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What is Xi doing to the world?

Author: Rosemary Foot, Oxford University

Scholars and policymakers have long been preoccupied with ascertaining whether China is intent on overturning or supporting the dominant norms of global order. Maoist China appeared as a revolutionary challenger to global-order norms, whereas Deng Xiaoping’s China came predominantly to be seen as adapting to international society and beginning to act as a ‘responsible state’ in world politics.

This view of China was reinforced not only by its behaviour but also by the academic understanding of how global norms could act to shape the responses of a state concerned about its international image.

Under President Xi Jinping, we witness a China more willing to determine for itself what represents ‘responsible behaviour’ in global politics. This is reinforced by Beijing’s sense that the West is in decline while China is economically and politically resurgent.

Leadership is key here. With Xi Jinping in power we see a China more confident in its global role and in what it can offer to the world. A number of decisions left in abeyance have been taken since Xi became China’s president, such as a combat role for Chinese peacekeepers in UN operations, a more prominent role in global governance and the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, allegedly first mooted in 2002. Beijing has also been more willing to use its veto in the UN Security Council — six times with respect to the Syrian crisis over the last five years.

Under this new leadership, Beijing is more confident that its version of domestic governance — which it describes as non-confrontational and as ‘institutionalised consultative democracy’ — is potentially the best way forward for other states too. That model brings about social unity, it argues, rather than the divisions that come from the adversarial nature of a Western democratic model that fails to live up to its declared values.

There are, however, tensions in China’s positions and probable disappointments to come.

First, if China stresses an absence of universal values and stresses instead civilisational difference, it makes it difficult for it to lead on the basis of collective values that provide the legitimate underpinnings of that leadership role.

Second, there is a growing tension between its recent statements on the one hand that the world is diverse and that no one model has the monopoly on wisdom, and on the other that its own political–economic model offers a way forward for many states.

Third, the successes associated with its economic model have owed rather little to Maoist- or Marxist-influenced socialism and much more to the reform and opening of the post-Mao era in which China’s neighbours and other societies have played a large role..

Examples are important for illustrating these tensions. With the crisis in Syria, we witness a China (and Russia) that is unable to convince others that its Security Council vetoes are worthy of support. Few other non-permanent members of the Council have joined Beijing and Moscow in voting against or even abstaining on Syria-related resolutions. General Assembly votes are overwhelmingly against the positions that Russia and China have been articulating.

Neither is Beijing able to lead in regional multilateral trade negotiations. Some 12 states at one time contemplated the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement without China, and 11 of them just signed a version of it. China’s preferred Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership negotiations are proving difficult to bring to a conclusion as states contend over market access, tariff systems, India’s demand for greater services sector liberalisation and the like.

The Belt and Road Initiative has become overwhelmingly associated with President Xi, but as a project it generates as much disquiet as interest. Additionally, China’s new military capabilities, maritime claims and competition with the United States and Japan are damaging its soft power and increasing the risk of major-state conflict.

Internally, the stability and unity allegedly promoted by ‘institutionalised consultative democracy’ is not so obvious, as Chinese authorities make use of new personal surveillance technologies and continue to spend more on internal security than external security.

In working through these tensions between its aspirations and the likely outcomes, we are more likely to face a China that is often frustrated and is therefore only selectively offered the status markers, such as responsible great power, that it would like to attract.

The extent to which this will generate destabilising results depends on many factors. Not least among these is the degree to which Xi can be seen to have advanced China towards the benchmark goals that he has established. One other mistake in all of this is that, having set himself up as the ‘president for life’ and paramount leader, Xi is capable of generating praise as well as blame. The probable foreign policy consequences of one or other of these assessments add to the sense of uncertainty about China’s coming role in world politics.

On some policy issues, China only seeks a larger voice and role within existing institutions and thus does not constitute a major challenge. In other areas, it is working to aid the decline in certain normative values, arguing that it is the strong and developed state — a state like China — that is the best guarantee of world order, and that prioritising development is key to the security of the individual.

The West should act to counter China’s arguments where they are weak, inconsistent and retrogressive.

Rosemary Foot is Professor Emeritus and Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Oxford University.

This article is adapted from the 2017 Professor Robert O’Neill Lecture and is a part of the Centre of Gravity Series. The full length version can be found here.

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