February 14, 2012

China’s Leadership Transition and Strategic Implications for Asia

The following post appeared on the GMF Blog on February 14, 2012.

Leadership transitions are inevitably accompanied by uncertainty. Promises made by aspiring leaders – particularly on matters of foreign policy – rarely bear themselves out. In recent American memory, Bill Clinton decried the “butchers of Beijing” as a presidential contender but did his utmost to set U.S.-China relations on an even keel after the Taiwan Straits crisis. Candidate George W. Bush was thought to be primarily domestic-focused – America’s first “CEO president” – but the 9/11 attacks and a cohort of influential advisers ensured that his first term was dominated by foreign affairs. And even Barack Obama, who was seen as inexperienced on foreign policy and passionate only about nuclear disarmament, has found himself taking a very different tack on Iran, Pakistan, and East Asia than even he might have anticipated.

This year’s leadership handover in China is cause for far greater anxiety than any of the above, or for that matter any American or democratic transition. The ascension to the presidency of current Vice President Xi Jinping, who is visiting the United States this week, will mark only the second peaceful leadership transition in communist China’s history. Xi will inherit a China that is economically integrated to an unprecedented degree with the rest of the world – and a key driver of the roiling global economy – while remaining a latent security threat to most of its neighbors. Xi’s politburo colleagues will represent a new generation of leaders, many born after the Chinese Revolution, their upbringings colored by the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, and their adult lives considerably more cosmopolitan than their predecessors. And Xi will, by many accounts, have less absolute authority than any previous Chinese leader, requiring consensus from his Politburo colleagues on important matters, and remaining mindful of the wishes of many other stakeholders, including the country’s increasingly influential business elites and military leaders.

Among the many challenges Xi will face upon his rise to leader of country, party, and (eventually) military, will be maintaining good relations with India. On the surface, the last year has appeared a particularly rocky one for relations between the two Asian giants. But that impression is informed in large part by a hyper-competitive and ill-informed media south of the contested border, and a nationalistic blogosphere to its north. A number of incidents involving Indian relations with Vietnam and poorly-detailed reports concerning China’s activities in Pakistan have also given the impression of unprecedented assertiveness by one side or the other. But in fact, the last year has also witnessed a surprising willingness by Beijing to acknowledge – if not yet accommodate – India’s rise. This manifested itself in a forward-leaning Chinese position at the 2011 BRICS Summit in Sanya and a renewed willingness to engage India on mechanisms to ensure a stable border after years of deadlock.

It may not amount to bonhomie, but China’s eagerness to maintain stable relations with India at this juncture – apparently driven by Washington’s renewed attention to the Chinese security challenge – suggests a curious dynamic at play in Asia. China is a fulcrum for the region’s security dilemmas, and its leadership appears more willing to engage certain potential adversaries when confronted with more assertive postures by others. This points to two possible courses for dealing with China under Xi Jinping. On the one hand, greater coordination among the powers on China’s periphery might help prolong China’s peaceful rise while gently urging its leadership to undertake necessary internal reforms to make its governance structures more transparent and representative. On the other hand, uncoordinated pressure by Washington, New Delhi, or Tokyo – which is far more likely given that all three, as well as Seoul, Jakarta, and Taipei, value their autonomy in decision-making – could force Beijing to productively engage other democratic states. That may also not spell bad news. If the only way China can overturn American primacy is by becoming more like America (or India), that can only be a good thing.