23 July 2018

Xi Jinping’s Superpower Plans

By Elizabeth Economy

As a regular visitor to China, I was surprised earlier this year when I heard for the first time a Chinese official refer to his country as a superpower (chaoji daguo). But China’s view of its place in the international order is changing quickly. In a little-noticed speech last month, before a packed house of China’s senior foreign policy officials and scholars, President Xi Jinping put the world on notice: China has its own ideas about how the world should be run and is prepared, as he put it, to “lead in the reform of global governance.” Gone is the era of Deng Xiaoping, who called China “a large developing country” and insisted that the country maintain a low profile in foreign policy. These days one seldom even hears officials mention the motto of Mr. Xi’s immediate predecessor, Hu Jintao, who described China as “peacefully rising.” Mr. Xi has made clear that he aims to create a new geostrategic landscape.

His ambition is most evident close to home. Where previous Chinese leaders were content to stake claims based on Chinese sovereignty, he has moved to realize them. Through coercion, co-optation and simple brute force, he is making significant strides toward achieving his declared objective of “unifying China” by 2049, the centenary of the founding of the People’s Republic.

In the South China Sea, Mr. Xi has destabilized the region by developing and militarizing seven artificial features, ignoring the competing claims of five other nations and a 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague that rejected China’s claims there. In Hong Kong, Beijing has moved to silence contrarian political voices and has worked to disqualify democracy activists from holding office. China is also placing Taiwan in a political chokehold, pressuring other countries to drop their diplomatic recognition of the island nation and forcing multinational corporations to acknowledge Taiwan as part of China.

‘A grand-scale trade and investment plan to revitalize the ancient Silk Road and maritime spice routes.’

But Mr. Xi’s vision of Chinese leadership extends far beyond the country’s own backyard. In 2013 and 2014, he outlined a grand-scale trade and investment plan to revitalize the ancient Silk Road and maritime spice routes, linking China to countries throughout Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Africa. The Belt and Road Initiative, as it is called, has the potential to help meet the $3 trillion annual deficit in global infrastructure spending: Railroads, ports, pipelines and highways built by Chinese workers and funded by Chinese loans are already connecting countries across six global corridors. The plan now includes a digital component (fiber-optic cables, satellite systems and e-commerce) and a “Polar Silk Road” through the Arctic to connect China to Europe more directly.

China’s development of economic infrastructure has also been accompanied by an expanding Chinese security presence. Beijing established its first military logistics base in Djibouti in 2017, and more bases are likely to follow in other countries. Chinese state-owned companies have assumed control or a controlling stake in at least 76 ports in 35 countries. And despite Beijing’s claims that such ports are only for commercial purposes, Chinese naval ships and submarines have paid visits to several of them.

‘Chinese officials are training their counterparts in how to manage political stability through propaganda.’

Nor has Mr. Xi shied away from exporting elements of China’s political model. In at least eight African countries, as well as some in Southeast Asia and Latin America, Chinese officials are training their counterparts in how to manage political stability through propaganda and how to control media and the internet. Reflecting a degree of confidence rare among recent Chinese leaders, Mr. Xi has even proposed that the China model provides a “new option for other countries who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence.”

Less obvious but just as important are Xi Jinping’s efforts to reform global norms and institutions to reflect Chinese values and priorities. In some cases, these efforts are generally supportive of current practices. The China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, for example, models its governance standards on those of the World Bank and Asian Development Bank.

In other instances, however, China uses international institutions to legitimate its own interests. Over the past several years, for example, China has successfully maneuvered to include the Belt and Road Initiative as a formal part of the United Nations’ efforts to achieve its 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This comes despite widespread protests in BRI recipient countries in response to China’s weak environmental, labor and governance standards, as well as the crippling debt that many countries are assuming when they undertake such projects.

Finally, Beijing is making significant headway in upending international norms on political and human rights. At the United Nations Human Rights Council, it has worked to diminish the ability of outside actors to criticize a country for human-rights violations. It also promotes a strong vision of internet sovereignty, rejecting data privacy and the free flow of information.

Xi Jinping has proclaimed that China has both the intent and the capability to reshape the international order. Yet much of what passes for Chinese global leadership to date is simply the pursuit of China’s own narrow interests. He has yet to demonstrate the key attributes of true global leadership: the willingness to align and in some cases subordinate Beijing’s immediate interests to the greater global good, and the ability to forge a significant agreement around a global challenge. Where Mr. Xi has claimed leadership—on climate change and globalization, for example—the reality of what China has delivered has fallen far short of the promise.

There is little indication that the rest of the world desires a Chinese-led global order. Polls in countries throughout China’s Asia Pacific neighborhood indicate little confidence in Mr. Xi’s leadership. And fault lines are emerging within China over the appropriate role for the country on the global stage. Though Mr. Xi has used ever more ambitious rhetoric during his tenure, noting last October at the 19th Party Congress, for example, that China has “stood up, grown rich, and become strong,” others resist such language. As an attendee last week at a major foreign policy conference in Beijing, I heard some Chinese officials call for more assertive Chinese leadership, but others suggest that the country has been too ambitious and aggressive and is losing international support as a result.

Yet this emerging debate within China may have little impact. As President Donald Trump raises doubts about the U.S. commitment to global leadership—withdrawing from an ever-increasing number of international agreements and multilateral arrangements—there may be no other choice. Only Xi Jinping appears willing and able to grab the mantle of leadership from a retreating United States. In President Trump’s cultivation of an “America First” agenda, he may well be planting the seeds for a “China First” world.

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