Xi Jinping’s recent bid to become president of China and party secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for as long as he wishes should come as no surprise. Indeed, this was the next logical move for the Chinese strongman who has spent the last six year purging enemies, accumulating political power and recentralizing economic and national security policymaking. Xi is an ardent admirer of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and is emulating many of Putin’s political and national security strategies.
Besides a lust for power, why the perceived need for more centralized power? Contrary to the Western consensus, Xi inherited a China that was in serious trouble. The economy was starting to feel the pinch of a debt-fueled massive fiscal stimulus enacted during the global financial crisis of 2008. As a result, Xi entered into leadership as China was beset by debt of nearly 276 percent of GDP, and market reform had stalled.
Moreover, the CCP itself had fragmented in the wake of the Bo Xilai scandal and subsequent exposure of corruption at the highest levels of the party. In light of all this, Xi had reason to be concerned. His chosen strategy was to mount an anti-corruption campaign that neutralized potential enemies and centralized his power. Xi also did away with the post-Mao Tse-Tung elite consensus rule that Deng Xiaoping had put in place, and instead put himself in charge of many of the “leading groups” that make policy.
With an underperforming economy and lack of desire to return to the period of “reform and opening,” Xi is betting his legacy and his legitimacy on the what he calls the “Chinese dream of national rejuvenation.” Xi’s aspiration is that the CCP will not only survive but will return China to the geopolitical centrality it enjoyed during its imperial periods.
While he did not start China’s aggressive policies in the South and East China Seas and toward Taiwan, Xi has escalated them. He also announced an ambitious plan, “One Belt One Road,” which calls for massive Chinese infrastructure projects to link the East with the West, that has wowed the world. While this has been mostly an exercise in repackaging old projects meant to improve China’s energy security, acquire technology, and create alternative maritime and land routes for China’s seaborne trade, Xi’s propaganda machine has successfully turned these projects into a supposed “new economic order.” This plays well at home and is consistent with the theme that Xi is leading China back into its glory days.
But there is much less than meets the eye to all of this. China’s slower growth calls into question the sustainability of massive spending, whether it be on infrastructure or military modernization. China’s finances will be further pressured by its rapidly aging population. Thus, the world is not facing a “power transition” or a “Thucydides Trap” in which an existing hegemon, the United States, is surpassed by a new one, China. The United States continues to far outpace China in net national wealth, even with its own debt problems.
Rather, Xi’s latest move to do away with his own term limits should be seen as the “Putinization” of China. This means that China can create many problems for the US and its allies even if it is not “taking over” global leadership or supplanting American power. Remember that Putin’s Russia is stagnant, yet, through clever and brazen strategies it has managed to make itself into a major international player again by threatening Europe, disrupting the Middle East and attacking the US democratic system itself. Xi’s China is more powerful than Russia and can cause even more damage, particularly if it meets no resistance.
Here’s the silver lining: The United States is finally waking up to China’s many provocations, from political influence campaigns, to militarization of the South China Sea, to attempts to export China’s authoritarian politics. President Trump has put forth a strategy to push back against China in every domain of power. It is now incumbent upon his administration to implement it.
If it does, Washington will find that Xi’s rule is more brittle than many assume. For example, China’s censors had to work overtime to silence mass Chinese dissent after the news of Xi’s power grab. Further, China has never been forced to face a real choice between spending on “guns versus butter.”
The United States can raise the ante and challenge Xi in maritime East Asia and the Indian Ocean. It should also begin its own information campaign to expose the rot and decay at the core of Xi’s party. Faced with a serious geopolitical challenge, Xi will have to choose between escalating his anti-US strategy or de-escalating and turning his attention to the manifold social and economic problems that the Chinese people will surely demand that he address.
If, however, the United States fails to execute a robust pushback campaign, Xi’s China will do lasting damage to America’s prime position in international affairs, despite its weaknesses.
Dan Blumenthal is director of Asian studies and a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He served as a senior director at the U.S. Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004. As a commissioner and vice chairman of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission from 2006 to 2012, and has been a distinguished visiting professor at the U.S. Naval War College since 2014. He is co-author of “An Awkward Embrace: The United States and China in the 21st Century.”