On March 14, 2013, Xi Jinping officially became the new president of the People’s Republic of China. Mr. Xi takes office at a critical juncture of China’s development. Internally he must cope with tough issues in economic model shifting, anti-corruption, fair distribution of social welfare, and so on; externally as China rises to a regional superpower, he needs to re-position the nation’s foreign policies in his own style to face various new challenges.
Hence what the external world cares the most about should be how and to what degree Mr. Xi may act differently from his predecessor in foreign policies and what impact the changes may bring up to the Asia Pacific region as well as across the globe.
We can sample out three key areas that include territory disputes, alliance forging, and US-Sino relations, as indicators of possible changes from President Xi.
Since late 2011, China has run into some island sovereignty disputes with countries like Japan and Philippines in the West Pacific ocean. The situation has remained quite confrontational to date. President Hu Jintao – Xi’s predecessor, has taken a tough stance on such disputes and now Mr. Xi’s position may go tougher.
Red Second Generation
Compared to Mr. Hu who rose to the top office from an ordinary Chinese family background, by very carefully following the routine and often bureaucratic ladder, and sometimes with a style of hesitation, Mr. Xi belongs to the so-called “Red Second Generation” of China. His father was one of the revolutionary founders of PRC, although back to the Chairman Mao’s era, the senior Xi and whole family had gone through and suffered from many rounds of political struggles and purges.
The “Red Second Generation” usually carries a strong obligation or psychological pressure to do better, or at least no worse than their old generation in governing and safeguarding the country, especially in the face of serious sovereignty disputes. If we say Mr. Hu and his government had responded to these island frictions more in a reactive manner, it is expected Mr. Xi and his new government would start to be more proactive and take the upper hand in defending what they call “China’s core national interests.”
Would that lead to armed conflicts or wars? Not necessarily. But for certain Mr. Xi, in the shadow of the legacy from his father’s generation, would start to drive, rather then being driven by, the border and marine security trends of China and in the region.
The second change may come from China’s position towards alliance forging. China used to abide by a firm “non-aligned policy.” But as the nation rises and gets more involved with the international affairs and community, the new leaders have come to realize the importance of “collaboration” and “alliance” via, for example, the United Nations and other cross-country lineups when coping with international issues and crises.
For the past couple of years, the Obama administration has led and coordinated an “Asia Re-balancing” campaign with some other Asia Pacific countries like Japan, Philippines South Korea, and Australia, to a certain extent even including India, Vietnam, Mongolia, and Burma. This may teach and stimulate China more towards alliance forging from its side.
China has just announced that the new president Mr. Xi will pay an official visit to Russia in late March and then attend the “BRIC Countries” – Brazil, Russia, India and China, Summit in South Africa. By mid April, Mr. Xi will host the Boao Forum 2013 that has become a pan-Asia political and economic summit held annually in Hainan, China. Such intensive alliance oriented activities demonstrate that Mr. Xi may determine to play a more active role in coordinating, forging and leading multinational collaboration and alliances when carrying out China’s new foreign policies.
On US-Sino relations, Mr. Xi has proclaimed that he plans to build up a “new Da Guo (big country or great power) relationship” with the United States of America, although it is unclear yet what it exactly means. On the US side, the Obama administration has reiterated it welcomes China’s peaceful rise, and China’s commitment to G-20 nations to move toward a more flexible currency exchange rate. Meanwhile, the cyber security issue has suddenly soared to the top of the U.S.-China agenda in recent months and both countries are discussing its solutions.
It should not be in Mr. Xi’s interest at all to freeze or worsen US-Sino relations. Economically it is obvious the two giants are more closely bonded than ever before, and both sides need to cooperate for regional and global stability and peace as well. When Mr. Xi takes a more collaborative approach in handling international affairs, he may not mean to use it only for impeding the influence of the United States. For example, recently China stood together with the US in passing the UN’s resolution in condemning and punishing North Korea for its nuclear bomb test.
It is well noted that for both President Obama and President Xi’s new terms, the priority in their agenda is actually more around domestic issues. From this sense, it should be in both sides’ interest to maintain and grow a mutually beneficial US-Sino relationship so they can better focus on internal problem solving. We therefore remain optimistic to see more US-Sino collaborations as time goes, no matter via the framework of G-20 or G-2.