Tag Archives: Xi Jinping

Is the China-Japan confrontation Xi's inside political play, or part of a broader move?

Is China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, flexing military muscle with Japan to solidify rule within the Communist Party and the People’s Liberation Army, or is the heightened dispute with Japan best viewed in a broader context?

At Foreign PolicyJohn Garnaut examines the relationship between Xi and the PLA. The article is worth a read, but the thrust of it can be captured in this passage, speculating that the Chinese agitation on islands claimed by Japan, China, and Taiwan is the result of an effort by Xi to shore up internal power.

The dizzying display of hard power is sending fear and awe throughout the Asia-Pacific region. But Xi, it seems, is unconvinced that all this shiny hardware can be effectively deployed by an organization that was designed for civil war and adapted in recent decades as a political force to ensure the party’s grip on power.

That’s where China’s rapidly escalating territorial showdown with Japan, its largest trading partner and still the world’s third-largest economy, comes in. In September, the Japanese government bought the disputed Senkaku Islands, or Diaoyu Islands as they are known in China, from private owners to prevent them from falling into the hands of Tokyo’s governor at the time, a hawkish nationalist provocateur. But China responded with fury. It launched a propaganda blitz against Japan, facilitated protests and riots across China, and escalated its maritime and air patrols of the disputed area. For Xi, according to his close family friend, the otherwise baffling diplomatic crisis that resulted has offered a priceless opportunity to “sort the horses from the mules” and mobilize willing generals around him. Claims that Xi has exploited or even orchestrated the brinkmanship with Japan might seem preposterous to outside observers, given that a miscalculation could lead to war. But the logic is compelling for those who have grown up near the center of China’s endless and unforgiving internal struggles.

This claim should be taken with a grain of salt. It is, after all, an anonymous source coming out of the highly opaque world of Chinese elite politics. On the other hand, Garnaut’s sources in recent months have seemed quite good. Either way, the idea is worth discussion.

What if the current surge of Sino-Japanese confrontation over the islands really are in large part the result of internal political plays?

Though all-out war is unlikely, the risk of accident or miscalculation is significant whenever military or civilian law enforcement vessels or planes are put in proximity with those they believe to be adversaries. If Xi Jinping has calculated that this risk is worth taking, we might assume he is deeply insecure in his new position. Perhaps he sees the danger of a PLA outside his close command as greater than that of accidental violence or escalation with Japan—an outcome that could cause untold damage to commerce and the largest decline in China’s international status since at least 1989. Of course, a military out of control could cause its own violence, but this is no small gambit.

As Garnaut notes, there is also a real possibility that in a full-scale conflict Japan’s highly modern, well-trained forces would defeat China’s modernizing, untested military. If Xi is worried about the strength of his rule, this potential outcome would be devastating. For a new leader to lose a battle (a war?) to a great historical adversary at the center of China’s so-called “century of humiliation” could very well be crippling.

An alternative: What if the Japan initiative is no mere internal play, but also aligns with a broader strategy of pushing China’s maritime claims now that it has stronger forces?

China’s increased military and Maritime Surveillance (armed civilian law enforcement) activity in the East China Sea, where the dispute with Japan is centered, should not be viewed in isolation. Though it’s possible the logic of the Japan dispute is independent, Chinese forces and diplomatic staff have recently taken a harder line with maritime neighbors in the South China Sea. Especially with the Philippines and Vietnam, China’s official statements and deployments reflect a renewed assertion of ill-defined territorial claims. The Philippines has brought a seemingly well-crafted case under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to which both states are party, and the Chinese government has not sent anyone to participate in the arbitration process so far. Meanwhile, regular Chinese patrols are reported by state media, and active development is under way on one island under the banner of a new city called Sansha, which supposedly administers a wide swath of South China Sea territory under Chinese law.

There are significant parallels between the South China Sea and East China Sea situations. The Philippines and Japan are both treaty allies of the United States. (Vietnam is not, though Vietnamese-U.S. dialogue and coordination appear to have increased along with this dispute.) In each case, Chinese Maritime Surveillance vessels have been the most visible, though some PLA presence is involved. Why not view these initiatives as parallel?

One reason to differentiate the South China Sea mobilization from the China-Japan dispute is that the former predates Xi’s rise to power, while the latter seems to be developing largely under his watch. But it’s equally possible to view the rise in island disputes as part of a broader flexing of Chinese military muscle, perhaps also including a recent increase in action on the China-India border dispute.

As always, it could likely be a combination of both. But while it’s worth taking seriously the internal political intrigue that may drive international events, broader trends must be kept in view. Missing from this account is potential competition for resources and action between different military commands in China. Though it’s often disputed which came first—the U.S. rebalance to the Asia Pacific or China’s increased assertiveness on maritime disputes—the two moves have emerged at similar times. And perhaps in each case the strategic logic has been the same all along, but people making decisions in China have decided that now is the time to start pushing, either because military strength has risen sufficiently or because they believe long-term claims need periodic renewal. While it would be a neat narrative, and a pleasingly dramatic one, to root these events in one man’s struggle to establish control, the reality is far less pleasingly simple. Garnaut’s coverage of elite politics is invaluable, but it should be taken as one part of a broader picture.

Daily Update, June 29, 2012: Rich leading families, NYT China, South China Sea

Today’s links begin with an exhausting-sounding investigation from a team of Bloomberg reporters into relatives of Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, who is expected to become the country’s top leader this fall. Sometimes through assumed names, holding companies, and other tactics, many of Xi’s relations have significant business and real estate holdings. [READ THE STORY]

China’s “outward direct investment” (ODI) is a “game changer,” says Columbia University’s Jeffrey Sachs. Peking University’s Yiping Huang adds details:

So China is leveraging its ODI to buy natural resources, acquire strategic assets, and set up companies that will facilitate exports. “The single focus of all these activities is to strengthen and improve the competitiveness of [their] factories at home,” he says.

Huang calls this the “Chinese model” of ODI but says it is hardly unique to China. Other rapidly developing economies, such as Korea and Brazil, are pursuing similar strategies, but those countries’ outside initiatives have been overshadowed by China’s massive capital resources, he says. “The difference between China and Korea is that Korea is a small country,” Huang says. [FULL STORY]

There might be a big, non-resource investment coming up: China Development Bank is looking at a $1.7 billion tie-up with a San Francisco real estate developer.

The South China Sea is still keeping things interesting.

  • Philippine officials said their planes spotted Chinese fishing ships back in the area surrounding the disputed Scarborough Shoal on Monday.
  • On Wednesday, a new spat between China and Vietnam over oil exploration in the disputed Paracel Islands added to the recent bilateral dust-up that has seen Vietnam passing a law supporting its claim to the islands and China upgrading the administrative status of three of the islands.

    China National Offshore Oil Corp. said it was offering a new batch of oil-exploration blocks inside the 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone granted to Vietnam under the United Nations’ Law of the Sea.

    Vietnam’s government quickly objected, saying the Chinese state oil firm was moving into its territorial waters. On Wednesday, state-run Vietnam Oil & Gas, or PetroVietnam, weighed in, showing how territorial claims in the sea are increasingly being backed up by powerful companies in addition to rival governments, and potentially adding new sources of tension to the conflict. [FULL STORY]

  • On Thursday, a Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman said China is considering setting up a military unit in “Sansha city,” the newly created prefecture-level body that encompasses three islands also claimed by Vietnam. [China Daily report]
  • The official also said China is sending combat-ready patrols to the Spratly Islands.
  • July 2–10, the United States and the Philippines are planning joint military exercises in the South China Sea.

Speaking at a CSIS conference Wednesday, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell said the United States wants to work with China on the South China Sea, according to a press report. From the video: “We will have areas of difference, we will have areas where we compete… we want to build a strong, durable partnership with China that works for everyone” to build peace in Southeast Asia.

Also meet China's next no. 2 leader, Li Keqiang

Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping continues his trip to the United States ahead of his expected rise to the top leadership position after November’s party congress. Meanwhile, NPR’s Louisa Lim has a great radio story on the man expected to be the next vice president premier, Li Keqiang.

Li, who is currently vice premier, comes across as a careful—if reformist-leaning—politician. Indeed, the extent of his ties to the Tiananmen movement is part of the story.

Lim also includes reference to one of my favorite Wikileaks cables, one that endeared Li Keqiang to me during an academic project, for his insight if nothing else.

People like to quote Li’s assertion that Chinese GDP figures are “man-made.” This is notable only in that Li said it as Party Secretary of Liaoning Province, a large northeastern economy bordering North Korea. But what he supposedly said next is far more interesting for people who, despite bad GDP figures, want to understand the magnitude of Chinese economic activity. Li offered three proxies for economic output that he looked at to keep an eye on Liaoning’s heavy industry–dominated economy.

The full excerpt from the cable:

4. (C) GDP figures are “man-made” and therefore unreliable, Li said. When evaluating Liaoning’s economy, he focuses on three figures:
1) electricity consumption, which was up 10 percent in Liaoning last year;
2) volume of rail cargo, which is fairly accurate because fees are charged for each unit of weight; and
3) amount of loans disbursed, which also tends to be accurate given the interest fees charged. By looking at these three figures, Li said he can measure with relative accuracy the speed of economic growth. All other figures, especially GDP statistics, are “for reference only,” he said smiling.

The scholarly community had already thought of electricity consumption, and economists are creative when looking for proxies. But this is a vote of confidence in the idea of proxies over primary indicators, even when the indicator is “known.” The message is that closely watched numbers are also closely controlled; reality may be hiding in less scrutinized places.

It’s also worth noting that this frank discussion with someone who got the information into a U.S. diplomatic cable suggests that Li is perhaps more comfortable than usual working internationally. His English, for one thing, sounds great in the radio report.

Xi Jinping in Washington: A roundup/liveblog

This post will be was continually updated today as I find found good or interesting material on Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping’s visit to the White House, the State Department, and the Pentagon.

4:00 p.m.

Last update today. Off to CFR and then offline for the evening.

The White House has posted a transcript of Obama’s remarks, as well as the “Joint Fact Sheet on Strengthening U.S.-China Economic Relations.”

Neither document is especially surprising. I noted earlier that Obama said he welcomes China’s “peaceful rise,” a reference to an earlier rhetoric associated with Zheng Bijian. A quick look reveals that “we welcome the peaceful rise of China” has been something of a talking point. See this from November.

The economic relations document is what it sounds like, focusing exclusively on economic issues. It will take some comparison to other statements in the past to assess the significance of this document. And remember, Xi isn’t president yet.

3:00 p.m.

MSNBC has posted video of Obama’s appearance with Xi Jinping:

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Also, former Obama East Asia adviser Jeffrey Bader is rooting for Xi Jinping’s success.
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Xi Jinping thumbs nose at US anti-China populism

Xi Jinping

In written answers to questions from the Washington Post editorial board, Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, who is expected to take power as Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party in November, implies that anti-China economic rhetoric is based in ignorance.

As economic globalization gathers momentum, China and the United States have become highly interdependent economically. Such economic relations would not enjoy sustained, rapid growth if they were not based on mutual benefit or if they failed to deliver great benefits to the United States. The Americans who know the real picture of China-U.S. economic relations, including those in the business community, will echo this point.

This to me was the most pointed of the comments the Post published. It also so happens that I largely agree.

Image credit: Creative Commons photo via nznationalparty on Flickr.