AEI: Xi’s Total Control Over Foreign Policy Is a Big Problem
Courtesy of Hal Brands and the American Enterprise Institute.
The results of China’s 20th Communist Party Congress are in, and they aren’t pretty — for China, the US and the world. Xi Jinping secured a historic third term as general secretary of the party while stacking the system with acolytes and dismissing prominent rivals.
China is continuing its long march toward personalistic autocracy, a system in which Xi ruthlessly rules the party, the imperatives of political control trump those of economic growth, and the police state flourishes from Beijing to Xinjiang.
Yet the most dangerous ramifications may come in foreign policy. Washington and its allies will face a ruler who can go fast and break things — and who may be prone to the catastrophic gambles that isolated strongmen so often make.
The signs of Xi’s dominance were omnipresent at the Party Congress. There was the scene of his predecessor, Hu Jintao, being hustled off the dais in a purge presumably meant to show that no one is beyond the emperor’s reach. There was the elevation of disciples distinguished by their fealty to Xi and his policies, and the early retirement of rivals and critics, such as Premier Li Keqiang. Not least, Xi cemented his ideological authority: The Party Central Committee pledged to “resolutely uphold Comrade Xi Jinping’s core position” and “fully implement Xi Jinping Thought.”
It was a master class in autocratic entrenchment by a man who is now more powerful than any Chinese ruler since Mao Zedong. Which means that the dominant trend in Chinese foreign policy under Xi — the shift toward a riskier, more confrontational posture — will become even more pronounced.
If the emergence of a more “assertive” China predated Xi, it has become inextricably associated with him. Xi’s China has embraced a strident “wolf warrior” diplomacy and cranked up the coercion of China’s neighbors along its Himalayan border and Pacific periphery. It has engaged in repression of its Uyghur population, despite heavy foreign criticism, and ended any vestige of Hong Kong’s political autonomy. Xi’s diplomatic calling card has been his willingness to accept greater friction with Washington, while forming a Eurasian dictators league with Moscow.
Expect a third-term Xi to hit the gas rather than pumping the brakes. There are already signs that the government is taking the global offensive. Beijing is expanding its efforts to create a worldwide network of military bases and logistical facilities, from Djibouti in Africa to the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific.
In April, Xi unveiled a “global security initiative,” which features assistance for internal policing programs for friendly governments — and thereby shift the world’s security architecture from one dominated by US alliances to one that is more friendly to the CCP. US officials also anticipate higher tensions in the Western Pacific, as Xi — who has reportedly ordered his military to be ready for a fight by 2027 — increases the pressure on Taiwan.
Xi is certainly talking like he expects trouble. Notably, his report to the Party Congress ditched the familiar characterization that China was in a “period of important strategic opportunity,” but instead warned that “dangerous storms” are approaching. And as Xi makes the Chinese state — including the People’s Liberation Army — more responsive to his commands, he will be better positioned to move decisively, even at the risk of conflict.
If, for instance, Xi decides to use force against Taiwan, as many U.S. officials fear, don’t expect his advisers to convince him otherwise: They are far more likely to toe the line and display the “fighting spirit” the boss demands. Just look at how the apparatchiks of another hyper-personalized regime, that of Russian President Vladimir Putin, saluted and sent ill-prepared Russian troops into Ukraine.
Xi might bristle at the comparison to Putin, given how poorly the Ukrainian misadventure has gone. But history shows that strongman autocracies are liable to make terrible mistakes. Leaders who punish dissent isolate themselves from decent advice; rulers who centralize power destroy the constraints on bad choices as well as good ones.
During the early Cold War, Stalin’s isolation and communist ideology blinded him to the way that the Western capitalist powers would unite against an expansionist Soviet Union. Mao was able to take China from disaster to disaster — the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution are estimated to have collectively claimed nearly 50 million lives — because there was nothing to prevent his delusions from becoming state policy.
Xi isn’t Stalin, Mao or Putin. But he is a globally ambitious strongman who is systematically stripping away the limits on his own authority, as he doubles down on a brasher, more antagonistic approach to foreign affairs. That’s a sadly familiar story in global politics — one that is unlikely to end well for China or the rest of us.