This week, China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress (NPC), amended the Chinese constitution to remove term limits for President Xi Jinping — a moment that Xi has been building up to for a long time. Whether you agree with President Trump’s policies toward China or not, which most recently include starting a trade war by imposing controversial tariffs on steel and aluminum, his rhetoric has awakened mainstream attention to the trend of a persistent and assertive China that has previously been discussed within foreign policy circles. Here are three main levers Xi has been using to bring about his “Chinese Dream” of national rejuvenation while the American public’s attention has largely been focused elsewhere:
- Bolstering Security At Home And Abroad: Under Xi’s leadership, China has been rapidly pursuing military modernization and announced this week an 8.1 percent increase to its military spending. At the same time, China’s state surveillance, which initially was built out to suppress unrest in its western provinces, is rolling out across the country and even being exported to other authoritarian states around the world. The continued militarization of the South China Sea and other assertive actions abroad was highlighted in the U.S. Department of Defense’s 2018 National Defense Strategy, which names China as a “strategic competitor.” However, some have argued that Xi’s consolidation of power is indicative of insecurity rather than confidence and strength.
- Investing Heavily In Public Diplomacy: The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a multi-national zone of economic and political influence with Beijing at its core, is Xi’s flagship project that has led to Chinese investment across Asia, Africa, and Europe. Although some countries have been apprehensive about the geostrategic character of the initiative, they have taken the significant Chinese investment despite its tendency to encourage dependency and undermine the existing institutions in those countries. China has also been investing a significant amount in Latin America, to the detriment of the Monroe Doctrine, begging the question as to what the U.S. will do to buttress this historical cornerstone of America foreign policy going forward. On both, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has recently sounded the alarm, but with President Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the U.S. has diminished leverage.
- A Robust Campaign Of Foreign Influence: China has traditionally taken a long viewof its robust foreign influence activities, whether using Chinese-sponsored cultural institutes on American college campuses, or spreading propaganda on Facebook and state-run English news outlets. China has also stepped up its human intelligence to gather defense and economic secrets, making FBI Director Christopher Wray’s testimony on Chinese influence timely — although it has been mocked as “Cold War era” thinking by a top Chinese government spokesman.
Despite the criticism of this Administration’s policies, the conventional approach taken by those in power has failed to address Xi’s rising China up to this point. This failure may be due to some faulty assumptions that should be discarded in favor of a policy of strategic counter pressure. While Trump’s current policy of direct confrontation has increased public awareness of Chinese adventurism, it would benefit from broader statecraft. Trump’s tendency to undermine admirable intentions of his policy with bad implementation, like his recently announced “unproductive” tariffs, means he may not get the results he seeks.
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