MS Risk Blog

Xi Jinping’s Last Temptation

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It is arguable that China’s exponential growth over the last three decades has few, if any historical parallels. From being a developing third-rate economy to achieving the second largest global economy – in the process lifting millions of its citizens out of poverty with stratospheric GDP expansions. From a manufacturing led economy to a high-tech one; from coal fired plants, to leaders in renewables; and making a stand in industries of the 21st century such as artificial intelligence. China is now also undoubtedly a global heavy weight in military terms. It is unquestionable, China has achieved in a short space of time, what many nations can only dream.

China’s rise and expansion owes a lot to a period in its history it probably considers as denigrating, humiliating, and loss of its national dignity. Its leaders vowed never again. From Mao Zedong to Deng Xiaoping and current Premier Xi Jinping – the battle cry has been to build a prosperous and powerful country worthy of international respect and recognition.

The paradoxical challenge for President Xi Jinping is how he manages China’s Jekyll and Hyde image on the world stage. In other words, China’s successful ascendency and aspirational expansionism, potentially leaves it needing to grapple with challenges of a domestic and geo-political nature. China has had to fend off accusations of dumping excess products like steel on the world markets; frowned at for the interlocking relationship between the state and its companies. Its increasing muscular activities in the disputed parts South and East China sea; repression of the Uighurs in Xinjiang; the tough new security law for Hong Kong; to the gordian knot – that is Taiwan, and perhaps the most sensitive issue for the Chinese ruling elite: The One China Policy.

Every rose has its thorn. With these issues simmering, can China manage to play offense and defence with the requisite dexterity, and in a manner that preserves its swashbuckling progress?

In early September, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi travelled to Europe for a five-country stop – primarily to iron-out what would appear to be wrinkles in the EU-China relationship. This visit came against the backdrop of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Europe in which he called for an alliance of western democracies as a counterweight to China.

Thorsten Benner, director of Global Public Institute in Berlin claims Wang Yi’s visit “didn’t achieve minimum goals”. And why would he think so? because “he didn’t have anything substantial to offer that Europeans care about, like concessions on market access, and just reiterated tired and worn boilerplate clichés on Europe and China working together on multilateralism that hardly anyone falls for anymore.”

If Wang Yi flew into headwinds in Europe, there is no love lost in Sino-US relations, particularly in the last couple of years of the Trump Presidency. The two nations have been involved in a mutually damaging trade war, closure of diplomatic consulates, technology spates, and have traded nasty counter accusations over the lack of transparency in the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

How China conducts its rear-guard action at this juncture matters more than ever. The West is laser focussed on China’s Achilles heel such as its human rights record particularly concerning the Uighurs in Xinjiang, the draconian security law in Hong Kong, and its sabre rattling over any attempts by Taiwan towards declaration of independence. These issues are sensitive to China, or sets-off its red flag on the One China Policy.

China is sensitive about its history under the yoke of imperialism. It demands respect, and it bristles at any form of interference in its sphere of assumed sovereignty, or any hectoring by foreign powers. As Hu Xijin of the Global Times asserts “China must be a country that dares to fight. And this should be based on both strength and morality,” he wrote. “We have the power in our hands, we are reasonable, and we stand up to guard our bottom line without fear. In this way, whether China is engaged in a war or not, it will accumulate the respect of the world.”

The salient question observers of the West and China are asking is if China is not risking a recurrence of its past traumas it so desperately wants to overcome, by cracking down hard on dissent in Hong Kong, threatening to invade Taiwan, and sounding bellicose in fending off criticisms about it from the West. Is all this hostile attention not unwanted?

The Trump administration’s recent hefty sale of military hardware to Taiwan, China’s repeated combat drills in the Taiwan strait and its preparations to launch a third Aircraft carrier portends a dangerous dispensation. Once again, China’s soft spot might be on the home front, and Taiwan could well be a trigger.

Will Xi Jinping be able to resist the temptation to open a new chapter where China fought off a foreign adversary from its domain, or avoid the potential trap, and concentrate on continuing to build a powerful nation? China’s further rise will probably be contingent on the formula he adopts.