Xi’s ‘New Era’ Risks Boosting Tension Between China and the West

Updated on
  • Empowered president promises more assertive foreign policy
  • Shift may be on display during Donald Trump’s visit to Beijing
This Bloomberg Profile looks at how Xi Jinping went from being a provincial politician to China’s paramount leader.

A “New Era” in President Xi Jinping’s China risks setting off alarm bells in the U.S. and Europe.

The ruling Communist Party committed to the more assertive policy during a twice-a-decade reshuffle that ended last week, contrasting with a relatively restrained approach over the past three decades. Xi said that China was “approaching the center of the world stage” as he outlined a road map for turning the country into a leading global power by 2050.

Now China’s most powerful leader in decades, Xi has sought to reassure the world that his country’s rise would be peaceful -- a bid to avoid the so-called Thucydides trap that says a growing power will clash with an established force. Still, China’s growing military and economic interests are reason enough for the world’s strongest powers to worry.

“Xi’s vision includes -- for the first time in contemporary Chinese history -- staking out a global leadership role,” said Jonathan Sullivan, director of University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute. “This will inevitably bring China’s interests up against those of other powers.”

China’s next chance to demonstrate its confidence could come as early as next week, when Xi hosts U.S. President Donald Trump on a state visit to Beijing. Topping the agenda will be North Korea and trade, issues that highlight both the U.S.’s unease about Chinese economic might and its desire for Beijing to take greater responsibility as a regional peacemaker.

Since Xi came to power in 2012, China has accelerated efforts to leverage its strength into greater influence abroad. That has included everything from boosting foreign aid to conducting far-flung naval visits to creating the Belt and Road trade-and-infrastructure initiative, which spans three continents.

In some areas, such as efforts to fight climate change and support free trade, China has found common ground with Western powers. In others, like territorial disputes in the South China Sea, Beijing has shunned international rules.

Xi’s foreign policy vision represents a shift from the “lay low” doctrine of late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, who urged China’s leaders to “hide your brightness and bide your time.” Since that guidance in the late 1980s, China preferred to avoid getting enmeshed in international affairs.

Read: How Xi’s Key Milestone Positions Him to Rule China for Decades

In an Oct. 18 speech to party cadres that will shape policy for the next five years, Xi cast the change as the third era in China’s long recovery from its “century of humiliation” at the hands of colonial powers like Japan, the U.K. and France. The country “stood up” under Mao Zedong and became rich under Deng, he said. Now under Xi, it would become strong.

Part of China’s outreach is economic: Xi declared that his version of socialism could provide an alternative model for other developing countries. That state-centric system could be a source of tension in coming years, according to Louis Kuijs, head of Asia economics at Oxford Economics in Hong Kong, who noted that the European Union and U.S. don’t consider China a market economy according to the World Trade Organization’s definition.

“China’s further growth and global integration is likely to lead to further friction, including in terms of trade and investment relations,” Kuijs said.

Xi also hailed the creation of artificial reefs in the South China Sea and vowed to build a world-class military by the mid-century mark. He’s pushed to amass a navy that can project power around the globe, and recently established China’s first overseas base -- Beijing calls it a “logistics facility” -- in the East African country of Djibouti.

One of his best-received applause lines hit on Taiwan: Xi vowed to “resolutely oppose and preempt” any independence efforts on the democratically ruled -- and U.S.-backed -- island.

“Xi is clearly trying to find multiple ways to solidify a new presence in the region -- whether it’s military, commercial, and perhaps most wide-ranging, in terms of narrative -- the ‘Chinese Dream’ that can be exported,” said Rana Mitter, a professor of modern Chinese history and politics at Oxford University. “A faltering West, led by figures such as Trump, could find that it has given China plenty of leeway to create an alternative narrative.”

U.S. officials have already expressed concern about China’s rising influence, and sought to block strategically sensitive investments. In a rare briefing last month, the Central Intelligence Agency warned that China was working to undermine the U.S. alliance network and the global promotion of American values.

Authorities in Beijing “are attempting to reshape the world order to better suit Chinese preferences and growing clout,” the CIA said in a briefing note.

In August, Politico reported that France, Germany and Italy had begun pressing the European Commission to protect the bloc’s top companies from Chinese acquisitions. They wanted the body to determine whether such purchases were being driven by political objectives rather than market forces.

“Even with the systemic differences we have, including on our convictions on human rights, we’re a close partner to China,” Steffen Seibert, chief spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, told reporters Wednesday in Berlin. “We want to constructively accompany China’s development -- and we want China to play a constructive role in the world and global affairs.”

Overseas Interests

Ruan Zongze, a former top Chinese diplomat in Washington, said that the country’s activities were in line with its economic development.

“China’s overseas interests have expanded to an unprecedented level, which requires a more active diplomacy,” said Ruan, who is now vice president of the China Institute of International Studies in Beijing. Still, he said, China lacked the strength to take over from foreign powers and was looking to be proactive rather than disruptive.

While China ranks second to the U.S. in the size of its economy and military budget, Xi has expressed a desire to become a respected global player and protect trade ties that underpinned the country’s expansion. That pragmatism was on display on Tuesday, when it agreed to shelve a dispute with South Korea over its acceptance of a U.S. anti-missile system.

“China is determined to reform the international order created under Western leadership -- it has not yet revealed an interest in overthrowing or replacing that order,” said Avery Goldstein, a University of Pennsylvania professor of global politics and international relations. “Whether this goes smoothly or not, however, depends on the interaction of choices that China and others make going forward.”

— With assistance by Tony Czuczka, and Patrick Donahue

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