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Friction with China—the new world order

Under President Xi Jinping, China, which is jostling with the whole world, is growing more assertive. As a result, in the US, Europe and Asia, many governments have begun preparing for a period of strategic rivalry with China, in which competition outweigh co-operation and increased friction in relations with Beijing will become the new normal.

“What we’ve seen is an indefinitely more assertive China,” says former Prime Minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd, in assessing the country’s evolution under Xi Jinping.

“We have a new guy (Xi) in charge, who has decided to be more assertive about China’s interests and values in the world beyond China’s borders. And secondly, a more powerful China capable of giving that effect. So as a result of that, many countries for the first time have had this experience rub up against them. In the past, it’s only been China’s neighbors, who have had this experience. Now it’s a much broader and shared experience around the region and around the world,” said Rudd in a recent interview with World Politics Review (WPR).

The hope that China’s integration into the global economy will gradually result in the softening of its posture abroad and political liberalisation at home has faded — particularly under Xi. China has shown little willingness to remedy the unfair trading practices it has long used to tilt the playing field in its favour during its rise as an economic power.

And under Xi, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has re-asserted its centrality across all sectors of the Chinese society while taking away the little space for political dissent that it had provided.

Kevin Rudd, who served as Leader of the Labor Party and twice as Prime Minister of Australia, was a career diplomat. He served in the Australian Embassy in Beijing and he has long been a highly regarded observer and analyst of China’s domestic politics and foreign policy.

Rudd observed in the interview that when we seek to understand China’s international behaviour, it is critical to understand its domestic politics. Let us understand why China is increasing its aggression in relation to Hong Kong, the South China Sea, towards Taiwan, the East China Sea, Japan, besides other countries like India, Canada, Australia, and even the US and a few European countries.

If Xi Jinping is under attack for his political posture at home and the marginalisation of others within the CCP, then according to him, the best way to deal with any such dissent is to become more nationalist on the foreign front. And we’ve seen evidence of that.

The Australian politician noticed profound elements of change in Xi’s domestic policy in comparison to his predecessors. He elaborated that the discourse of Chinese domestic politics has changed and currently it has further tilted to the left which means there would be “a greater role for the party and ideology and the personal control of the leader, compared with what existed before.” He added that on the economic front, there has been a partial shift to the left with a resuscitation of state-owned enterprises with underlying and emerging disincentives for China’s own hitherto successful private-sector entrepreneurial champions. “On nationalism we have seen a further push under Xi Jinping further to the right than his predecessors,” he said.

That’s where in terms of degrees of international assertiveness– whether it’s over Hong Kong, the South China Sea, or Taiwan, in relation to Japan and the territorial claims in the East China Sea, or with India, or in the big bilateral relationship with the US as well as other American allies, the Canadians, the Australians and the Europeans, as well as new large-canvas foreign policy initiatives like the Belt and road Initiative, what we’ve seen is an infinitely more assertive China.

Therefore, “it would be foolish for us to underestimate the degree of change as a consequence of the agency of Xi Jinping’s leadership,” quipped the Australian leader as his country too is at the receiving end of Xi’s ire.

Describing the cult personality around Xi, Rudd said Xi has become China’s most powerful leader since Deng and probably since Mao. He has become — what is described as — the “chairman of everything”.

Every single leading policy group of the politburo is now chaired by him.

And on top of that, a ruthless power consolidation has been reflected in his utilization in the anti-corruption campaign, and now the unleashing of a Party Rectification campaign, which is designed to reinforce compliance on the part of party members to central leadership diktat.

So that’s the sort of individual that we have, and that’s the journey that he has travelled in the last six to seven years, and where most of his principle opponents have either been arrested or incarcerated. Several have even committed suicide.

So where does that leave us in terms of the prospects for any organized political opposition? According to Rudd, under the party constitution, Xi Jinping is up for a re-election at the 20th Party Congress, and his re-appointment as General Secretary of the Party and as Chairman of the Central Military Commission will only further help him in consolidating his position.

For him to go a further term would mean breaking all the post-Deng Xiaoping conventions built around the principles of shared or collective leadership.

But Xi Jinping is determined to remain China’s paramount leader through the 2020s and into the 2030s. And how would he do that? He would perhaps see himself at the next Party Congress appointed as Party Chairman, a position last occupied by Chairman Mao and Mao’s immediate successor, Chairman Hua Guofeng, explained Kevin Rudd.

Rudd speculated he would probably retain the position of President of the country, given the constitutional changes he brought about three years ago to remove the two-term limit for the presidency. And he would, most certainly, retain the Chairmanship of the Central Military Commission.

These, combined with the emerging cult personality of Xi besides the fundamental disagreements on elements of economic and international policies, have created considerable walls of opposition to Xi Jinping within the CCP.

And the existence of that opposition is best proven by the fact that Xi, in August of 2020, decided to launch this new Party Rectification campaign in order to re-establish — what he believed is — proper party discipline. In other words, it is obedience to Xi Jinping.

So we can’t see a ready candidate, but the dynamics of Chinese politics tend to reflect that if there is a catastrophic event – an economic implosion, a major foreign policy or international policy mishap, misstep, crisis or conflict, then they generate a unique order.

“So Xi Jinping’s watchword between now and the 20th Party Congress to be held in October/November of 2022 will be to prevent any such crises from emerging,” the Australian politician concluded..