The Vulnerability of Xi Jinping – Implications for Regional Relations

By Adehlia Ebert

Xi Jinping and his “Chinese Dream”.

Xi Jinping’s first term as the leader of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has witnessed a centralization of power unprecedented in the post-Mao era. To complement his return to strongman leadership, Xi has adopted an aggressive foreign policy. A defining characteristic of this is his ‘Chinese Dream’ for the ‘great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’ (Doshi 2017) The Chinese Dream has an overtly Nationalist agenda aimed at establishing China’s hegemony in the Asia-Pacific.

Xi Jinping has actively entrenched his power over both the Party and the people of China (Lam 2016). This is a strategic move by the Party. Having a popularist ‘Helmsman’, perceived as strong, stable and competent, is an attempt by the CPP to address its growing legitimacy crisis (Zhao 2016, p. 1170).

However, Xi’s accumulation of power has not been benignly accepted by the public. Instead, it has faced growing criticism online (BBC 2018) from a pluralistic society (Jakobson 2016) that is no longer suited to authoritarian rule. This poses a challenge to Xi. The CPP desperately needs the sustained legitimization of its rule. However, Xi’s efforts to entrench power compromise legitimacy. Given this paradox, the success of the Chinese Dream is fundamentally important to both him and the Party.

Figure 2: Xi Jinping’s Chinese Dream – Nikkei Asia Review

Xi Jinping has staked his name, reputation and authority on the Chinese Dream. Its success would be a public relations boost to the President as well as a powerful Nationalist achievement to unify the Chinese people behind the CPP. The economic benefits of such initiatives as the One Belt One Road (OBOR) could satisfy Chinese businesses and deliver critical development opportunities to China’s Western provinces (Hong 2017). Conversely, the failure of the Chinese Dream may mean the end of both Xi and the CCP. Given these stakes, Xi Jinping desperately needs to deliver a prosperous, peaceful and stable ‘Middle Kingdom’.

Regional dynamics of the China Dream: A strategy for middle powers

Due to the perceived decline of US regional hegemony, and China’s contemporary and historical ties with the region, the Asia-Pacific is the obvious location for China’s rise. Consequently, it is unsurprising that Xi has emphasized his commitment to ‘neighbourhood diplomacy’. However, China is not the only country pursuing influence in the region. Correlated with, and likely caused by, China’s rise, is the attention of middle powers such as Japan and Australia.

This attention has manifested itself in a ‘race’ for infrastructure development. The region now has a plethora of infrastructure initiatives to choose from. To name a few, Japan’s Partnership for Quality Infrastructure (PQI) has committed billions of dollars to infrastructure development in the region (MOFA 2015), meanwhile, the recently announced Trilateral Strategic Dialogue between the US, Japan, and Australia have likewise expressed its commitment to regional infrastructure. Despite being economically eclipsed by the OBOR, these initiatives have implicitly marketed themselves as alternatives to China by emphasizing the quality of their projects and the ‘rules-based’ nature of their relationships.

Implications for ASEAN member states

This idea of a ‘rules-based-order’ is also championed by the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) between Australia, India, Japan, and the US. The Quad, which is often characterized as a somewhat conspicuous alliance against China’s rise, has a strong interest in engaging with ASEAN states (Choong 2018).

Consequently, ASEAN states have become the subject of a race for economic and soft power, greatly enhancing their individual and collective bargaining positions. There are already instances of ASEAN states using infrastructure competition to their advantage. In Indonesia, for example, China and Japan have engaged in ‘bidding wars’ for projects. Indonesia has actively encouraged competition by awarding contracts to both countries so that neither achieves a monopoly (Prasad 2018).

Countries engaged in this race should not forget the desperation of Xi Jinping. It is this which I believe will play a determinative factor in the future of Asia-Pacific relations. Given the stakes, Xi needs China to be the partner of choice, whether in infrastructure, trade or cultural diplomacy.

His desperation may be his undoing. To an extent, it has undermined the quality of OBOR projects. These projects are often by marred by unsustainable debt, impracticality and adverse environmental impacts. At least in the short term, a lot of the benefits Xi can reap from the OBOR don’t necessarily require quality projects. Addressing surplus foreign currency reserves (Hong 2017), awarding projects to Chinese businesses and maintaining the appearance of neighbourhood diplomacy can all be achieved more or less irregardless of quality.

Figure 3: ASEAN countries involved in China’s One Belt, One Road initiative
The ASEAN Post

Similarly, Xi’s desperation has led to counter-intuitive policies, such as his aggressive stance on the South China Sea. While a hostile territorial stance does little for China’s soft power, it does appeal to Xi’s Nationalist rhetoric and to many domestic businesses (Jakobson 2016).

What is next?

Figure 4: Will the Chinese Dream Come True? – Chinese Font Design

Australia and the Quad can take advantage of this desperation. If they offer ASEAN states a genuine alternative to China by delivering quality infrastructure, at a competitive cost, without infringing on sovereignty, China may find its attempts at neighborhood diplomacy compromised. To compete, China will have to improve its approach to infrastructure development and potentially change its territorial stance. Otherwise, the country jeopardizes its, admittedly significant, lead in the race for regional influence. Given the political significance of this race for Xi Jinping and the CCP, it is a risk that China is unlikely to take lightly.

Bibliography

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Choong, W 2018, Quad goals: wooing ASEAN, 11 July 2018, Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Available from: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/quad-goals-wooing-asean/. [29 May 2019]

Doshi, R 2017, ‘Xi Jinping just made it clear where China’s foreign policy is headed’, The Washington Post, 25 October. Available from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/10/25/xi-jinping-just-made-it-clear-where-chinas-foreign-policy-is-headed/?utm_term=.373a0429e11f. [accessed 26 May 2019].

Hong, Y 2017 ‘Motivations behind China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ Initiatives and Establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank’, Journal of Contemporary China, vol. 26, no. 105, pp. 353-368.

Jakobson, L 2016, ‘Domestic Actors and the Fragmentation of China’s Foreign Policy’, in Ross, R. and Bekkevold, J. (eds.), China in the Era of Xi Jinping, Washington, Georgetown University Press, pp.137-164.

Lam, W 2016, ‘Xi Jinping’s Ideology and Statecraft’, Chinese Law & Government, vol. 48, no. 6, pp. 409-417.

MOFA 2015, Announcement of “Partnership for Quality Infrastructure: Investment for Asia’s Future” 21 May 2015, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan. Available from: https://www.mofa.go.jp/policy/oda/page18_000076.html . [29 May 2019]

Prasad, R 2018, ‘The China-Japan Infrastructure Nexus: Competition or Collaboration?’, The Diplomat, 18 May, Available from: https://thediplomat.com/2018/05/the-china-japan-infrastructure-nexus-competition-or-collaboration/. [Accessed 26 May 2019].

Zhao, S 2016, ‘The ideological campaign in Xi’s China rebuilding regime legitimacy’, Asian Survey, vol. 56, no. 6, pp. 1168-1193.