Xi Jinping (left) with new politburo standing committee members Li Qiang, Zhao Leji, Wang Huning, Cai Qi, Ding Xuexiang and Li Xi at a meeting with media, Great Hall of People, Beijing, Oct.23, 2022
The highlight of the recent 20th National Congress of the Communist Party (CPC) of China has been the re-election of Xi Jinping as the General Secretary for another five-year term. The tradition set by Deng Xiaoping in the post-Mao Zedong era has been set aside. This was not unexpected, and has been largely interpreted as a consolidation of political power by the incumbent leader. That is partly so but not entirely. Its consequences are wide-ranging.
Basically, the CPC has circled its wagons to meet unprecedented challenges in China’s external environment. The composition of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) of the CPC Central Committee underscores this. The PSC comprises people whom Xi has known and worked with for years and he regards as reliable and trustworthy. There is no daylight possible between Xi and them. Li Qiang who is ranked second in the Politburo Standing Committee and is expected to be elected as China’s next premier is known to have worked directly under Xi as far back as 2004.
Furthermore, there is every possibility that Xi may remain in power even beyond the current term which ends in 2027. China’s adversaries — principally, the United States — might as well reconcile that exploiting factional rifts and rivalries will remain a pipe dream.
The importance of this sort of mobilisation of party unity in the current context cannot be underestimated. According to Xinhua news agency, Xi took a direct role in the selection of candidates for the new CPC Central Committee, the crucial organ of any communist party, which is the ultimate decision-making authority between congresses and mediates once the process of democratic centralism has led to an agreed-upon position.
Without doubt, Beijing is preparing to push back at the US with renewed vigour. The new leadership will not shy away from being confrontational if the US tramples upon China’s core interests. The spiral of hostility will escalate as China senses that the US is preparing for a conflict. In an editorial comment, CCP daily Global Times noted that “the source of such ‘hostility’ comes from the US, and China’s response and countermeasures are, by nature, a legitimate defence. Washington’s various actions against Beijing are like intentionally cutting in front of other’s car on the highway.”
The report to the Party Congress underscored that China unwaveringly opposes “hegemonism and power politics in all their forms,” as well as “unilateralism, protectionism, and bullying of any kind.” The country also opposes “the Cold War mentality, interference in other countries’ internal affairs, and double standards.” Although no country was specifically mentioned in this context, the reference is unmistakably to the US. China will not be pacified anymore by formalistic empty words.
Clearly, the latest National Security Strategy released by the White House will only fuel the hostility further by singling out China as Washington’s sole global rival that harbours the intention to reshape the international order and has growing economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to advance such a goal.
Xi responded when he sent on October 26 a congratulatory message to the annual Gala Dinner of the National Committee on United States-China Relations. Xi said, “the world today is neither tranquil nor stable. China and the United States are two major countries. Closer communication and cooperation between the two countries will help bring greater stability and certainty to the world, and promote world peace and development. China stands ready to work with the United States to find the right way to get along with each other in the new era on the basis of mutual respect, peaceful coexistence and win-win cooperation, which will benefit not only the two countries but also the whole world.’
In reality, the US policy trajectory towards China is currently based on the attempt to stop China from getting access to the latest generation of semiconductors, and catching up with US defence technologies. But it is not only futile but naive to think that any technology can be kept the exclusive preserve of any country for any length of time, or that a country’s technological lead in a particular sector of economy can be secured through export restrictions. To be sure, the Chinese will always find a way.
It is the same with climate change. President Biden’s climate envoy John Kerry recently acknowledged that there can be no effective global climate change agenda without the active co-operation of China. But then he went on to propose the rather quaint idea of keeping the climate change agenda in a separate bubble from geopolitical concerns, as he put it. That won’t fly.
The Global Times wrote, “Kerry may be sincere in his desire to resume China-US cooperation in the field of climate change, but he should probably first persuade US government to remove the roadblocks, for instance, lifting sanctions on Xinjiang’s photovoltaic industry and ceasing the unreasonable crackdown on China in the field of chips.”
The point is, Xi never tried to start a new cold war. Nor did he provoke the present confrontation. China is not seeking global leadership, either, but is focused on its development and national aspirations of becoming a prosperous society without external interference. It is the US that wants to exercise global hegemony whereas China has no experience or desire to impose its will.
The ball is in Washington’s court but no significant shifts need be expected in the near term. The Party Congress conveyed an unequivocal signal that China will not compromise on the integration of Taiwan. Xi talked about a peaceful reunification, but wouldn’t rule out the use of force, if need arises.
Xi said, “We will continue to strive for peaceful reunification with the greatest sincerity and the utmost effort, but we will never promise to renounce the use of force, and we reserve the option of taking all measures necessary. This is directed solely at interference by outside forces and the few separatists seeking ‘Taiwan independence’ and their separatist activities.”
The decision to enshrine in the CCP constitution the commitment to seek a Chinese reunification while containing those who proclaim Taiwanese independence must be taken most seriously. Pressure is mounting on Beijing. The earlier belief was that with the passage of time, circumstances conductive to peaceful reunification will only get strengthened as China kept rising. That estimation no longer holds good, thanks to the Biden Administration’s strategy to queer the pitch relentlessly. The heart of the matter is that any perceived hesitancy on Beijing’s part to take decisive action can only strengthen the forces that support Taiwan’s independence. Time is running out for Beijing.
That is why, the Taiwanese election in 2024 will be an inflection point. Beijing cannot afford to live with another term for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party in Taipei. For the US too, on the other hand, time is running out as China will only pose greater challenges economically, militarily, and ideologically with the passage of time.
Where Ukraine and Taiwan are similar is also this: that neither Russia nor China will be allowed to catch up with the US in a peer group. What other countries — be it Germany or India or Iran — must also be wary of is also this: that there are limits beyond which they cannot aspire to rise lest they are cut down to size.
If for China, a peaceful external environment is an imperative need for it to transform as a prosperous society, for the US, this is the last opportunity to slow it down. Taiwan, cutting off chip supplies, etc. are from the same toolbox with the singular objective of weakening China and retarding its progress. It is no different, quintessentially, from Ukraine or the Nord Stream gas pipelines.
The Party Congress messaged that the CCP is intensely conscious of the interplay. The consolidation of the leadership needs to be understood properly rather than viewed as aggrandisement.