‘While there’s water, mix the plaster,’ says a Chinese proverb equivalent to the English proverb ‘Strike the iron when it is hot’. This was exactly what President Xi Jinping did 12 days ago.
When the Chinese Communist Party’s 19th Congress convened in Beijing, Xi emerged as the undisputed leader of the world’s largest political party with 89 million members. It was not only the 2,300-member Congress that fell in line with whatever Xi proposed. China’s 1.4 billion people also saw him as the man of the hour. In addition to the support within the country, favouring him were tensions in China’s neighbourhood and the global political leadership vacuum created by the chaos associated with US President Donald Trump. Together, these factors formed the platform for Xi to assert his authority, etch his name and policy on the constitution, set sail a powerful futuristic vision and virtually remain the Supreme Leader as long as his health permits.
President Xi became the only the third leader to get his name engraved in the Constitution after Mao Zedong, the founder of the Communist State in 1949, and Deng Xiaoping, who guided the country along a cautious path to move away from a closed repressive state to what is today known as the socialist market economy. Xi, China’s new Mao, is emerging as world’s most powerful man.
Xi’s ‘Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’ is now part of the constitution. It spells out specific policies on the modernisation of society and the armed forces, Xi’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative; and target dates for enhancing China’s position in the world. The mood within China after the eventful Congress sessions was one of acceptance for Xi’s policies, for the people appear to place great confidence in the leader and his vision aimed at making China a top innovative nation by 2035 and a nation with global influence by 2050.
Having dealt with the opponents within the party while spearheading an anti-corruption drive, Xi has reinforced his position in the party by electing a loyal politburo and a standing committee. His consolidation of power comes at a time when ideals of socialism within the country are giving way to feelings of nationalism kindled by the tensions in the South China Sea, the dispute with Japan over the ownership of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands and the United States military buildup in the region under its Pivot-to-Asia policy. When nationalism or patriotism rides high in a country, it is quite natural for the citizens to rally behind a strong leader. In China’s case, it is Xi, who was barely known among the Chinese people when he became their president in 2012.
Once in power, he displayed courage to deal with the United States’ hostile Pivot policy. The policy calling for a bigger US military presence in China’s neighbourhood was mooted by the then US President, Barack Obama, against the backdrop of rising tensions in the South China Sea over territorial disputes Beijing was having with neighbouring states, almost all of whom were bonded to the US by defence pacts.
The Trump administration’s deployment of Thaad missiles in South Korea and provocative naval manouvres close to islands, over which China claims sovereignty, indicate that the Pivot is very much in force.
Not only did Xi deal with the Pivot, he also came up with a Belt-and-Road initiative (BRI) to boost China’s world trade, though critics saw it as an ambitious plan to bring about a China-centric world order.
In an apparent warning to China’s rival, Xi told the party congress: “No one should expect China to swallow anything that undermines its interests.”
Xi’s moves signalling a greater role for China in world affairs came at a time when the United States is in political chaos with a maverick president at the helm of affairs.
Europe, meanwhile, is still struggling to cope with the fallouts of the 2008 financial crisis and Brexit Europe’s foreign direct investment outflow to developing nations has seen a decline since 2008 while Japan has been battling to revive its faltering economy for the past two decades. The situation has compelled investment-hungry developing nations to look towards China, the country with a multi-trillion-dollar foreign reserve.
Barely a week after Xi’s extraordinary step at the CCP Congress, reports emerged that China, the world’s largest oil importer, would promote its yuan as the currency for oil deals. If yuan becomes the established oil deal currency, it will pose a huge challenge to the US greenback’s status as the world’s most powerful currency.
In recent months, both China and its ally Russia have been talking about relying less on the US dollar as a means to circumventing US sanctions on nations friendly with Russia and China. These new developments come a year after China’s yuan joined the International Monetary Fund’s basket of reserve currencies in yet another milestone for Beijing’s campaign for recognition as a global economic power. This means, nations seeking IMF’s special drawing rights (SDR) loans can receive them in yuan. The other currencies in the IMF basket are the US dollar, the euro, the yen and British pound.
These measures together with Xi’s BRI and the landmark CCP Congress sessions have further stoked the suspicions of China’s rivals. Increased military cooperation between India, the United States and Japan is an outcome of this suspicion.
In recent weeks, the United States has heaped praise on India and last week, it sent its Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to New Delhi for talks that among other matters included China.
US Defence Secretary James Mattis, during last week’s visit to the Philippines, a US ally which is now drawing closer to China, accused Beijing of following predatory economics principles, the topic of many articles in leading US newspapers in the wake of Xi’s display of his will to aggressively pursue the BRI. These articles in the Western press warn countries like Sri Lanka of disastrous consequences that could undermine their national interest when they get trapped under China’s loans.
China says the BRI project is a win-win project for China and investment loan receiving countries.
Zhou Fangyin, a professor at the Guangdong Research Institute for International Strategies, in an op-ed article in China’s mouthpiece Global Times yesterday said, “China has proposed the principles of amity, sincerity, mutual benefit and inclusiveness and works hard to build a community of common destiny with its surrounding countries. China’s will is sincere, and the results are positive. It is wrong to describe China’s intentions as malicious or to portray the effect of China’s rise in a negative way.”
Yet, accusations are galore even in Pakistan, to which China is pouring US$ 48 billion under the BRI. Critics there say the traffic – meaning the benefits -- along the Belt and Road project is largely one way – towards China.
China has to do more than mere assurances to allay the fears of its friendly nations that have signed up to the BRI project.