more Carbon than the US and the EU combined, it can point to the fact that it is seeking to improve, and that the US is the only country who has not signed the Paris Accord.

Another interesting remark from his speech is China’s push for military modernisation. At present, China does not possess the capability to project its military power too far from its immediate neighbourhood, as it has not been a priority in recent decades. But Mr. Xi has made it clear that he expects China’s armed forces to be first class by 2050 in every way possible. He also made it clear that the military is built to fight, and its ability to undertake combat operations when called upon were the very fundamentals of an armed force. This is by no means news to anyone, but the fact that Xi felt the need to publicly declare this is a sign that China is on the path to match its economic might with parallel military strength – and that would solidify its claims to becoming a global superpower.

Its economic strength provides a strong backbone for China’s rise, and Xi is acutely aware of the importance of its “One Belt, One Road” initiative, which seeks to invest in infrastructural projects in over 60 countries across Asia, Europe and Africa. Earlier in 2017, Xi promised more than $100 billion for development banks in China to spearhead the project. By promoting Chinese investment and enhancing its ties with these countries, this long-term project is capable of both building and sustaining Chinese geopolitical influence for years to come – if it is successful. Also, with the Chinese state firmly in control of most of the largest companies in the country, it can ensure that their corporate strategy compliments national political strategy, which is a very powerful synergy that democratic nations cannot match.

During his speech, Xi also made it clear that Taiwan and Hong Kong, two provinces which may still harbour future ambitions of declaring independence, are as much a part of China as any other province. Media reports stated that the loudest applause he received during the speech was that China “…will never allow anyone, any organisation, or any political party, at any time or in any form, to separate any part of Chinese territory from China.” China has Hong Kong very much in its grip, and has sought to slowly change its democratic system into one controlled by Beijing. Whereas in the past Chinese leaders were more cautious in their handling of Hong Kong, a prized financial services giant in Asia, they now have a more direct approach. Mainly because the former British colony used to comprise some 13% of China’s GDP, but now thanks to China’s rocketing growth, it hovers around 2%. Bringing Taiwan back into the fold, however, remains beyond Beijing’s reach – for now.

Over the past few decades, many observers were certain that as China’s economy grew, it would be forced to democratise. This has not proven to be the case, and on current evidence, unlikely to happen any time in the foreseeable future. Xi’s speech admitted that corruption was a problem in the past, something he dealt with to considerable success, but was adamant that China would not copy the political systems of others. By ensuring that the Communist party remains fully in control of China’s future, he aims to remove the messiness and short-term planning which can plague democracies.

The country does have its problems. Its environment has been adversely impacted by pollution, with cities like Shanghai being covered by smog on numerous occasions. Its debt has risen considerably in recent years as it sought to support state-owned enterprises in the wake of the global financial crisis. Beijing’s human rights record is poor. These are issues that it should tackle to ensure its environmental, financial and social health.

But China is aiming high, and the prevailing geopolitical environment is ripe for it to move forward more quickly than it anticipated. With its economic growth as its foundation, increasing influence from its “One Belt, One Road” initiative, a steadily growing military and a lack of global leadership from the US, Xi Jinping has a good opportunity to take China forward. He is not likely to squander the chance. 

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