Two ideas have been tirelessly hawked by commentators about the Asia-Pacific in recent weeks. The first is that President Xi Jinping is the second coming of Mao Zedong for the unmatched power he wields over both the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and his country. The second idea, often accompanied by island-spotted satellite images, is that right now is the moment for U.S. forces to rush headlong into the South China Sea to stop Beijing’s island building and maritime claims, and damn the consequences. Both ideas, however, are wrong. If permitted to percolate through U.S. policy, each could lead to misunderstanding and perhaps to war.
Xi Isn’t Mao
In its April 2 issue, the Economist cautioned, “Beware the cult of Xi,” fretting that the Chinese leader “has acquired more power than any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong.” In case the point was lost on any reader, a video posted on the Economist’s Twitter account morphed the cover image of Xi into Mao and back. Articles making similar points have appeared in other major publications.
Megalomania à la Mao is often given in these articles as the root cause of Xi’s power grab. For these China watchers, Xi’s strategy is a consequence of temperament. “[Xi] has shown a taste for audacious decisions and a loathing for dissent,” the New York Times explained of the leader, who is on a “steely quest for dominance.”
A purple description, but also a wrong one. China’s current president has of course consolidated power since 2012, but the reasoning behind his strategy is the opposite of what drove Mao. Even comparing the two on the simple point of having built up power in the CCP muddles the opposing logic animating each leader’s strategy. Above all, Xi seeks to be a guardian of stability and continuity, whereas Mao was a provocateur of disorder.
“The Mao era really is fundamentally quite different from the current era, even though Xi Jinping kind of draws on some of the imagery of Mao and some of the language of that period,” historian Andrew G. Walder noted recently. In contrast to Xi, “[Mao] didn’t talk about stability. He never would have talked about stability maintenance. Mao really believed that disorder was the only way China would progress.”
“I think that Xi Jinping’s job is fundamentally different from Mao’s,” Walder went on to say. “Mao had. . . up to the late 1950s, he had a highly disciplined and unified system, really. And he set about to smash it. He smashed it to pieces in the Cultural Revolution. . . . ”
Xi is many things, but a smasher isn’t one of them. “I think Xi Jinping’s view of the world is really shaped by the China that he grew up in, especially his fear of disorder, his fear of instability,” Walder explained.
The point is not academic. To view Xi with the unbridled power of Mao assumes that the current Chinese leader is freed from making foreign policy decisions with an eye toward domestic politics. In such a view, Xi can move the pieces around the chessboard as he pleases, and U.S. policy is simply a matter of catching the leader’s capriciousness at the right moment.
If, instead, Xi is on the defensive in preserving a fracturing, legitimacy-starved party, and if he is single-minded about not becoming “China’s Gorbachev,” then Washington should anticipate that there will be moments when Beijing’s foreign policy is more dictated by its CCP politics, and moments when it is less so. There will be periods when maritime escalation readily allows Xi to consolidate domestic power further, and others when it is a risk with diminishing or negative returns to the gains that the leader has already amassed. In the case of the former, U.S. policymakers could be caught off guard by Chinese escalation well in excess of whatever minor-to-moderate incident triggered the initial crisis. In the latter, however, the United States can push harder, and to greater effect.
Getting the Timing Right
When, then, is the best time to push back in the South China Sea? In the Financial Times last week, Senator John McCain made the case for right now, arguing,
“The potential threats China will pose in the South China Sea in the coming months demand a change of course that can reassure the region of America’s commitment and demonstrate to Beijing that its pursuit of maritime hegemony will be met with a determined response.”
The plan McCain outlined—a more robust Freedom of Navigation program, challenging any Chinese claims of an ADIZ—makes sense as a specific response to Beijing’s maritime actions. And China, for its part, is flagrantly pushing ahead in the South China Sea, with military aircraft landing in the disputed Spratly Islands on Monday. But hitting back hard now is only half a strategy. What happens when—not if—the United States and China have a minor-to-moderate incident in disputed waters?
In 2009, such an incident happened when the USNS Impeccable was approached by Chinese ships waving Chinese flags in the South China Sea. The boats harassed the Impeccable, throwing debris into the water ahead of the U.S. Navy vessel. In a rare move, the United States filed a formal (and public) complaint.
But the crisis did not lead to war. Hu Jintao, then president of China, chose a response that, while not caving to U.S. demands, nonetheless stopped further escalation and preserved the status quo. In a recent essay, China scholar Kai He looked at how this decision differed from other incidents that were not shut down as thoroughly by the Chinese leadership. He noted, critically, that Hu was in his second term and had gone a long way in removing rivals and promoting party members loyal to him.
“Hu was placed in a domain of gains when the Impeccable incident took place. For China in general and for Hu in particular, 2008 had featured great success and glory. This does not mean that Hu did not face domestic and international challenges. However, relatively speaking, it seems that everything was under control and everything was getting better for Hu.”
After 2017, Xi will in all likelihood be in a situation similar to Hu after 2007—that is, starting his second five-year term having solidified his support within the party to the furthest extent he will achieve. As He explained in his essay, “Although his leadership style and personality differ significantly from Hu’s, Xi still faces a similar or even the same political structure and international environment that Hu did.” That the 2001 U.S.-China aircraft collision in which both countries de-escalated while saving face occurred in Jiang Zemin’s second term supports this “second-term status quo” argument as well. There’s more. In 2001, with a new U.S. president, Chinese leaders were willing to defuse the crisis relatively quickly—specifically, permitting fewer antiforeign protests—as a signal to the new administration that “China should not be regarded as an enemy,” as scholar Jessica Chen Weiss has described. But with an outgoing American president, in 1999, the story was different. After the United States bombed the Chinese embassy in Bosnia in May of that year, Beijing did eventually de-escalate, but it was a much more fraught process than in 2001. Chinese leaders permitted many more anti-U.S. protests than it would two years later, all as a sign that the nation would not be bullied by the second-term U.S. president. In 2017, as in 2001, there will be a new American president—and perhaps one perceived by Beijing as more hawkish than the current president.
Right now, however, before Xi has consolidated power in next year’s Nineteenth Party Congress, the Chinese leader “will be more vulnerable to the influence and pressures of the military and the outside world if foreign policy crises occur,” according to He. “Consequently, Xi may adopt risk-acceptant policies as a political tool to establish his authority in the CCP.” Those calling for U.S. forces to ride into the western Pacific like the cavalry would do well to consider that, for domestic reasons, Xi may be more willing to risk confrontation now—and for reasons tangential (at best) to the South China Sea itself.
In a smart new essay, G. John Ikenberry has made another important point lost on those calling for a U.S.-led crusade against China: everyone in Asia is hedging. Japan, South Korea, Australia and the Philippines all have one hand outstretched toward Beijing and one toward Washington.
“They rely on the United States for security and providing a general counterweight to China, and they are increasingly tied to China for trade and investment. They gain from both relationships. This places constraints on the United States. The United States will not find its regional allies wanting to pursue a full-scale balancing strategy against China. They do not want to be placed in a situation in which they need to choose between the Eagle and the Dragon. . . . Countries in the region will not want to join a crusade. They will want steady and credible American security commitments. These considerations suggest that the United States will not want to organize its presence in Asia simply around ‘balancing’ China. It will need a more complex strategy of engagement, restraint, commitment, and the building of counterweights to China.”
Such a strategy must start with Xi. The Chinese leader will in all likelihood be in a much more secure position after 2017. Then, not now, the status quo may seem most appealing to Xi, with further maritime adventurism seen as more of a risk than at present. Should an incident occur between U.S. and Chinese ships or aircraft, it will be then, not now, that both countries are best positioned to avoid unnecessary escalation. As such, U.S. strategy can increase pressure carefully now, but must also be prepared both for much stronger engagement and for much firmer pressure in 2017 and beyond. Washington should also anticipate that pushing too hard on Beijing this year could trigger unexpected consequences for reasons that have little to do with the South China Sea.
Over the long term, China may seek regional hegemony and an exit for America from the western Pacific. But looking at the next five years—a much more realistic timeline—pushing back hardest only after Xi is more secure at home diminishes unnecessary risks in U.S. strategy while increasing the odds of keeping things steady in the South China Sea for now.
John Richard Cookson is a senior editor at the National Interest. You can follow him @JRCookson.
Image: Flickr/Foreign and Commonwealth Office