Xi Jinping and the rise of China in the Asia-Pacific

by Anna Fifield / 24 October, 2017
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Chinese President Xi Jinping gives a speech at the Communist Party's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on October 18, 2017. Photo/Getty Images

Chinese leader Xi Jinping isn’t letting dissent get in the way of his drive to leave a grand legacy.

Xi Jinping has been everywhere this week. Chinese state television has been running documentaries about his “wisdom and resolve” and referring to him as China’s “supreme leader” – a phrase usually associated with the personality cult next door in North Korea. A book of his speeches on the construction of socialist culture has been published and a huge exhibition in Beijing entitled “Five Years of Sheer Endeavour” praises the achievements of his first term.

The Chinese President – who is technically General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China but is often called Xi Dada, or Uncle Xi, in state propaganda – is now beginning his second five-year term.

The 64-year-old has been lauded at the party congress in Beijing this week, where he has sought to ensure that his influence extends well beyond 2022 and that he is remembered in the same breath as his legendary predecessors Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.

Xi’s tenure has been accompanied at home by a widespread crackdown on corruption but also on dissidents. Feminists, book publishers, lawyers and anyone else remotely critical of the regime have been locked up. Nobel laureate and outspoken Government critic Liu Xiaobo, who had liver cancer, died in detention in July.

But Xi’s approach is also causing concern across Asia, where many countries are wary of his efforts to make China the dominant regional power.

China has claimed authority over the South China Sea despite international rulings against Beijing and overlapping claims from other countries on its shores, including Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. As it has built islands in the sea, it has threatened military action against international companies drilling for oil there, even if licensed by these other countries.

Then there is Beijing’s territorial dispute with Tokyo over the islands known in Japan as the Senkakus but as the Diaoyu in China: the row has led to fighter jets being scrambled and near misses over the islands.

In Japan, the conservative government – with the blessing of the US – is seeking to build up its military, partly to try to keep China in check. 

Under Xi, China is using its economic might not just to punish but also to win allies. The President’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative envisions a network involving US$1 trillion in infrastructure projects and linking more than four billion people in Asia, Europe and Africa – and pointedly not the US.

Indeed, Xi’s efforts to boost his and China’s power in the world have been made all the easier by President Donald Trump’s emergence in the US and his pledge to “make America great again”. Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, which involves 12 Pacific Rim countries including New Zealand but excluding China, has given Beijing another opening.

Poorer countries in the region, even those involved in the South China Sea dispute, know they can benefit from China’s willingness to throw money around, and the richer countries, such as Japan and South Korea, know they can’t compete with Beijing when it comes to chequebook diplomacy.

And that’s not likely to change. With more than three years of Trump’s first term left, and at least another five years of Xi, Asia’s future will feature China in the ascendancy and the US pulling back.

New Zealander Anna Fifield is Tokyo bureau chief for the Washington Post.

This article was first published in the October 28, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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