Xi Jinping has now consolidated his place as a perpetual leader of the People’s Republic of China. He has established almost total control over all aspects of Chinese governance: be it Party, state or military. He has established his personal authority over much of Chinese society through the entrenchment of Xi Jinping Thought. And, most recently, he has exerted his power over China’s past, present and future through establishing a ‘historical resolution’.
Closely tied to Xi’s rise to ultimate and perpetual power is the rise of the country he leads. As I argued in a previous article, China is not rising, as such; it has risen. China is no longer a rogue state, as it was under Mao Zedong; nor is it a modest peripheral power as it was under Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. China is a global power with global ambitions: it cannot be ignored. This is why Xi’s ever-strengthening grip on power is important to the West. Xi Jinping is almost certain to maintain his position of near-total power over Chinese politics and society until his death, and even after, just as Mao has, will likely retain a certain posthumous influence. So, when dealing with this novel global power, the West must learn to deal with Xi personally, and what this means for certain key issues.
Naturally, when dealing with an adversarial, and occasionally hostile, global power such as China, there will inevitably be issues aplenty. Such issues include the long-standing conundrums in the South and East China Seas, and human rights concerns in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. But, for the sake of concision, the three most consequential issues will be addressed here: The Climate Emergency, the stability of Sino-Western relations, and the Taiwan question.
In recent years, and especially since the recent COP26 summit in Glasgow, the Climate Emergency has floated to the top of the global agenda – as it should. Warnings from scientists all across the world and rousing activism from individuals such as Greta Thunberg and Sir David Attenborough have fuelled the global political agenda. The political reaction to this can be seen through the agreements made in Paris in 2015 and Glasgow in 2021. As the most populous country in the world, the second largest economy, and currently, the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases; China is of course crucial to avoiding disastrous climate change.
With the ongoing energy crisis in China, worrying trends have appeared. China has announced plans to increase coal mining and production – making it clear that domestic energy security and economic development come first. Also, along with unlikely-ally India, China undermined the final COP26 agreement with devastating last-minute changes to its language on phasing-out coal. These issues were exacerbated by the crippling absence of Xi’s direct engagement with the summit.
However, Xi’s consolidation of perpetual power may be a good thing for the West when concerning climate-related issues. In a recent article, China watcher Kerry Brown exerts a compelling argument. He argues that, at core, Xi is a committed environmentalist. To support this argument, Brown displays the environmentalist tendencies of Xi throughout his political career. This includes moves to ‘green’ China as a provincial official in Zhejiang, to his steadfast engagement with the international community on climate as ‘paramount leader’ (prior to his snub of the COP26 Summit).
With Xi, allegedly an environmentalist, now obtaining perpetual leadership (and dictatorship) of China, there may be positives in terms of climate-related issues. Xi’s firm control over party and state, and his authority over Chinese politics and society, may allow him to (hopefully) steer China towards a more sustainable route – certainly a good outcome for the West. We may already be seeing evidence of this. Recently, Xi’s top climate envoy, Xie Zhenhua, and US Special Envoy for Climate, John Kerry, surprised the world with mutual promises of cooperation between the two arch-adversaries on climate change. This promise of cooperation leads us onto the next area of concern.
The stability of Sino-Western relations is also a significant issue for the West when considering Xi’s newfound perpetuity within China’s leadership. Concerning this, the ‘West’ is not necessarily geographical. It is more to do with a loose bloc of like-minded states, bound together by liberal democracy and close security cooperation (especially through agreements such as NATO and AUKUS). It includes states such as the US and UK in the western hemisphere, but also states in the geographical east, such as Japan and Australia (Kilcullen, 2020). This loose bloc, under de facto US leadership, makes up much of the world’s wealth and military might. This means that the relationship between the West (specifically the US) and the new global power of China, is of utmost importance in global politics.
Xi’s rise to perpetual power within China is certainly a two-sided coin on this matter. On the one hand, Xi seems committed to somewhat maintaining stability between China and the West. In a regional sense, this can be seen by the apparent olive branch Xi extended toward the APEC community concerning Asia-Pacific trade and avoiding Cold War-era divisions. This too can be seen in Xi’s interaction with Europe. During his visit to Brussels in 2014, Xi not only encouraged ‘common cultural prosperity linking the two major civilizations of China and Europe’, but also dubbed the China-EU relationship as a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’ – a significant classification from a state so averse to formal alliances. Perhaps most promising is some of Xi’s messaging concerning the US-China relationship. Xi has called for a ‘new model of major power relations’ between the two global powerhouses, in order to ‘avoid the traditional path of confrontations and conflicts between major countries’. This new model seeks predictability and stability in the US-China relationship, but is fundamentally conditional on the perception of equality and parity between the two powers (Brown, 2017).
However, Xi’s tight-fisted grip on Chinese politics and society may not lead to this much-desired stable relationship. Xi’s exceptional arrogance, characterised by increasingly fanatical nationalism and through anecdotes such as ‘Wolf Warrior Diplomacy’ and the ‘Chinese Dream’, have steered China onto a collision course with the West. This has certainly been made more worrying by Xi’s increasingly threatening language and behaviour toward the West. In addition, there is the argument that whilst ‘institutionalised’ authoritarian states (i.e. states governed by a party, such as the CCP) may tend to be averse to confrontation and conflict, an authoritarian state run strictly by an individual is usually far more casual in its aggressive behaviour. This relates to the stability of the Sino-Western relationship because, as Xi cements his personal power over China, Chinese governance is shifting to look more like the latter type of authoritarian state. If so, it could be the case that China may soon adopt an increasingly hostile stance toward the West.
There has been a test of this relationship already. The Xi-Biden virtual meeting on the 15th November tested the waters between the two leaders for the first time since Xi’s consolidation of perpetual power at the Sixth Plenum. There were some positives, with both leaders expressing the need for cooperation in key areas and displaying a civilised tone. But, there was no concrete progress, and some concerning veiled threats and criticisms cast a long shadow over the talks. Apart from this, it marked a clear improvement from the debacle in Alaska in March 2021.
Xi’s outreaches suggest that China genuinely does seek a stable relationship with the West. If true, Xi’s unremitting consolidation of power may mean China will further its efforts to stabilise its interactions with the West. But, if not, the West faces some turbulent times ahead. Dealing with China; a stable, rich and global power, firmly under the control of a potentially hostile dictator, will not be easy – especially in the East Asian theatre.
Notwithstanding the above-mentioned issues, there is one sticking point in Sino-Western relations which just won’t go away: The Taiwan Question. Although this is somewhat a subset of the stability of Sino-Western relations, the importance and intricacy of the issue demands it be considered as a stand-alone issue. For the West, this issue is about the survival of a like-minded liberal democracy and important trading partner. For China, it is fundamentally an internal issue; completing the reunification of China and ending the legacy of the Chinese Civil War. There have been previous flare-ups, and recently China has butt heads with the US and Europe over the issue.
Xi’s rise to perpetuity has certainly upped the ante, but this has made the answer no more clear. On the one hand, Xi’s newfound ultimate power may allow China to go on the war-footing. With Xi unquestionably in control of party, state, military and society, it could mean that Xi will make good on his promises to ‘reunite’ China, no matter the cost. On the other hand, now that Xi is firmly in power, his rousing nationalist rhetoric may be replaced with a more sensible conciliatory approach concerning Taiwan. It is hard to say what will happen to Taiwan over the coming years. Rather paradoxically, we may be moving to a more peaceful and predictable path concerning Taiwan, yet, in parallel, we seem ever-closer to the major war many have feared for decades.
Xi Jinping’s consolidation as a complete and perpetual leader of China has brought great ramifications for the world – some good, some bad. For the West, the world may become an increasingly dangerous place. With China and the CCP firmly under the perpetual thumb of Xi, it may retreat into self-centrism on the climate emergency, it may choose to be abrasive and potentially hostile toward the West, and, of most immediate concern, it may plunge the Indo-Pacific region into a devastating war over Taiwan. Nevertheless, however unpalatable dealing with a totalitarian dictatorship may be to the liberal mind of the West, there may be some silver linings. Xi seems likely to bring China into the fold on climate issues, he may seek a stable and predictable relationship with the West, including adopting a more reasonable approach to Taiwan. In many ways, it is too early to tell. But we in the West must understand one thing: China is now Xi’s China, and this China seems ready and willing to fruitfully engage with the West, yet, in parallel, is poised to adopt a belligerent war-footing against us. As a result, we must be prepared to engage with Xi’s China, whether it be on a cooperative and conciliatory basis; or, if need be, firmly defend our interests, security, and those of our partners in East Asia – but this will come at great cost.
Brown, K. (2017) China’s Foreign Policy Since 2012: A Question of Communication and Clarity, China Quarterly of International Strategic Studies, 3(3), 325-342. https://www.worldscientific.com/doi/abs/10.1142/S237774001750018X [Please note that this journal article is free to access for all].
Kilcullen, D. (2020). The Dragons and the Snakes: How the Rest Learned to Fight the West. London: Hurst & Company.