Digest: Fall 2023 Issue 77
Welcome to the China Leadership Monitor's Fall 2023 Digest, which provides article summaries for those who have not yet explored our most recent issue.
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Joel Wuthnow and Elliot S. Ji in Bolder Gambits, Same Challenges: Chinese Strategists Assess the Biden Admin’s Indo-Pacific Strategy
Sheena Chestnut Greitens in National Security after China’s 20th Party Congress: Trends in Discourse and Policy
China’s Response to American-led “Containment and Suppression”
Since ending its Covid zero policy, the Chinese government has shifted its public messaging to a more antagonistic style, arguing that an ascendant China faces growing “headwinds.” China’s leaders have signaled that the solution to these headwinds lies in stronger security, hence the institution of dramatic purges and legislation to eliminate “foreign threats” on the domestic front. China has also implemented changes to its foreign policy, directly in response to perceived geopolitical encroachment by the United States (US) and, likely, the country’s negative economic outlook. In particular, it has (1) offered alternatives to US-led development and security projects; (2) focused its foreign policy on regions the US has not prioritized, including Central Asia and Africa; (3) increased the frequency of diplomatic engagements with US allies and Russia to stress the economic benefits of a positive relationship; and (4) attempted to reduce the pressure American trade restrictions have placed on its high-tech economic sectors.
Usage of development initiatives and diplomatic blocs
China has begun to develop new and adapt preexisting alternative narratives of the world order; it now promotes a Chinese-led order while incorporating anti-colonial rhetoric. First, the past two years have seen China unveil three initiatives: the Global Development, Security, and Civilization Initiatives. These initiatives serve as a counterweight to US-led development programs, which often place restrictions on aid. While unclear in their concrete goals, the initiatives (1) posit a Chinese view on global development to indirectly counter Western programs while (2) allowing China to maintain its global presence as it pulls back from the Belt and Road Initiative’s (BRI) expensive investments amidst a growing debt-to-GDP ratio.
Second, China has expanded international organizations to build alternative messaging. One example involves the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) grouping. China has succeeded in persuading members to vote to expand the grouping by six countries while positioning BRICS as a counterweight to the West-dominated G-7 bloc. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization Serves as a second alternative forum. Despite its recent expansions, internal divisions, weak bureaucratic capacity, and the involvement of US-allied and -partnered states diminish its potential.
Focusing on “less contested” regions
In addition to developing alternative narratives, Beijing has begun to focus on regions without significant American diplomatic presence. First, following the decrease in Russian influence and the absence of American involvement, Xi Jinping promised billions of dollars in aid and development financing to Central Asian states during the China-Central Asia Summit last May. Second, China has continued to deepen its ties with African states, to whom former Foreign Minister Qin Gang highlighted the common interests between China and African states. He also expressed contempt for the effects of colonization on the continent. Third, Beijing has scored wins in the Middle East just as the United States has pulled back. Such wins include a peace deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran, holding the China-Arab States Summit and China-Gulf Cooperation Summit, growing trade balances in the region, and a state visit with Saudi leaders.
Further, China has pursued health diplomacy in the vaccine response to Covid-19, giving away and selling over two billion Chinese doses. Beijing has also downsized the BRI and built vocational training centers to hire local workers and counter the perception China employs too few workers in recipient countries’ BRI projects. Finally, Xi Jinping has positioned China as a leader in global climate policy, especially since co-chairing the COP 15 summit.
Diplomatic engagements with US allies and Russia
China also seeks to respond to security pacts like the Quad and AUKUS and European-American security cooperation amidst the war in Ukraine. It has reopened diplomatic channels and reduced and eliminated tariffs in Australia. Chinese diplomats have greatly increased their rate of diplomatic meetings with European and Indo-Pacific states. This renewed diplomatic vigor has brought 38 meetings with European leaders, including with Spain’s Prime Minister, Pedro Sanchez, and Germany’s Chancellor, Olaf Scholz. At these meetings, Chinese diplomats and leaders have stressed the benefits of economic cooperation. China’s support of Russia and its economy during the war in Ukraine has not helped its case in Europe, however.
Reducing economic pressure
Despite the resumption of top-level Sino-American dialogue, Beijing is pursuing a three-pronged strategy to counter mounting American economic pressure. First, China decreased its tariff rate from an average of 8% in 2018 to 6.5% in 2022. This move has led to greater increases in its post-Covid trade with European countries and BRI partners than with the US. Second, following US semiconductor and high-tech export bans, China has continued developing its semiconductor manufacturing capacity and explored trade opportunities with South Korea and Taiwan. Finally, Beijing has reiterated a commitment to retaliating against “acts endangering its … interests” with the recent Law on Foreign Relations.
China’s desire to geopolitically and economically capitalize on its ascendance must again contend with economic development difficulties, great power competition, and a complicated geopolitical environment. Where previously it has overcome similar challenges and “benefit[ed] from the shadow of the future,” its focus on security domestically and opportunistic diplomacy indicate a greater probability of failure.
Joel Wuthnow and Elliot S. Ji:
Bolder Gambits, Same Challenges: Chinese Strategists Assess the Biden Admin’s Indo-Pacific Strategy
An analysis of 31 articles written by Chinese academics during the Trump administration and 16 during Biden’s suggests that Chinese strategists approach the Biden administration’s new Indo-Pacific Strategy with greater concern than the Trump administration’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy. The United States (US) has formulated a full-scope redesign of the US strategy for the region, focusing on multilateral partnerships in addition to the Trump administration’s prioritization of the Quad bloc. China’s strategists believe, however, that economic interdependences and political divergences will undercut the new strategy’s effectiveness. As America diplomatically courts Indo-Pacific states, these strategists believe fear of Chinese retaliation and the size of the country’s market will dampen the potency of US alliance-forming.
Assessment of the new Indo-Pacific Strategy
Most strategists now agree that the US has adopted a policy of “containment”—a view the Chinese government has also embraced in its leaders’ speeches and media releases. This shift now marks a growing consensus in the strategic community’s view of US motives, indicating a shift of opinion from the Trump years. In this vein, the new Indo-Pacific Strategy has pushed Chinese strategists to recalculate their assessments of American strategy in three areas: diplomacy, the economy, and the security environment.
Diplomacy: Chinese analysts place increasing emphasis on potential bilateral alliances. Roughly double the share of strategists have mentioned the US-South Korea and US-Philippines alliances in the wake of new presidencies and agreements, as opposed to during the Trump presidency. US-Taiwan relations also received increasing mention, while a similar share continued to acknowledge the US-Japan and -Indonesia alliances. Strategists warn of a diplomatic shift towards the US. Multilaterally, they also view the Quad bloc and AUKUS alliance as a deliberate attempt to limit China’s room to maneuver.
Economy: During the Trump presidency, most Chinese strategists placed emphasis on US economic diplomacy meant to derail the Belt and Road Initiative. Today, analysts make significantly fewer references to this strategy, instead seeing the Biden administration’s as “sharper” and more fine-tuned. They see America as shifting its own and the Indo-Pacific’s economic dependencies away from China through the use of targeted trade and investment restrictions.
Security: Analysts also worry about changes in military and security strategy following these diplomatic and economic developments, including a growing naval presence in East Asia and high-tech supply chain coordination. Ultimately, strategists highlight the US creation of a “tenser regional environment,” in line with their views of US policy as “containment.”
Despite their worries about the updated US strategy, strategists emphasize China can overcome its strengths due to the political-economic pull China continues to assert, the limited material benefits of a US alliance, and military constraints. As the Biden administration attempts to convert more states to its side, strategists argue these states often balance the benefits of US allyship with the need for amiable Chinese relations; thus, they often hedge between the two, limiting US influence. Further, these alliances provide little benefit due to the US focus on domestic investments, which leaves little room for material investments in allies. Lastly, scholars acknowledge that Chinese military power has advanced to the point that a US military advantage in the region is all but erased. As a result, diplomatic and economic interdependencies will not translate to an effective military strategy should conflict arise, nor proper interoperability and communication between allies.
Options for Chinese foreign policy responses to US strategy
Strategists continue to argue for the need to increase Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific, especially economically, as a response to US policy. Roughly 80 percent have argued for expanding regional diplomacy during the Biden administration, though this share is down from 95 percent during the Trump administration. Three diverging views emerge when strategists discuss how China should deal with the US. First, some believe that China should stand up to the US. Most in this camp argue China should assert its influence economically, while a minority argue for a jingoist approach that incorporates military tools, such as Ye Hailin. Second, an opposing camp advocates for mending the Sino-American relationship by creating diplomatic “bridges,” such as non-proliferation agreements. A third approach, posited by Cao Xiangyang, involves decreasing tensions between the two sides while economically courting the rest of the world.
With Biden improving the palatability of the US Indo-Pacific Strategy compared to Trump’s “America first” approach, Chinese analysts see more risks for their country. As they formulate differing responses and strategies, analysts’ diverging opinions indicate China is still coming to terms with US strategy in its backyard. Nevertheless, more strategists discuss American strategy as seeking “containment,” while many continue to see the Chinese advantage undermining American influence: the size of the Chinese market. Finally, a disconnect between these analysts’ opinions and the Chinese state’s actions in the arena continues to show—its ill-treatment of Japan and South Korea has only pushed the two countries to the US’ side, for example.
Sheena Chestnut Greitens:
National Security after China’s 20th Party Congress: Trends in Discourse and Policy
Since Xi Jinping formulated the “comprehensive national security concept” and its corresponding thought system in 2013, Chinese national security policy has only slowly evolved. For example, Xi posits that national security is central to both state survival and for Chinese “national rejuvenation.” He also enlists all corners and members of society in building and maintaining state security. The 20th Party Congress wholly reaffirmed Xi’s security vision for China, as evidenced by Section XI of the Congress work report, which references the Maoist “Fengqiao experience” (枫桥经验) when it calls for the enlistment of citizens to monitor and report potential threats to social stability.
Apart from the Congress, the Central National Security Commission’s May 2023 meeting has constituted a second recent affirmation of Xi’s national security policy. Documents from the meeting expand on visions from the Congress work report, suggesting that rhetoric will turn into policy and, ultimately, Xi’s security framework has prevailed.
With the continuity of Xi’s national security vision secured, four trends have emerged since the 20th Party Congress: (1) an emerging primacy of security over development—when previously the two were intertwined and equated; (2) greater focus on counter-espionage and protecting the regime; (3) public messaging about the importance of national security, or “national security education;” and (4) a desire to remake China’s “external environment” in manners benefiting national security.
Security over development
Xi’s 2013 vision for national security stressed the interconnectedness of development with security. However, recent discursive trends suggest a shift in policy prioritization towards security over development. For example, Xi Jinping mentioned the primacy of security over economic development in a 2016 speech; over time, mentions of security being a prerequisite for development (instead of both going hand-in-hand) have increased substantially. This trend explains new policies by the Ministry of State Security targeting foreign firms, which the state previously deemed central to building the economy. The security discourse and policy now deem foreign firms as more of a threat to security; since security is considered a prerequisite for development, targeting such firms is also doubly beneficial. Further, because security policy distinctions are so vague, policymakers at the more local levels may find difficulty in accurately applying state-level national security policy formulations.
Accompanying the prioritization of security over development is an expanded definition of espionage and espionage-capable agents, meant to aid regime stability. The National People’s Congress revised the 2014-era Counter-Espionage Law to expand the scope of what it considers espionage, leading to detentions of workers from two foreign firms and additional data restrictions for those firms. Despite the economic costs, Xi Jinping is willing to pursue tighter security policy at home, demonstrating the impact of his “comprehensive national security policy” and its evolution towards tighter restrictions. Additionally, there continues to be a focus on combating traditional agents of espionage, exemplified by the detention of a government employee accused of spying by the Ministry of State Security.
The expanding counter-espionage environment has seen the creation of a WeChat account by the Ministry of State Security (MSS). The MSS account represents the growing importance of national security-oriented public messaging in China. Since 2016, the state has held an annual “National Security Education Day,” placing the topic further into public discourse and relating the concept to everyday life. Alongside expanding into the public psyche, national security occupies a more central role in local government, where subnational national security commissions have proliferated. Security concepts have entered the Chinese education system as well, with new textbooks, institutional policies, and even the “[establishment] of national security studies as a ‘first-class discipline’ (一级学科)” in tertiary education.
National security has also become embedded within Chinese foreign policy, most prominently with the announcement of the Global Security Initiative (GSI) at the Boao Forum in 2022 and its enshrinement into domestic law in 2023. The Initiative represents the culmination of the comprehensive national security concept’s interweaving of foreign security with domestic security; Xi Jinping and leaders have described good foreign policy as a “support” or auxiliary to the main objective of national security. The GSI provides (1) a Chinese answer to American global diplomacy; (2) an opportunity for China to provide leadership in the “non-traditional security” field, such as in public security and policing, through the training of police to tackle espionage and security threats globally; (3) room to assert moral leadership in the human rights space; and (4) a forum to develop a rhetoric arguing China and the Global South face similar challenges. Most importantly, the GSI attempts to circumvent the influences of American diplomacy and find both physical and discursive spaces for China. While much of the GSI lacks any substance, the Initiative displays the lengths to which Chinese foreign policy has changed and been subordinated to national security.
Over the last decade and more prominently since the 20th Party Congress, Xi Jinping foreign policy thought has grown in prominence and penetrated throughout CCP leadership, into the public sphere, and outwards through Chinese foreign policy. Key components of statecraft—such as economic development—have slowly succumbed to secondary status in a China adjusting to fiercer great power competition. As the CCP regime contends with harsher geopolitical and economic conditions, security has entered the forefront.
Li Qiang Versus Cai Qi in the Xi Jinping Leadership: Checks and Balances with CCP Characteristics?
Tensions between Premier Li Qiang and Cai Qi, Secretary of the Central Committee Secretariat, exemplify the workings of a system of checks and balances. These checks and balances with CCP characteristics operate with a different goal when compared to checks in democratic states: they serve to keep Xi Jinping in power and limit the formation of leadership contenders in the Chinese party-state system. This process has led to political tensions, erratic policy, and leadership shuffling.
Where Li Qiang and Cai Qi stand in CCP leadership
Li Qiang and Cai Qi occupy the No. 2 and 5 positions in CCP leadership, respectively, yet their real power is negatively correlated. Li, as the Premier, holds power over economic priorities. Since the 2oth Party Congress, the economy has been put on the backburner in relation to security, leading to Li’s primary task becoming of secondary importance while facing the task of pulling China out of economic stagnation. As well, Li inherits a historically difficult position—it is never easy to serve as second-in-command under a dictator, as exemplified by the purges of previous CCP premiers Liu Shaoqi, Lin Biao, Hu Yaobang, and Zhao Ziyang. Cai, on the other hand, holds several prominent positions, such as a chief-of-staff role for Xi Jinping and deputy directorships within the Central Commission on National Security and Central Commission on Deepening Reforms. While he shares these deputy directorships with Li, Cai approaches these positions from the organizational angle—as a chief-of-staff for Xi. This gives him significant leeway compared to the premier. By having power over the “CCP central machine,” Cai can constrain actors like Li. As a result, Li’s power is less than expected for a premier and Cai’s, greater.
Tensions between Li and Cai and their networking difficulties
With this built-in conflict, Li and Cai’s responsibilities thus collide and produce tensions. For example, they are the only two who share deputy directorships for the Central Commissions on National Security and Deepening Reforms. With Li’s focus on the economy and Cai’s on political matters, Xi’s subordination of the economy to state security benefits Cai. Further, this built-in conflict is unusual, as the No. 5 post usually does not receive as many top-draw commission posts, indicating Xi’s sharp political eye. Nevertheless, the two share divergent institutional priorities. Li has prioritized the economy and spoken about the need for more foreign investors. Much of this is simply rhetoric due to the actual policies China has undertaken, such as the tightening of restrictions on foreign firms like US-based Mintz Group and the raiding of Bain & Company’s Shanghai office, for example. Cai’s priorities involve maintaining the security of the CCP, thus it is possible, though without evidence, that he may have orchestrated these moves. Regardless, an inherent tension in Li’s and Cai’s priorities is apparent.
Both leaders have also faced difficulties when building their political networks. Both are keenly aware of Xi Jinping’s paranoia, exemplified by their appointing few of their protégés. Li Qiang, however, has been more—but still modest—leeway by Xi, a lenience shown in Li’s appointments of Wu Zhenglong to work as his deputy, Wang Gang to a leadership position in the CCP Central Propaganda Department, and Kang Xuping to a vice-ministerial position. It is unlikely that Li will take full advantage of future opportunities to promote allies and build a power base for fear of risking Xi’s ire; further, his attempts could also be limited by Cai Qi, who retains the CCP Central Secretariat. Cai has also promoted few of his allies. Most were promoted to regional positions, as well.
Checks and balances with CCP characteristics
Li Qiang and Cai Qi exemplify Xi Jinping’s method of limiting viable contenders to his rule—the use of checks and balances with CCP characteristics. Four “institutional factors” manufacture friction: first, Xi himself directly creates institutional tensions and unwritten rules that decrease the amount and balance the share of power among subordinates; second, the parallel prioritization of the economy and security has created deep tensions between leaders directed with managing either task, creating consequences for the CCP observers should seek to study; third, the party’s power has increased under Xi’s rule, such that individuals controlling party functions benefit disproportionately compared to those who exercise less party-level control; and, finally, the persistent (though small) possibility of succession always plays a role in leaders’ promotion of allies to party positions.
The resulting picture is a system of checks and balances under dictatorship—one where Xi himself serves as the institution promulgating tacit rules checking actors’ actions to keep himself in power. These checks and balances produce instability, such as the the sacking of Qin Gang in recent months.
Li Qiang and Cai Qi embody tensions experienced by officials throughout the Chinese party hierarchy. As China and its political environment evolve in the 21st Century, further instability may follow due to its regime type and corresponding institutional practices.
Quarterly digests compiled by Adam Terenyi.