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Xi's January of Discontents



It’s only a few weeks into 2016, but Chinese president Xi Jinping must already feel nostalgia for the year gone by. Xi wasn't in town during my visit to frigid Beijing last week. He was abroad making his first tour of the Middle East, where he reaffirmed commitments to relations with Arab partners and inked a panoply of accords to deepen economic and security relations with Iran. But Xi’s Middle East tour offered him only a brief respite from the pressing set of issues accumulating in his inbox in Beijing. On the domestic front, the road to the ambitious economic restructuring he has pushed forward remains bumpy. Pursued alongside a muscular anti-corruption campaign that has both shocked and awed Chinese elites and disrupted business as usual, for the first time in decades there is mainstream speculation at home and abroad about dimmer prospects for China’s economic and political future. At the same time, several developments in China’s backyard reflect disappointing returns on a number of policy investments that Xi made to secure conditions favorable to China in the region.

The Korean Peninsula –Testing, Testing

Despite reputed disdain for Kim Jong-un, Xi began laying the groundwork last fall for a meeting with North Korea’s young leader as a key step toward warming the currently chilly state of relations between Beijing and Pyongyang. Xi’s efforts were not rewarded; on January 6, Pyongyang proceeded with a fourth nuclear test against Beijing’s clear preferences. Following the test, the United States dispatched Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken to Beijing to discuss tightening the current sanctions regime. US Secretary of State John Kerry who will make a stop in Beijing this week will press China to take stronger unilateral action to curb its ally’s behavior. The latest nuclear test has also raised questions about the durability of the bridge Xi worked to build with South Korean president Park Geun-hye toward greater economic and regional cooperation between their two countries. For Xi, Park’s proposal that countries in the region pursue five party talks on its ally’s nuclear program and regional security, a proposal supported by the United States, is unpalatable.

The much-hailed meeting of the minds between Park and Xi has been further tested by other recent developments. North Korea’s nuclear test served as the unanticipated backdrop for the conclusion of a landmark agreement between Seoul and Tokyo on the issue of "comfort women," Korean women pressed into Japanese wartime military brothels. Japan has issued a long-awaited apology and committed approximately one billion yen to help survivors. Of concern to Beijing is that progress on this issue could presage greater security cooperation between the two American allies in its region. This is cooperation Washington has sought as North Korea’s threat to regional security has persisted and China’s military power has grown. In Beijing, local analysts of the Korean peninsula who previously had urged a reassessment of China’s alliance with Pyongyang have begun to reflect once again on North Korea’s strategic value as a buffer from regional threats to China’s security.

If it’s not One Ying (英) it’s Another

Xi is reportedly frustrated that his efforts to build greater political as well as economic ties across the Strait of recent years — which culminated in his historic meeting with current president Ma Ying-jeou in Singapore last November — is unlikely to yield hoped- for dividends. He now has to contend with a Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) president and a Legislative Yuan (LY) no longer dominated by the pro-unification Kuomintang (KMT), which for the first time in Taiwan’s democratic history holds a minority share of seats. Beijing now confronts a “green” Taiwan where both the executive branch and the LY are controlled by a party originally chartered with the goal of Taiwan independence. President-elect Tsai Ing-wen has stated that where cross-Strait relations are concerned, she recognizes voters’ support for the “status quo.” She has indicated that for her, this means upholding the constitution of the Republic of China, acknowledging the history of bilateral negotiations, talks and exchanges, but also, as she has put it, following the “democratic will” of the Taiwan people. Reunification across the Strait remains a “core interest” of Beijing. It remains mistrustful of Tsai’s intentions and agitated by her unwillingness to use the “1992 Consensus” formula –whereby both Taipei and Beijing acknowledge there is only one China but agree to interpret one China according to their own definitions – to manage cross-Strait ties. Beijing worries that, for all Tsai’s purported pragmatism and her emphasis on achieving the economic and social goals she promised voters she will achieve, she will not be able to resist following her heart and push for independence. Beijing also frets that the DPP’s overwhelming victory could make her receptive to “deep green,” pro-independence pressure, particularly if she fails to meet her ambitious economic goals. In addition, historically Washington has been unambiguous that it does not support actions by Taipei threatening to peace in the Strait. However, Xi cannot be sure how, given its own upcoming presidential election, the U.S. will manage its relationship with a Tsai-led government. Washington affirmed its sustained support for Taiwan’s security with the announcement of a new arms sale package for the island a month before the election. Some observers in Beijing suggest that Xi is prepared to proactively downgrade cross-Strait ties given Tsai’s unwillingness to engage Beijing on the basis of the one-China principle, a policy approach that will certainly increase tensions across the Strait and between the U.S. and China.

Here’s Hoping it’s Trong

Beijing has also been watching political developments in neighboring Vietnam, an important trading partner but also historically a forceful challenger of China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. How Vietnam should manage its relationship with China, including responding to Chinese actions in the South China Sea, has been a factor in the ruling party’s leadership selection process in Vietnam’s 12th National Congress now underway. The more conservative current Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong has been courted by Beijing. His visit to Beijing last April clinched his support for improving ties to China. Trong is pitted against Premier Nguyen Van Dung, who has led reforms to open Vietnam’s economy and has worked to develop closer ties with the U.S. Premier Dung was not included on the official list of candidates for the new party chief; however, delegates have nominated him to the Central Committee knowing that the only post for which he is eligible is that of General Secretary. A showdown over the choice of General Secretary could quickly grow ugly given Trong’s control of Vietnam’s military and security forces. Even if Trong’s term is extended without incident, tensions over policy toward China will continue to divide Vietnam’s political leadership. These tensions also play out in commentary in both state and social media, making this an issue that extends beyond leadership politics into the social sphere. Vietnam has seen violent anti-China riots erupt in response to incursions by China into waters claimed by Vietnam. It is unclear how Xi intends to both continue to expand his country’s grip on contested areas of the South China Sea and maintain good relations with its southern neighbor.

Concluding Thoughts

As Xi pursues China’s new economic objectives and enlarging international goals, he has been eager to cultivate a stable regional environment. However, recent developments reveal how challenging this may prove to be. The broad objective of regional stability too often collides with China’s narrower interests in the region, such as concern about instability along its borders and its irredentist and strategic aspirations. This month’s diplomatic disappointments are not easily managed, likely becoming sources of growing discontent for Xi as he endeavors both to wield Chinese power and influence to serve Chinese interests in the region and play a constructive role in regional stability.

Professor Carla P. Freeman is Director of the SAIS Foreign Policy Institute where she is concurrently Associate Director of the China Studies program and an Associate Research Professor.

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