Xi May Scare Asia Back Into Washington's Orbit

China has a new emperor. Can Trump strike back?

"Mao II" wasn't just a Don Delillo novel.

Photographer: Greg BakerAFP/Getty Images

One thing seems certain about Xi Jinping’s move to establish himself as China’s dictator for life: The bolder and more openly assertive foreign policy he has pursued since taking power five years ago is here to stay. The conventional wisdom is that the U.S., its Asian allies, and the broader international order are thus in for a rough stretch, as China demands its place in the sun. “Xi’s consolidation of power,” writes my Bloomberg View colleague James Stavridis, “will make China an even more formidable competitor.” Less appreciated, though, is that this approach could also end badly for China, because Xi may be overplaying his country’s hand.

What’s indisputable is that Xi’s approach to foreign affairs marks the culmination of a break with Deng Xiaoping’s famous maxim that China should “hide our capabilities and bide our time.” The basic idea was that China’s neighbors and the U.S. would seek to contain a rising power that too openly displayed its geopolitical ambitions. To discourage foreign hostility, and to ensure access to the trade and investment, Beijing should therefore keep a low profile and avoid picking fights when possible.

Through the 1990s and early 2000s, Beijing followed this strategy with remarkable fidelity, achieving enormous gains in what Chinese analysts called “comprehensive national power” while provoking remarkably little international resistance.

Yet more recently, China has been moving in another direction. The process started in 2008-09, before Xi assumed power, when the global financial crisis led Chinese officials to conclude -- prematurely -- that America had been dramatically weakened, and that Beijing could accelerate its bid for primacy in the South China Sea, East China Sea and elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific. The shift has accelerated significantly since Xi took over.

Over the past five years, Xi’s steady accumulation of authority at home has been mirrored by his bid to make China a recognized and respected great power on the global stage. Under his leadership, China unilaterally declared an Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea and undertook a remarkable campaign to build and militarize artificial islands in the South China Sea. Beijing has pushed projects -- such as the Belt and Road Initiative, Regional Comprehensive Economic Project, and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank -- meant to draw neighboring countries into China’s economic orbit and weaken U.S. influence.

Chinese commentators have also talked up the concept of “Asia for Asians” -- code for a regional order from which America is excluded -- and the Chinese military has ostentatiously displayed “carrier-killer” missiles and other weapons meant to keep Washington at arm’s length.

And since late 2016, China’s quest for international power and leadership has gone into overdrive. At the Davos World Economic Forum in early 2017, Xi depicted China as a global leader on trade and climate issues, in unsubtle contrast to U.S. policies. At the 19th Party Congress in October, Xi declared that China could now “take center stage in the world” -- as explicit a repudiation of the “hide and bide” strategy as one can imagine. The message Xi is sending is that China is no longer willing to wait indefinitely for its geopolitical moment. The time to make China great again is now.

The reasons for this insistence are both personal and geopolitical. By all accounts, Xi has a strong sense of his own destiny, and wants to be the leader who restores China to its historical statute and prominence. And with the U.S. in political disarray and its president expressing ambivalence about the country’s longstanding global role, Xi senses that China’s window of opportunity has opened.

The U.S., its allies, and other countries that are nervously watching China’s rise are thus in for a prolonged geopolitical challenge, as a country of 1.4 billion people throws its weight around on the global stage. Xi is determined to “rebuild an Asian order with China at its center,” says Australia’s Hugh White, a gambit that will put great strain on the regional order the United States has constructed. Yet there is also great danger for China, because Xi’s agenda risks triggering the international resistance previous leaders sought to avoid.

This is an old story in international affairs. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Kaiser’s Germany might have become Europe’s dominant power had it simply prioritized economic growth and avoided antagonizing its neighbors. Yet by pursuing an aggressive foreign policy and starting a naval arms race with Great Britain, it provoked the hostility of the coalition that would eventually defeat it -- with American help -- in World War I.

Today, China confronts a similar dilemma. For reasons of history and geography alone, most of China’s neighbors are naturally more inclined to resist than to welcome Chinese hegemony. The fact that Beijing remains a one-party, Leninist dictatorship only increases the fear that it inspires among many democratic neighbors. The basic logic of geopolitics suggests that these countries will move to counter China’s rise -- as many of them are already doing.  

Even before Xi took power, Chinese coercion in the South China Sea and East China Sea was squandering much of the regional goodwill Beijing had won through its “smile diplomacy” in earlier years. And over the past decade, regional powers such as Japan, India and Australia have tightened or modernized their relationships with Washington, invested in new military capabilities, and sought greater security cooperation among democratic countries in the region. Vietnam and Singapore have pursued deeper defense relationships with the U.S., and Indonesia and Malaysia are showing interest in doing likewise.

Many of these trends predate Xi’s rise, but they are intensifying as he makes his agenda clear. Beijing’s behavior has shattered any remaining illusions that China can rise without causing severe strategic turbulence, so its neighbors are looking for ways of containing the dragon.

Yet they will only be successful in doing so if they have the full backing of the U.S., and here the signals are mixed. On the one hand, Chinese ambitions are rapidly awakening responsible U.S. national security professionals to the rising danger in the East, and thereby catalyzing the same balancing tendencies we are seeing within the region. The Trump administration’s National Security Strategy described China as a dangerous, revisionist power; the Pentagon has now produced a defense strategy and a defense budget that are geared toward an intense political-military competition with Beijing.

On the other hand, the Trump administration has handed China a great strategic gift by withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would have offset Beijing’s economic influence by linking an array of Asia-Pacific countries more closely to Washington. The president himself also seems torn between condemning China as a geoeconomic rival -- see his recent steel and aluminum tarrifs -- and buddying up to Xi, who cuts the strongman figure Trump seems to so admire.

The crucial strategic question, then, is how strongly the U.S. will support the front-line countries that are increasingly alarmed by what they see in Beijing. After all, a committed superpower with lots of friends and allies in China’s backyard can still make life plenty difficult for Beijing.

Xi’s foreign policy boils down to a gamble that Trump’s America will not be up to this task. If he is right, the geopolitical payoff for China will be immense. If he is wrong, the geopolitical blowback could be severe.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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