The conclusion of the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of China cemented Xi Jinping’s firm hold onto power. His third term heralds continuity, providing a steady hand as China braces for “high winds, choppy waters, and even dangerous storms.” In contrast, the abrupt leadership change in London and the coming midterm elections in Washington - not to mention the not-so-distant 2024 presidential polls - inject uncertainty in other major world capitals. Will China’s bet for a determined and seasoned leader in a period of high risks but also high rewards pay off?
Xi has a decade of leadership under his belt and another five on the way as his country’s top official. This gives him tremendous head start, confidence, and familiarity with the position and the lay of the land. In comparison, some of his global peers barely warmed up in their positions - German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is less than a year in office, and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is just over a year. But longevity can be both an asset and a liability. Words and actions Xi took that beset ties with other countries will continue to present problems to Chinese foreign policy. These include bold and ambitious gambits which fuel suspicions, hardline postures over disputes that have unsettled ties with neighbors, and a growing gulf with rivals as shifting sands upset the longstanding global power distribution. That said, China seemingly chose predictability and resolve at a time of turbulence.
Continuity, institutionalization and expansion
Xi’s third serving guarantees the continuity and institutionalization of his flagship foreign policy overtures. In his report to the 20th CPC Congress, he pledged to promote the “high quality development of the Belt and Road Initiative [BRI].” The five-year extension also presents an opportunity to implement his new pitches, namely the Global Development Initiative (GDI) and the Global Security Initiative (GSI). It may also preside over the expansion of organizations wherein China plays a founding and prodigious role. Xi stressed that the country will work to see that “cooperation mechanisms such as BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) exert greater influence, and emerging markets and developing countries are better represented and have a greater say in global affairs.”
Beijing can leverage its growing national capacity and burgeoning international clout to underpin its audacious programs. The country has come a long way since undertaking reforms and opening up over five decades ago. It is now the world’s largest trading nation - the biggest trade partner for over 140 countries. Unsurprisingly, this figure also corresponds with the number of countries that signed Belt and Road cooperation agreements with Beijing. China is the world’s largest manufacturer, holder of the world’s largest foreign exchange reserves, top bilateral creditor. It is also the world’s second leading destination of foreign capital and third largest outbound investor. Such financial and economic weight underpins its massive infrastructure lending and construction abroad. This burnished its appeal but also earned the envy and scrutiny of traditional funders. As China reflects on lessons from its nine-year-old BRI, commercial viability and carbon footprint may become more important financing criteria going forward, although symbolic and goodwill projects are likely to remain. By extending more funding to renewable energy, China may help accelerate the energy transition of many countries in the global South, making a big contribution to climate change mitigation.
Chinese lessons and public goods for the world
China’s experience offers plenty of lessons, especially for developing countries. Its contribution to poverty reduction is unparalleled in modern history. The Chinese economic miracle brought about 800 million people out of poverty in just 40 years. And in the last eight years, the country uplifted close to 100 million people from abject poverty, particularly in the countryside. Thus, China was able to eliminate absolute poverty at home a decade ahead of the United Nations 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. That milestone enabled the country to attain its first centenary goal, which is the building of a moderately prosperous society. This achievement emboldened Beijing to offer a new GDI vision to the world, which Xi can execute under his third term. Of course, there is the concern that the pandemic and lockdowns which have arrested the country’s growth may bear on recent poverty alleviation efforts and that its over-leveraged economy may imbue more prudence in underwriting overseas projects.
Infrastructure is a crucial piece in China’s success story. Nowhere did the developmental impact of physical connectivity become so manifest in such a short time. In just under two decades, China was able to build the most extensive high-speed railway system in the world, thanks to foreign and indigenous technologies. The country eventually exported high-speed trains abroad, including the one that will run the length of the Jakarta-Bandung track in Indonesia, which may open next year. The country also built extensive expressways and big technology-driven ports that are among the world’s busiest. The scale and speed with which China constructed world-class public works at home honed its capacity and proficiency in building them abroad. Backed by a deep state pocket, the country became a force in global infrastructure.
Agriculture and human capital development are also key cornerstones in China’s turnaround. The country delivered the world’s largest grain output, ensuring food security to feed 1.04 billion mouths, a target that long preoccupied past leaderships. Mechanization and introduction of science and technology revolutionized the country’s agriculture. Beijing can extend this capacity to other countries to earn goodwill, turn its national agri champions into formidable global players, and expand access to high-value commodity imports. China also developed the world’s largest education, social security, and healthcare systems. In Xi’s speech at the congress, he also delivered some highlights of the country’s progress: the country is currently providing medical insurance for 95% of the country’s population, rebuilding over 42 million housing units in run-down urban areas and over 24 million dilapidated rural houses, and having 1.03 billion internet users. Technical and vocational skills education and strong university-industry linkage also powered China’s ascent. Experience and capacity in these fields may form the pillars of the GDI that the country will roll out with participating countries in the coming years.
Finally, in the field of innovation, China became the world’s second-largest spender on research and development (R&D) and boasts the world’s largest cohort of R&D personnel. China’s mass production helped bridge the technology divide, enabling more people and communities across the world access to a broad range of technology goods, from smartphones, computers, and household appliances to solar panels, wind turbines, and possibly soon, electric vehicles. But China’s rise in this domain also stirred concerns from traditional technology powers, and competition in this space is bound to deepen. Such rivalry also spills over to setting the rules and norms governing cutting-edge dual-use technologies, like artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and undersea, cyber, and space capabilities. Avoiding the weaponization of what are supposed to be global commons like the seas, internet, and outer space becomes increasingly difficult as mistrust between great powers deepens.
Will durable leadership withstand headwinds?
Decoupling of global value chains, especially for critical technology goods like microchips, may result in technology fragmentation, and analogous but incompatible standards and systems. While the United States and the West double down on resilience, China will dig in and invest in technological autonomy. For many developing countries, this may drive up the cost of technological upgrading and hold back their bid to build digital infrastructure, fintech, and smart cities to boost e-commerce, harness e-governance, and benefit from the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Profits, markets, and downstream sectors will undoubtedly face headwinds. The U.S.-led Chip 4 alliance, US export controls and recently passed, notably the CHIPS and Science Act, reinforce the Chinese notion that the U.S. is out to suppress its tech ambitions. The cohesion of the alliance and the window for Beijing to develop its advanced chipmaking capacity before the curtain falls are crucial variables to watch.
After securing its first centennial goal, China is now focusing its energies on achieving its second hundred year goal, which is to build a modern socialist country by 2049. Keeping a peaceful and stable environment is indispensable in realizing this. As such, disputes and intensifying geopolitical contests pose serious hurdles. In his report before the 20th CPC Congress, Xi pointed out that China “has entered a period of development in which strategic opportunities, risks, and challenges are concurrent and uncertainties and unforeseen factors are rising,” recognizing that “[v]arious ‘black swan’ and ‘gray rhino’ events may occur at any time.” Expectations are high for his third term, especially since he stacked the Politburo Standing Committee with close allies. The stage is set for a strong and coherent leadership in the next five years.