As the 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party starts, the Xi Jinping regime finds itself on the ropes struggling to recover from self-inflicted blows instead of coasting triumphantly into the future. Its aggressive posture in world affairs and its relentlessly tight grip on domestic society have led to what it most fears—a return to the politics of containment. Countries—in Asia and globally—are now fully in doubt that China intends a peaceful rise to superpower status and are defending themselves by various economic, diplomatic, and military measures. After three decades of a restrained foreign policy that reassured the world about its benign intentions, China has overreached, and the costs are piling up both domestically and internationally.
The 20th Congress will nonetheless solidify Xi Jinping’s strongman leadership. Over the past decade he has drained the authority of the Party’s institutions that could have checked his power. Since 2012, Xi has made himself chairman of everything, consolidating agencies in every sector, from the coast guard to cybersecurity, and putting them under his personal command. The military and police answer only to him. He has purged his Party rivals and promoted those officials who display their loyalty by over-complying with his edicts. Few officials now dare to give him honest feedback, such as telling him that he has harmed China’s interests by constructing large and militarily fortified artificial islands in the South China Sea and the prison indoctrination camps in Xinjiang; or by cracking down on private businesses, stubbornly clinging to a zero-COVID model, and supporting Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
Winning an unprecedented third term could embolden Xi to act even more aggressively. So what should the world do to prevent that? And more specifically, how should the U.S. react?
The key is to use Xi’s ambitions for China and himself to motivate him to adjust his policies.
Xi wants China to be respected as a global power, as well it should be, by virtue of its large and talented population, geographic scale, centrality in Asia, and unique history. He therefore doesn’t want China to be ostracized as a rogue state, an international spoiler trying to build a sphere of influence from intimidation or outright aggression. That’s the Putin model, with which Xi Jinping sometimes flirts but hasn’t, yet, fully adopted.
Xi prefers other countries to be attracted to China, not afraid of it. The country has formidable soft-power assets, including of course its huge market. China is the top trading partner of 128 out of 190 countries in the world. And it is surrounded by twenty Asian neighbors, many of them electoral democracies like South Korea, Japan, Indonesia and the Philippines whose good will it needs to earn for its own security. China will achieve global leadership if it provides international public goods and if its presence is welcomed by other countries. And key to this is establishing a modus vivendi with the U.S., “the one country that can make or break China,” as one Chinese scholar has put it. A stable relationship with the United States should be considered a Chinese core interest.
To avoid further escalation of the hostilities between China and the U.S., Xi needs to find ways to reassure the outside world that China’s intentions remain friendly. He also needs to shore up his domestic popularity to compensate for the economic problems he has caused by his policy blunders —the 20 percent of youth who are unemployed, the crash of real estate values, and the plummeting of growth rates.
Xi has accumulated more personal power than any Chinese leader since Mao, but may himself remain conflicted about his policy choices: “The greatest contradictions in Chinese politics are inside Xi Jinping’s own mind,” a Chinese academic once told me. “Inside he is hesitating what to do.”
All of this offers American diplomacy an opening. Both sides have allowed lines of communication to atrophy in recent years. China failed to take advantage of a new President in the White House to restore access for American officials. Our Ambassador in Beijing, veteran diplomat Nicholas Burns, remains unable to meet anyone higher than a Vice Foreign Minister. Without channels for engagement, we simply don’t know whether or not Xi Jinping’s regime is influenceable. That is why the US needs to test the proposition by avidly pursuing negotiations over our economic and foreign policy differences as well as by applying pressure. Yet many Americans have concluded that China is bent on supplanting the United States as the world’s number one power and that negotiating would be fruitless.
There are two reasons to reject that conclusion. First, American primacy is the wrong goal for U.S. China policy.
Americans have enjoyed the economic, political, and security benefits of being number one in a unipolar world ever since the fall of the Soviet Union. They are having a hard time adjusting to the possibility of losing that status. Nonetheless it’s only realistic to acknowledge that China is bound to catch up with the U.S. in some dimensions. Concluding prematurely that China is our enemy would be self-defeating.
Second, it’s too soon to give up on diplomacy. Chinese leaders have recalibrated their policies in the past. Xi still appears motivated by a desire for international respect. Only after attempting a serious diplomatic effort should Americans conclude that the only option is to degrade and defeat China.
My experience in dealing with China has led me to a few recommendations about what constitutes an effective diplomatic strategy.
A successful diplomatic effort should involve clearly specifying our priority disputes where there’s a realistic possibility of getting an agreement, communicating our agenda to China, and negotiating the disputes in a businesslike manner at an appropriate level. Every agreement builds mutual confidence in the two sides’ ability to work things out again.
As a practical manner, we’ll want to deploy carrots and sticks that can be calibrated up and down to to nudge China in a positive direction. For example, rather than starting by imposing sanctions, give China a chance to avoid them by adjusting its conduct.
Although large multiagency dialogues can turn into bureaucratic circuses that accomplish little, some regular dialogues—such as between the assistant secretaries responsible for Asia policy in the State Department or between military commanders—can establish a familiarity that forms a foundation for practical problem-solving. General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, called his Chinese counterpart to reassure him that the Trump administration had no plans to attack China despite the chaos of its final days, precisely because he knew General Li Zuocheng well enough to sense that the Chinese general remained “unusually rattled,” and needed a second call to ease his worries.
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Diplomatic discussions can be beneficial even if they don’t achieve their main objectives. Take nuclear issues, for example. China’s recent efforts to modernize its nuclear weapons and develop new hypersonic missiles are destabilizing what is already a shaky strategy stability between the two nuclear powers. The U.S. should keep pressing Xi to reduce the dangers of miscalculation by initiating such talks. Even if the talks do not achieve any agreements to limit arsenals, they could lead to exchanges on nuclear safety and encourage nuclear professionals inside China to voice caution.
Strategic dialogues for sharing perspectives on foreign policy hotspots throughout the world, with no scripted talking points, also are invaluable for exploring areas of convergence and divergence; these strategic dialogues also connote respect, which is highly valued by China.
Frustrating as they may be, negotiations test our assumptions about the Xi regime and provide vital information for updating our overall China strategy. The Biden administration has already learned, for example, that the Chinese government wants to restore the Iran nuclear deal; as an energy importer, instability in the Middle East is as little in Beijing’s interests as it is in the U.S.’. China also agreed with other countries to release crude oil from its strategic reserves in February 2022 to reduce global prices, a collective move all the more needed to stabilize global energy markets after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Dialogue and negotiation, whether scripted or freewheeling, are essential to determine whether overreach is hardbacked into Xi’s regime or he might be persuaded to moderate his policies during his third term. Relying solely on military deterrence and sanctions without negotiations will only harden Xi’s stance. Will Beijing be willing to coordinate with Washington on its response to North Korea’s new more aggressive nuclear doctrine and its resumption of missile tests? Can we induce the Chinese government to reconfirm Xi’s previous commitments to President Obama not to militarize the artificial islands in the South China, or to cease cyberhacking to steal technical and commercial secrets from private firms? We can only assess Xi’s flexibility to reduce overreach by not overreacting to it, and by keeping open the lines of communication.
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