President Xi Jinping opening the 19th Communist Party Congress and imminent to be re-elected as President of China and the leader of the Chinese Communist Party, stood in front of nearly 2300 party delegates and delivered a speech that spanned 3 hours 25 minutes in which he outlined his achievements of the last 5 years. He went on to provide a template of the future vision of China as a great power. Xi Jinping’s leadership is branded as the coming of the Third revolution, after Mao’s Cultural Revolution and Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms. The benchmark for comparison for many contemporary Chinese leaders was Deng Xiaoping who played a revolutionary role in transforming the Chinese communist party and directing the party to embrace market reforms, the so-called socialism with Chinese characteristics which created the economic boom that China is enjoying currently.
Scholars and analysts within and out of China have provided various interpretations about Xi’s intentions. He is seen as a President who has global ambitions, promotes innovation and leads the most ambitious military modernization programme in the history of Modern China. Analysts are convinced that Xi Jinping will use the 19th Congress to consolidate power, strengthen central committee representation of his cohort of supporters and lead ground breaking reforms within the Chinese Communist Party.
His anti-corruption drive may have earned him some powerful enemies but statistics show that 440 Chinese officials were investigated for corruption. This moral high ground has won President Xi an unwavering public support, hence aiding to consolidate his political power. Party discipline and conformity has been given priority.
The Chinese Communist Party has undertaken a campaign among its 87 million members, to focus on studying; accepting and implementing the party code of conduct and take seriously remarks made by President Xi if they aspire to be qualified party members. President Xi is identified as the Chinese leader who will place China firmly on the global stage and lead it to be the most powerful nation on earth. Such expectations are fuelling a deeper interest in the study of the “Cult of Xi”. Prof. Xue Li, the Director of the Institute of World Economics and Politics, Chinese Academy of Social Science (CASS) emphasized that President Xi Jinping is the most influential and revolutionary President of the country surpassing the role played by Deng Xiaoping.
This argument was further strengthened by Prof. Zhang Qingmin, Chair of the Department of Diplomacy, Peking University, who claimed that in a recent interaction with the Author, President Xi led the building of artificial islands especially such as Sansha City providing China with a Great Wall on the sea. Such bold decisions elevated China’s capabilities to establish a strong and reliable strategic posture. Chinese scholars feel that President Xi’s handling of the Diaoyu Island issue had weakened Japanese control of Diayou.
In his speech to the delegates, Xi Jinping reiterated his interest in positioning China as a great power, Chinese leaders in the past have been very careful about disclosing China’s global ambition. Deng Xiaoping’s mantra which in Chinese goes as taoguangyanghui meaning, ‘hide our strength and bide our time’, inspired Chinese leaders to develop the nation but limit global engagement. Xi Jinping is taking China out of that mentality. Thus President Xi has hit the reboot button in China’s foreign policy.
The concept China dream was a key driver of Xi’s first term as president, the key component of the China dream was to create an advanced military and a technologically leading nation. In his speech last week, Xi stressed that he will lead the modernization of the Chinese military which he expects to be fully modernized by 2035. Xi emphasized that he is leading the military to be combat ready and strategically advanced to win. His strategic calculus is that such robustness in military capabilities will help China to reach the centre stage of global affairs.
President Xi is positioning himself as the most responsible global leader given the current times and the ardent defender of economic openness, thus reiterating his keynote address that he delivered earlier this year,inaugurating the world economic forum in Davos. It seems a direct critique of the Trump administration’s current foreign policy and especially the protectionism that is seeping into American global economic engagement. The ongoing battle between Airline Industry’s behemoths Boeing and Airbus is a harbinger of trade wars to come with the new American approach to global trade. On the same day that President Xi Jinping made his remarks to the CPC delegates, American Secretary of State Rex Tillerson chose to address a gathering at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington DC, the most influential security think tank in the United States. The theme of the talk was on strengthening India US relations marking the seventy years anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries. The importance of this landmark speech was that it was the most articulate and far reaching policy outline of the Trump administration’s engagement with India and its position on the Indian and Pacific Oceans as a strategic region.
Xi stressed that he will lead the modernization of the Chinese military which he expects to be fully modernized by 2035. Xi emphasized that he is leading the military to be combat ready and strategically advanced to win
Whilst President Xi emphasized the importance of Chinese military transforming into the best in the world, Secretary Tillerson pointed out that the America and Indian strategic interests for the next 100 years will increase into a total convergence. He explicitly acknowledged in his speech that China will be a common adversary to both countries. His passionate call for the consolidation of the relations of the two countries demonstrates a fear that the democratic world view they represent may succumb to an ideology that is totally antithetical to the value system of India and the United States. He stressed that, ‘Indians and Americans don’t just share an affinity for democracy. We share a vision of the future’. Tillerson’s speech touched upon the common concerns of India and the United States, especially that of consequences of China’s rise and how China according to the Americans undermined the international rules -based system, especially in the case of the South China Sea. Tillerson claimed that the United States will not be deterred by such acts and is ready to respond if necessary and they will strengthen the position of India to keep China in check.
Such language clearly outlines the political tensions that the Trump administration harbours with China. The secretary of State stressed that they will deepen and widen the military and development partnerships with India. He quoted Defence Secretary Mattis, where the United States firmly believes in India reaching military superiority and technological advancement as a shared strategic interest. It seems to be an evolving counter-narrative to the pitch Xi Jinping is making about technological superiority of the Chinese military. Americans seem to be helping India to realize their ‘Look East Policy’ which at some point will collide with China’s neighbourhood policies as well as its ambitious One-Belt-One-Road initiative (OBOR), which essentially is China’s ‘look West policy’.
President Xi Jingping’s speech got most of the media attention last week and will build up to the events that will unfold during the Chinese communist party’s 19th congress. Rex Tillerson’s speech did not attract much global attention but it was a defining moment as it finally gave foreign affairs enthusiasts a view of the Trump administration’s policy towards the Indo-Pacific region and its future relations with India.
Sri Lanka’s strategic thinkers and planners may need to take both these developments seriously and not neglect either of these observations as mere rhetoric. The strategic convergence Tillerson emphasizes will have serious consequences on Sri Lanka; the country would face significant pressures from a combined and an aggressive Indo-American foreign policy. Secondly, with China displaying a global and regional assertiveness about its position and its global and neighbourhood relations, Sri Lanka will always remain a pivot state for China’s foreign policy ambitions. Thus planning, preparing and sharpening diplomatic moves will help the country to avoid being the new crush state in the increasingly contentious Indo-Pacific.
The writer is the Director, Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies (BCIS)