Why Xi Jinping decided to challenge US for global leadership

October 22, 2018 12:18
Chinese leader Xi Jinping knows that "the great renewal of the Chinese nation" cannot be completed within five or even 10 years. Photo: Reuters

Forty years ago, when China began its reform and opening up, Deng Xiaoping, then the country's paramount leader, delivered a speech calling on all party members to "dare to think".

"Otherwise," Deng said, "we won't be able to rid our country of poverty and backwardness or to catch up with – still less surpass – the advanced countries."

Four decades later, China has transformed from an agricultural country into an urbanized industrial economy. But Chinese leaders never forgot their ultimate goal of surpassing the advanced countries.

Until a decade ago, Deng's successors adhered to his admonition to bide their time, keep a low profile and not challenge the United States for global supremacy.

But 2008 saw a conjunction of events: a global financial crisis and China's coming-out party in the shape of the summer Olympics in Beijing.

The financial crisis changed the global economic landscape and China's assessment of the world power alignment. While China used to view the US as its teacher in the ways of the market economy, the student now saw the teacher stumbling.

As if to underline the changing power alignment, in August, China hosted the summer Olympics to universal acclaim. For the first time, China won more gold medals than the United States, although the Americans won more medals overall.

The following month, the investment bank Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy, precipitating a crisis on Wall Street which quickly went global.

From 2009 on, China adopted a more assertive foreign policy.

It is probably not a coincidence that Xi Jinping became a member of the all-powerful nine-member Politburo Standing Committee in 2007 and simultaneously the presumptive successor to party leader Hu Jintao. In 2008, he acquired the additional title of vice president.

Xi had five years during which he prepared to be China's next leader. Under the system established by Deng, he would get two five-year terms, and then give way to the next leader who, ordinarily, would be unveiled at the end of Xi's first term as party leader, in 2017.

However, it would have been clear to Xi that China was on what seemed an inexorable upward curve and that the US was, by comparison, in relative decline. By the time Xi actually took over as party leader in 2012, it appears, he had already decided on a course of action that would affect the duration of his stay in power, China's place in the world, and its relationship with the US.

Xi knew that he had to act quickly to secure his position as China's leader beyond two five-year terms. Only two weeks after his election as party leader, Xi led the other Standing Committee members to view an exhibition titled "The Road Toward Renewal" in the National Museum of China in Tiananmen Square.

There, he pledged "the great renewal of the Chinese nation" which, he said, was "the greatest dream of the nation since modern times". Since national renewal was unlikely to be completed within five or even 10 years, Xi was laying the groundwork for an extended period in power.

In spring 2013, Xi assumed the title of president. That year, he proposed first a Silk Road Economic Belt and, later, a 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, twin proposals now known as the Belt and Road Initiative. This ambitious plan involves links with more than 60 countries in the world, making China the hub of future global economic development.

Xi also built artificial islands in the South China Sea and installed missiles on them despite promising not to militarize the islands.

These moves were – and are – a major challenge to the US, one to which the Trump administration is responding with a trade war as well as specific counterproposals, such as the setting up of a new agency, the US International Development Finance Corporation, to provide private companies with loans for projects overseas.

It is too early to predict the outcome of what is shaping up as a confrontation between the world's two biggest economies. It may well be that China's challenge to the US was made too early, when China wasn't quite as strong as the US, certainly not in military terms.

But, from Xi's standpoint, he had little choice. If he did not act when he had the chance, then, like his predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, he would have had to step down after two terms, and allow his successor, whoever it may be, the opportunity to challenge the US for global leadership, at a time when China presumably would be stronger and more likely to be successful in a contest with the US.

Evidently, Xi decided to seize the opportunity.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.