Quo Vadis Xi?
Never have the nations felt the tremors of change like it does today due to the impact of the Rise of China. Post WW-II, USA replaced UK as the leading power of the World, but there were no major convulsions felt around the globe. It appeared more as a like-for-like replacement, and the US and the West set about establishing the International Institutions to manage the relations around the world. However, the rise of China presents a very unique case – an Asian power that is an avowed revisionist and revanchist, whose leader, Xi Jinping, does not hesitate to state as much, and which wants to replace the extant institutions with those that it has been putting in place since late 1990s.
Even as the Wuhan COVID Virus pandemic and its negative impact on the economy is yet to subside, the Ukraine conflict has further affected the global economy, the global order and the extant global institutions negatively. It is in this turbulent and choppy waters of the VUCA world that President Xi Jinping is going to make a bid for an unprecedented third term at China’s helm at the upcoming 20th Party Congress in October 2022. It is therefore imperative to understand the evolving threat to the extant order that China under Xi poses by recognising all its nuances – its overall vision and grand strategy and the strategy to actualise the same. This paper analyses theses aspects and looks at the way to balance a Rising China.
The Strategic Continuum: Vision and Grand Strategy
While Xi Jinping has drawn attention with his aggressive stance and his break from Deng Xiaoping’s dictums of ‘Bide your Time and Hide your Claws’ and ‘Never assume Leadership’, what gets obscured is the strategic continuum for China’s vision and grand strategy. Dr Sun Yat Sen provided the vision for China’s rise in the 1920s, and Deng Xiaoping elaborated the grand strategy to actualise the same. As early as 1905 during a talk in Belgium and later in 1922-24, Dr Sun Yat Sen had laid out the vision for China by giving the Three Principles of Nationalism, Democracy and Socialist Economy to be followed to eventually surpass USA. His advice was to learn from the USA and the West to achieve the rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation through their investments, as detailed in his book published in 1922, ‘The International Development of China’.
Mao Zedong attempted to rejuvenate China without any outside assistance but failed in his attempt through his programs of ‘The Great Leap Froward’, and ‘The Cultural Revolution’, which led China into a steep economic decline and loss of millions of lives. That was when the outreach to USA began in the late 60s. By then China’s relations with the Soviet Union had worsened, and it could present itself not just as a counter for the US and the West to the Soviet Union’s eastern front, but also to obtain economic and technical assistance for the desired rejuvenation to challenge the US and the West, in line with Dr Sun Yat Sen’s vision. It was achieved finally in the 70s and gained traction under Deng Xiaoping.
To Deng Xiaoping goes the credit of laying out the grand strategy to actualise Dr Sun Yat Sen’s vision, a strategy that was assiduously followed by his successors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. To enable innovation and technological excellence in future, it was ensured that USA and the West opened the doors of their Universities to thousands of Chinese students. even as they proceeded with the rejuvenation of China. The concerned Chinese State owned Enterprises (SOEs) reached out to secure the raw materials and resources needed for the economic growth of China, the shipping and port SOEs invested to own/have controlling stakes across nearly two-thirds of the International Maritime ports transportation hubs for shipping containersand the infrastructure projects commenced in most of Asia and Africa, which is now dubbed as the BRI by Xi Jinping. The spread of the Confucius Institutes and China Study Centres across the world enabled controlling the narrative on China and put in place the architecture for an alternate Chinese digital space (the Digital Silk Route).
The Strategic Continuum
The international backlash following the Tiananmen Square massacres in 1989 and the subsequent unravelling of the Communist World in Europe led to Deng Xiao Ping’s famous 24 character foreign policy dictum of ‘Tao Guang Yang Hui (TGYH)’ that the CCP diligently followed for nearly two decades. TGYH –‘hide your ambitions and disguise your claws’ and Keeping a Low Profile, implied that China should develop its economic, commercial and financial strength, and not concern itself much with International affairs (till it reached a certain level of Comprehensive National Power – CNP). The CCP succeeded in this strategy by gaining access to the global trade and commerce with the opening up of China to the MNCs for establishing their manufacturing plants, thereby becoming the global manufacturing hub.
Concurrently, to enable expansion of China’s influence Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao worked systematically in establishing parallel structures to a wide range of US led international institutions, since late 1990s. China plays a key role in financing these alternative mechanisms that are designed to increase China’s autonomy vis-à-vis US dominated institutions and to help expand its international sphere of influence. With a network of China-centred organizations and mechanisms, China has strategically targeted gaps within the established intergovernmental structures(refer illustration below).
China lays much stress on using influence under the garb of ‘soft power’, concurrently with its ’hard power’ in the immediate neighbourhood, to gain geo-political and geo-strategic space in the region. This falls within the purview of its ‘Three Warfare Strategy’. The overall grand strategy is akin to the game of Wei Qi / Go,an ‘encirclement game’, while the rest of the world follows the strategy of Chess. This game, along with the URW aptly sums up their grand strategy – use non-kinetic means to destroy countries internally.
It encompasses ‘the Strategy of Common Imitation’, which is regarded in Game Theory as the key to the formation of a stable institution; it is argued that a common imitation of the best strategy given by the leader and abided by the players will lead to a stable equilibrium. This implies that the small under-developed nations in the neighbourhood, where China has made deep in roads geo-economically and geo-politically (through bribes and coercion), would be forced to abide by China’s decisions. ‘Sinis Victorem’ or ‘China Victorious’, a modern day copy of the Roman Empire Strategy of ‘Roma Victor’.
Quo Vadis Xi
This rise, of a revisionist, revanchist and an aggressive China under Xi Jinping, has led to deep concerns about its world vision, as it would impact the evolving geo-politics in the 21st century. It views that the ruling power has a ‘mandate from heaven’, wherein the rest are mere vassals; this mandate is lost when the heavens unleash a natural calamity. The other contenders of power can then make a push to claim suzerainty. The economic crash of 2008 that resulted in the weakened economies of USA and the West is seen by China as that natural calamity and seeks now for itself a major role at the World Stage to subsequently replace USA. Xi Jingping is therefore adopting a much more aggressive foreign policy to defend China’s expanded ‘core interests’. He signalled a shift from Deng’s policy of ‘Keeping a Low Profile – TGYH’, to ‘Striving for Achievement – Fen Fa You Wei (FFYW)’, in his speech at the foreign affairs conference of CPC on 24 Oct 2013.
Despite the ongoing Ukrainian conflict and its global impact on economies, Xi Jinping seems to view it as a ‘strategic opportunity’ for China to establish a ‘Pax Sinica’ in most of Asia in the coming decade – the fruition of phase one of The China Dream and the great rejuvenation of the nation.
But questions abound, given the push back to the BRI, and its own slowing economy due to the Wuhan COVID Virus, wolf diplomacy, and a push towards alliances in the Indo-Pacific by like-minded democratic countries to balance the rising China. Further, its intransigence and obstinacy in accepting responsibility for the pandemic, and its impact on global trade due to a single supply chain, has put in motion a phased adaptive approach towards diversification of the supply chain in the near to medium term.
There is a view that Xi Jinping may have mis-read the tea leaves and over-estimated China’s growth, that he may have been hasty in going aggressive; some scholars have opined the Deng Xiaoping, the master strategist, had reckoned that it would take China 100 years to be able to be strong enough to challenge the US and the West on even terms, i.e., around 2080s. He had desired that the 5th generation leader, Xi Jinping, in his second term should assess the growth of China vis-à-vis the US and the West and assess the future timeline. However, Xi in his exuberance, or megalomania as some would consider, jumped the gun and became aggressive as soon as he assumed power in 2012.
China’s own industrial and technological strength has not reached the levels of developed countries, while its defence technology is dependent for many systems on Russia, and it is being further stifled by a rapidly ageing population. To prevent internal resistance to his policies, Xi has utilised the anti-corruption crusade to purge all opposition and push his case for an unprecedented third term (and beyond) as the Chairman of CCP. These purges have sacrificed merit at the altar of ‘personal loyalty’ at all levels;many have compared this ‘witch-hunt’ with that of Mao during the infamous ‘Cultural Revolution’ and its concomitant impact on China’s economy.However, in this case it would have an impact on global economy, given that China is the global supply chain hub.
The Ukraine conflict does provide China, and Xi, to be able to recalibrate and reassess the way ahead, give that its Shadow Institutions could be showcased as an alternative to the ‘weaponised financial institutions and instruments’ of the US and the West. It needs to be considered that countries amounting to nearly 70 percent of world population and nearly 50 percent of world GDP have not supported either side and preferred to be neutral in this ongoing conflict. To regain support here, China would need to forsake its strategy of geo-economic coercion, at least in the near to medium term. This Xi may be unwilling to foreswear, as the recent events in Sri Lanka, Nepal and Pakistan indicate.
Another major concern for Xi would be the loyalty of the PLA, whether it is to the CCP or to himself. A fourth Western Theatre Commander, within 2 years even as a major stand-off with India is in progress, does indicate that all may not be well within the PLA. After all the purges have also targeted many senior PLA commanders, and the lack of respect shown to the soldiers who died in the Galwan face-off with India (India had made much of its martyrs), left the soldiers, the families and many veterans disgruntled.
Further, he purged the major sixth generation leaders, like Sun Zhengcai considered as the likely contender for his chair in the 20th Congress, before the 19th Congress so that Xi would not have to place any contender in the Politburo Standing Committee. With the removal of the two-term limit for the President (General Secretary) and Vice President, a limit brought in by Deng Xiaoping to prevent a recurrence of the disastrous unlimited tenure of Mao, Xi seems to have cleared his path for a life term, much to the chagrin of the Party Elders, especially the Shanghai and Beijing Cliques of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. There seems to be a growing resistance towards this unfettered power that Xi Jinping has garnered for himself, so much so that some scholars view him as more powerful than Mao himself. Are the lock downs in Shanghai and Beijing more as a result of this?
Xi’s first term and his early second term were very smooth as China was considered as strong and many nations were keen to join its sphere of influence. However, the later part of the second term has been anything but smooth due to faltering BRI with its countries falling into its debt trap, stuttering economy, Wuhan COVID Virus pandemic and its poor handling (which is ongoing even now), wolf diplomacy that led to its fall from grace in geo-political standing, and the geo-political rise of India in the ongoing Ukrainian conflict that could have made Xi’s position weak within CCP.
The 20th Congress is due in October, wherein Xi would be pushing for his unprecedented third term under such challenging circumstances, both internally and externally. The outcomes would have a major global impact, given its intricate enmeshing with the global economy. There could be three outcomes in the 20th Congress,
- Xi comes back to power, for an unprecedented third term, with full powers.
- Xi gets his third term, but the elders curb his powers, by getting a new General Secretary and or a new Chairman CMC and keeping him as only the Chairman of CCP.
- Nominating a new Chairman CCP, with a new 5th generation leader as the General Secretary ( Li Keqiang??), who would also be the Chairman CMC? Could be tasked to groom the next sixth generation leader?
The chances for options ‘a & b’ are much higher than for option ‘c’, but each has a major impact on the global scenario. While Option a would indicate towards a continuation of China’s aggressive, revisionist and revanchist policy, with immediate fall-out in the Indo-Pacific Region, options ‘b and c’ would indicate a likely shift in China’s trend in the near to medium term, but the trajectory towards rejuvenation would continue, even if the rise is slow. Option ‘a’ would witness greater aggressiveness in the Indo-Pacific by Xi. However, the recent reports of Xi suffering from cerebral aneurysm does raise concerns.
Way Ahead for India, The US and the Rest
Whatever be the outcome in the 20th Congress in China, India, the US and the Rest should prepare for the ‘worst-case’ scenario – Xi Jinping gets his third term with full unfettered powers. By preparing for the worst, any other outcome can be easily balanced.
Xi Jinping seems to be facing a challenging situation, both internally and externally, and his responses in the lead up to the 20th Congress, and the result of the 20th Congress would have a major impact on the global economics and politics. The weaponisation of the financial institutions and instruments by the US and the West does provide China with an opportunity to step-in with its Shadow Institutions, to provide a balance. However, it needs to carefully balance the external challenges that it faces with dependencies on both Russia, for its weapons and energy needs, and the US & West for its trade.
Riding this double-edged sword would take some finesse. Be that as it may, this conflict seems to have strengthened China in the Indo-Pacific now that Russia has come into its full embrace, while the EU and NATO would be hard-pressed to divert any military resources or funds to this region where China wants to dominate by the middle of this century. However, it needs to be factored in that the CCP is riding a tiger – the rejuvenation of China at any cost, and hence its trajectory would not change, albeit it could slow down a bit in the near to medium term. The US and like-minded countries of the region would need to come together to balance this behemoth. Since the ongoing conflict in Ukraine unlikely to end in a hurry, the US attention would get divided between the Indo-Pacific and Europe. Hence it is imperative that like-minded democracies in the Indo-Pacific come together in a partnership to balance China and create a single over-arching architecture that would subsume all other treaties and alliances under it as different verticals.
This is underlined by the fact that there is such no single overarching regional umbrella (akin to the EU) to be able to resolve or mitigate the challenges faced by the nations of the region and be able to derive a regional economic and security strategy to facilitate economic and political stability. There are multifarious regional architectures within Asia that seem to be working at cross-purposes to each other (refer below).
Multifarious Regional Architectures in Asia
Hence the stated need for such an architecture. Concurrently, to strengthen it the US and the West would need to gradually diversify the global supply chain hub and reduce their dependencies on China. It would not be easy, since China would utilise all its non-kinetic means to disrupt this dispersion considering that it would impact China’s economy also. Hence countries in the region, that could be part of this diversified supply chain hub would need to be on guard against such likely perfidy by China and its ‘cats paws’.
The Armed forces of the countries of the region need to be strong and in full alertness, especially India and Taiwan. China has a long history since the formation of PRC, of striking out to divert attention when there are major internal rumblings, as the one suspected in these times.
There is a strategic continuum to the path chosen by China for its rise. The vision was laid out by Dr Sun Yat Sen, and the grand strategy for achieving the same was enunciated by Deng Xiaoping. However, Xi Jinping seems to be in a hurry to achieve China’s rise within his watch, which is now facing internal and external turbulence. To add to his woes of the Wuhan COVID Virus pandemic, the Russo-Ukraine conflict seems to have worsened his geo-political standing further.
The conflict raises concerns for the Indo-Pacific Region since China would not have to worry about Russia anymore. This conflict also provides him with a window of opportunity to strengthen China’s influence through the shadow organisations. However, challenges abound in this regard. The other major challenge would be to prevent the dispersion of the global supply chain hub to multiple countries, which would curb China’s economy drastically.
Considering that the Ukraine conflict would limit NATO and EU outreach into this region, it is imperative that the like-minded countries come together and along with USA create a forum, which would provide the alternate geo-economic and geo-commerce model for the Indo-Pacific Region. This would facilitate economic activities, security, trade, intelligence exchanges, military capacity building, technology sharing, agenda setting for regional forums and coordinated diplomatic initiatives. The overarching security architecture could be based on an expanded QUAD to encompass some more like minded nations of the region. This architecture could subsume all extant treaties and alliances under it as separate verticals and thus serve as the net security provider within the Indo-Pacific region and act as a balance to China and ensure a multi-polar Indo-Pacific.
The Russo-Ukraine conflict provides a strategic window of opportunity to establish such an architecture. Post this opportunity it would be increasingly difficult to maintain a multi-polar Indo-Pacific.
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