SPEAKING FREELY The real script in Xi's foreign hand
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
Analysts who expect China's new leader Xi Jinping to implement a more assertive foreign policy have failed to address adequately the constraints that domestic politics place on his power in the international arena.
China's foreign policy is an extension of its internal political system. Whether or not China becomes more assertive is not dependent upon Xi's personal political orientation, but whether it is in line with the interests of the Communist Party of China (CPC). There is ample evidence to suggest that a more assertive foreign
policy will do more harm than good to the core interest of the CPC - maintaining the one-party system.
As the leader of the CPC, Xi is required to focus on domestic issues in a peaceful international environment. China's grand strategy in the post-Mao era is two-fold: to promote modernization and to ensure China's peacefully rise in a global context. The two objectives are interrelated, but making domestic peace is the CPC's top priority.
The Chinese ruling class for thousands of years has followed the order of "resisting foreign aggression after stabilizing the country." The top priority of the CPC is to try everything to retain power in the face of a mountain of domestic problems. Growing dissatisfaction among Chinese citizens has caused increasing protests. Chinese leaders know that the biggest enemy of China's leaders is a national protest movement of discontented groups against the regime.
Xi fears public anger, so he will focus on China's improving living standards to enhance the legitimacy of the CPC. His superficial tough voice on international territorial disputes plays largely to assuaging public dissatisfaction about other concerns. The CPC does not have the capability to wage a real war against its neighboring countries while also trying to maintain domestic social stability. This explains why China's State Councilor, Yang Jiechi, recently confirmed again that China's new collective central leadership is committed to the path of peaceful development and the strategy of win-win cooperation with the outside world.
Xi must tread a careful line between moderates and hardliners in order to prevent nationalism from turning against the CPC. On the one hand, the CPC has realized that any confrontation with neighboring countries could seriously interrupt China's modernization and undermine the party's legitimacy, no matter who wins. On the other hand, nationalism remains strong and faults the government for not taking a tough stance in disputes with neighboring countries.
In this sense, it is not the best interest for Xi Jinping to deal with territorial disputes with anything other than a firm hand. Xi understands Mao's motto that "power is acquired through the barrel of gun". He has also learned from the Egyptian Revolution that an authoritarian regime can collapse anytime without military support, because both Presidents Mohamed Morsi and Hosni Mubarak were tossed from office by the combined forces of the military and huge protests.
Thus, Xi wants not only to have the three titles of General Secretary of the CPC, President of China, and Central Military Commission Chairman of the CPC in name only, but also to have the full ability to exercise control over the three powers, especially the military. He has sent out various signals to the public, showing that he holds the Chinese military's reins and is ready to take a tougher stance in territory disputes.
Nationalism is a double-edged sword, however. A more assertive foreign policy could add fuel to the fire of Chinese nationalism, which could get out of control anytime and possibly turn against the Xi regime. Therefore, Xi does not have any choice, but to try control Chinese nationalist feeling at a manageable level in order to retain the one-party system.
In an institutional perspective, it is very difficult for Xi Jinping to implement a more assertive foreign policy without an organizational coordinating mechanism. Xi is not a charismatic leader. After Deng's death, all important decisions have been made by the Politburo, who are not appointed by Xi, but whose power is a product through secret negotiations between different groups of the CPC. Every member of the Politburo serves the interests of their own group. In this sense, China's foreign policy neither represents the best intentions of Xi nor the greatest interests of China.
At present, the voices of China's foreign policy comes from different departments and are not well-coordinated. This implies that Xi has not gained sufficient power to manage the country's foreign relation system. In addition, Chinese society has become more diverse. While Politburo still has the right to make final decisions, government officials, military officers, scholars, and the media have gained more voice to influence China's foreign policy-making process.
This makes Xi more difficult to implement his own assertiveness and foreign policy has come to represent the common interests of elite groups. The reality is that a high percentage of Chinese officials have interests overseas, and they fear any further deterioration in relations with Western countries.
Even if Xi Jinping wanted to put a more assertive foreign policy into practice, the Chinese political system would disable any chance for him to change course from Hu Jintao's moderate foreign policy. Xi may show a tougher stance in territory disputes with other Asian countries, but it is superficial, and when it comes to relations with the United States, he will try to avoid direct confrontation.
Xi's tough exterior of foreign relations is only to put on a show for a domestic audience. Regimes throughout the history of China have taken hard stances towards their own people, and reserve soft approaches for Western societies. The West, especially the United States, has obviously misread the new Chinese leader's political mind in dealing with territory disputes - and consequently has overreacted to China's recent foreign policy.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Jinghao Zhou is Associate Professor of Contemporary China at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in New York. He is author of four books:, including Chinese vs. Western Perspectives: Understanding Contemporary China (Lexington Books), to be published in November, and China's Peaceful Rise in a Global Context: A Domestic Aspect of China's Road Map to Democratization (Lexington Books, 2010).