Brahma Chellaney, OPEN magazine
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s tenure has already been marked by high ambition and aggression, including territorial and maritime expansionism. Xi’s vision, the “Chinese dream,” is to make China the world’s leading power by 2049, the centenary of communist rule.
But Xi—who has just crowned himself China’s new emperor and elevated his favourite “yes” men to the Politburo Standing Committee, the Communist Party’s highest decision-making body—may be biting off more than he can chew. His third term is likely to take a toll on China’s economy and international standing while leading the country to a major war over Taiwan.
Xi’s decade-long reign has already turned China into a wrathful, expansionist power that pursues “wolf warrior” tactics and debt-trap diplomacy and flouts international law at will. Two successive US administrations have described as genocide and crimes against humanity Xi’s Xinjiang gulag, the largest mass incarceration of people on religious grounds since the Nazi period. About a million Muslims continue to languish in Xi’s gulag, without Xi or China facing tangible Western sanctions.
The international costs of Xi’s increasing authoritarianism are apparent from the devastating consequences of the China-originating Covij-19 pandemic, which officially has killed more than 6.5 million people worldwide. Nearly three years on, the world still does not know whether Covid-19 began as a natural spillover from wildlife or was triggered by the accidental leak of a lab-enhanced virus in Wuhan city. What is apparent, though, is that Xi’s regime lied about the initial spread of the disease, hid evidence of human-to-human transmission, and silenced doctors who sought to warn about the emergence of a novel coronavirus.
More ominously, a massive cover-up in China to obscure the genesis of the virus suggests the world may never know the truth. Beijing has refused to cooperate with international investigations, characterising them as “origin-tracing terrorism,” and instead peddled conspiracy theories.
Xi, meanwhile, has accelerated national production of nuclear warheads so rapidly that the Pentagon, in just one year, revised up its estimate of the number of such weapons China will deploy by 2030 from 400 to more than 1,000. China has already fielded its first operational hypersonic-weapons system and “intends to increase the peacetime readiness of its nuclear forces by moving to a launch-on-warning (LOW) posture with an expanded silo-based force,” according to a Pentagon report. The unprecedented speed and scale of the nuclear build-up is linked to Xi’s international expansionism, including seeking China’s global primacy by 2049.
But thanks to Xi’s actions, China’s global image has been badly dented, forcing the country to increasingly rely on its coercive power. A 2021 global survey found that unfavourable views of China were at or near historic highs in most advanced economies.
Yet, instead of undertaking a course correction, Xi is doubling down on his scofflaw actions, as underscored by China’s stepped-up bullying of Taiwan. After Beijing’s success in swallowing Hong Kong, redrawing the geopolitical map of the South China Sea and changing the territorial status quo in the Himalayan borderlands with India, Nepal and Bhutan, Taiwan is likely to be Xi’s next target.
Xi’s unbridled authority, however, does not augur well for international security and China’s own future. In fact, in a forewarning that Xi could lead China into a war, the customary phrase ‘peace and development remains the theme of the era’ was absent from his speech as well as report to the party Congress
It speaks for itself that, even before Xi secured a precedent-defying third term as the country’s leader at the recent party congress, his record in power was drawing comparisons to the past century’s most brutal rulers.
For example, Robert O’Brien, national security adviser to then-US President Donald Trump, last year equated Xi to Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. Some others have compared Xi to Adolf Hitler, even coining the nickname “Xitler.”
Xi, for his part, has cultivated a Mao Zedong-style personality cult and embarked on completing the expansionist agenda that the communist China’s founder left unfinished. Indeed, Xi has sought to model himself on Mao, the 20th century’s top butcher.
Like Mao Zedong Thought, Xi Jinping Thought has been enshrined in China’s constitution and made the central doctrine guiding the Communist Party. Also like Mao, Xi is now reverently referred to as renminlingxiu, or “people’s leader.”
China’s new Mao, while ideologically committed to classical Marxism-Leninism, as his speech at the opening of the party congress underscored, is apparently seeking to build fascism with Chinese characteristics.
A critical element of Xi’s strategy to realise the Chinese dream has been the “One Belt, One Road” project, renamed as the Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI, under which China has considerably invested in infrastructure projects abroad, with the goal of bringing countries firmly into China’s orbit. What Xi has called “the project of the century” has no parallel in modern history. The BRI is more than 12 times the size of the Marshall Plan, America’s post-World War II initiative to aid the reconstruction of Western Europe’s devastated economies.
Although the BRI has of late faced increasingly strong headwinds over partner countries’ debt-trap concerns, compelling Beijing to scale back the initiative, its significant and lasting impact should not be underestimated. The BRI, however, also remains a symbol of China’s imperial overreach, with Xi stretching the country’s resources to help advance his aggressive foreign policy.
Xi’s strategic overreach in international relations actually mirrors his domestic overreach, including imposing mass lockdowns and quarantines as part of a zero-Covid policy that has exacted major economic and social costs. Xi’s domestic overreach has extended to tightening the reins on the private sector, including the tech industry, as China increasingly becomes a state-driven economy that prioritises politics and national security over growth. Although China’s economic rise was driven by its embrace of a free market, Xi’s speech at the party congress emphasised Marxism more than markets.
According to a Chinese proverb, “To feed the ambition in your heart is like carrying a tiger under your arm.” The further Xi pushes his neo-imperial agenda, the more likely it is to bite him.
What Xi’s third term could bring
It is scarcely a surprise that Xi has tightened his grip on power by securing a ground-breaking third term as the country’s president following the week-long party congress. If there was any surprise at the party congress, it was the ease with which Xi has stacked the powerful Politburo Standing Committee with his acolytes and brought other loyalists or protégés to leadership positions, effectively creating a one-man rule under the Communist Party flag.
Surrounded by a closed circle of “yes” men who will be competing among themselves to show how loyal they are, the president will likely be told only what he would like to hear. As the American writer Walter Lippmann once warned, “Where all think alike, no one thinks very much.”
Xi’s centralisation of authority means he will have a freer hand to speed up China’s rise as a military and technological superpower, while crushing all dissent at home and accelerating the Sinicisation of ethnic minorities, especially Tibetans and Uighurs. With his unchecked power, Xi can now do whatever he wants.
So, unlike in the past when he could blame others for mistakes, Xi will find it more difficult to palm off responsibility for problems. After all, Xi reigns supreme and unchallenged, without any heir apparent.
In his speech to the party congress, Xi left little doubt that he wants China to become a world power second to none, including by reducing its reliance on Western know-how and emerging as a leading technology power in its own right. Citing a host of perceived dangers, he also vowed to continue expanding the country’s already formidable national-security apparatus.
Xi’s unbridled authority, however, does not augur well for international security and China’s own future. In fact, in a forewarning that Xi could lead China into a war, the customary phrase “peace and development remains the theme of the era” was absent from his speech as well as report to the party congress. Instead, Xi darkly warned of “dangerous storms” on the horizon.
Domestic politics in any country, including in a leading democracy like the US, has a bearing on its foreign policy. This is especially so in the case of the world’s largest autocracy, China. Under Xi, China has discarded Deng Xiaoping’s dictum, “Hide your strength, bide your time.” Instead, China has increasingly taken pride in baring its claws. This trend is likely to become even more pronounced in Xi’s third term.
Surrounded by a closed circle of ‘yes’ men who will be competing among themselves to show how loyal they are, the president will likely be told only what he would like to hear. As the American writer Walter Lippmann once warned, ‘where all think alike, no one thinks very much’
At home, Xi’s surveillance state will likely grow by leaps and bounds. Already, China’s unrivalled surveillance, censorship and propaganda systems can control or construct a narrative. But Xi is set to further expand his Orwellian surveillance state while cultivating a climate of fear.
In fact, to stamp out dissent, Xi’s regime has been whipping up ultra-nationalism by blending the digital tools of surveillance with the political tactics of the Cultural Revolution, which claimed more than a million lives. No less ominously, China’s repression and surveillance at home is a corollary of its aggressive revisionism abroad, which is largely concentrated against its neighbours.
More repression and more heavy-handedness at home are likely to be accompanied by a more aggressive military posture and a more forceful international agenda. Xi seems to believe that Chinese money can buy international acquiescence to China’s playing by its own rules, including aggressively pursuing an expansionist agenda.
With its “two steps forward, one step back” strategy, the Xi-led China will keep progressing toward its ambitious goals. Its territorial and maritime expansionism also mirrors that strategy. In this light, one can expect China to remain defiant in the face of international criticism of its renegade behaviour and actions.
Neighbouring countries will bear the brunt
The Chinese Communist Party has since its power grab in 1949 shown that it is intrinsically totalitarian, belligerent, arbitrary, expansionist and contemptuous of international law. But under Xi, the party and its rule have become more despotic, coercive, punitive and racist.
With its “tribute nation” approach to weak, vulnerable states, China seeks to influence their sovereign decisions through economic and political coercion. Indeed, Xi believes China has accumulated sufficient power to begin remaking the global order in its image, thereby reinventing itself as the mythical Middle Kingdom.
China’s territorial assertiveness and expansionism, meanwhile, have become intertwined with its national renewal. China has sought to extend its control to strategic territories and resources as part of a shrewd, high-stakes strategy to achieve political, economic, and military pre-eminence in Asia. It sees dominance in Asia as a stepping stone to supplanting the US as the world’s preeminent power.
Against this background, China’s muscular foreign policy is set to become even more assertive, with important implications for its neighbours. China will also exploit its status as the world’s unmatched hydro-hegemon to gain strategic leverage over its downstream neighbours, as the Mekong River Basin already exemplifies.
To stamp out dissent, Xi’s regime has been whipping up ultra-nationalism by blending the digital tools of surveillance with the political tactics of the cultural revolution, which claimed more than a million lives. No less ominously, China’s repression and surveillance at home is a corollary of its aggressive revisionism abroad, which is largely concentrated against its neighbours
The plain fact is that the rise of Xi’s neo-Maoist dictatorship will likely spell trouble for the democratic world but especially for neighbouring countries, which already are bearing the brunt of China’s recidivist policies. Indeed, Xi has shown an increasing appetite for taking major risks, as the South China Sea, the Himalayas and Hong Kong show.
Xi will continue expanding China’s influence and territorial and maritime control by stepping up pressure on other countries, a strategy that has already resulted in a fundamental change of the status quo in the South China Sea, without Beijing incurring any international costs.
Xi is now working to replicate his South China Sea strategy in the Himalayas by unilaterally changing facts on the ground, with little regard for the diplomatic and geopolitical fallout. He has not spared even Bhutan, one of the world’s smallest countries, by nibbling away at Bhutanese borderlands, one valley or pasture at a time.
China’s encroachments on several Ladakh borderlands in April-May 2020, for their part, have served as a reminder that, unlike Russia’s frontal, full-force attack on Ukraine, the Chinese Communist Party prefers a stealthy, salami-slicing approach to expand the country’s frontiers. Its tactics normally fall short of armed conflict, as a Pentagon report has noted.
The incremental, salami-slicing approach below the threshold of armed conflict explains why China’s often bulletless aggression draws little international costs. For example, without inviting any concrete Western sanctions, China has changed the status in the South China Sea and Hong Kong. What was one of Asia’s freest and most open cities, Hong Kong, has rapidly been turned into a repressive police state.
China’s salami-slicing strategy, however, did not develop under Xi. The party honed salami-slicing in the 1950s, when China sliced off the Switzerland-sized Aksai Chin plateau, which was part of the original princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. But under Xi’s leadership, the salami-slicing strategy has progressed to a “cabbage” approach to contested or claimed borderlands, with the People’s Liberation Army stealthily cutting off access to a neighbour’s previously controlled territory and surrounding it with multiple security layers.
Looking ahead, deception, stealth and surprise will remain integral to China’s expansion of its maritime and land borders. And China will likely rely more and more on coercive bargaining, including intimidating smaller nations from defending their interests.
It is important to note that China’s military drills are rarely empty shows of force. In 2020, China’s unusually large, wintertime troop exercise near the India border became the launchpad for its stealthy land grabs in Ladakh, triggering still continuing military standoffs between the two Asian giants at multiple sites along their long and inhospitable Himalayan frontier.
The more recent live-fire Chinese military drills around Taiwan in August, by simulating an air and sea blockade, demonstrated China’s combat capability to accomplish what Xi has called a “historic mission” to absorb that island democracy. The drills allowed Chinese troops to practice enforcing a gradual economic strangulation or quarantine of Taiwan.
Taiwan could well become the next Ukraine. Xi will wait for an opportune moment before moving on Taiwan, taking by complete surprise a distracted US, which is increasingly embroiled in the Ukraine war including through transfers of sophisticated weapons and battlefield intelligence. Xi’s aggression, however, is likely to take the form of a calibrated, gradually intensifying squeeze of Taiwan, rather than a full-fledged invasion.
The White House acknowledged in August that China is pursuing a “boiling the frog” strategy against Taiwan by regularising crossings of the median line in the Taiwan Strait, stepping up coercive pressures and slowly altering the status quo.
The parable of the frog is about sensory adaptation to small changes over time: If a frog is put into a pot of boiling water, it will instantly jump out, but if it is placed in a pot of cool water that is then very slowly brought to a boil, the frog will not notice, cooking to death. Likewise, Xi pursues his expansionism incrementally, conditioning international power elites to China’s expanding footprint and preventing a concerted Western response until it becomes too late.
Yet US President Joe Biden, asked recently whether American forces would defend Taiwan if China attacked, replied, “Yes, if in fact there was an unprecedented attack.” But China, instead of launching an unprecedented attack, is more likely to slowly throttle Taiwan.
Meanwhile, Xi, far from seeking to hide China’s frenzied nuclear weapons build-up, is virtually flaunting it, as if to underline that the country’s rapidly growing nuclear arsenal is driven more by political than military considerations. China’s neighbours need to pay close attention to this build-up, even though it may be primarily aimed at dissuading the US from challenging the Xi regime’s actions at home and abroad.
Just as Xi’s muscular revisionism has largely centred on Asia—from the East and South China Seas to the Himalayas—the security-related impacts (as opposed to the geopolitical implications) of the fast-growing Chinese nuclear armoury are likely to be felt principally by Asian states. With a larger nuclear arsenal, Xi could be further emboldened to step up his conventional-military tactics and hybrid warfare from behind China’s highly protective nuclear shield.
Questions are already being raised in the US about the strategic wisdom of defending Taiwan against a potential Chinese invasion, with some analysts contending that any US plan to come to Taiwan’s rescue is far too risky and that Taipei ought to do more for its self-defence. A China armed to its teeth with nuclear weapons would cast further doubt on whether the US would come to Taiwan’s defence, given the greater risks involved.
More fundamentally, if China cannot be at peace with itself, it will not be at peace with others. Xi’s lurch toward totalitarianism will foster greater discontent among the Chinese people, spawning a pressure cooker syndrome.
History is replete with examples of dictators blinded by hubris and overreach leading their countries down a disastrous path. With the last checks and balances gone, Xi’s overweening ambition, absolute power and reliance on “yes” men are likely to spell trouble for China. Under Xi, China has already damaged its international reputation and left itself with only one real lever of power: brute force. But if Xi stays on his present course, he is likely to lead China into a war.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of two award-winning books on water: Water, Peace, and War and Water: Asia’s New Battleground.
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