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China in 2018: What to Expect – Forecasting Beijing’s goals and actions in the next year.

In part one of this two-­part series, I looked back at 2017 for hints of Chinese strategic intent, and more importantly, for possible glimpses to 2018 and beyond. With this backdrop, part two assesses strategic actions that Beijing will probably undertake in the next 12 months.

A good starting point for assessment is President Xi Jinping – the designated “core” leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) – “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in a New Era,” and his resolute efforts to set the country on the path of the Chinese Dream – a strategic roadmap for national rejuvenation (grand strategy). Xi Jinping Thought is particularly noteworthy and meaningful since it was formally enshrined into China’s constitution last fall, making Xi’s credo an official tenet of CCP’s dogma, equivalent to Mao Zedong’s political maxims.

At the 19th National Congress of the CCP, held October 18-24, Xi opened the assembly with a speech emphatically reaffirming a strategic roadmap for national rejuvenation and officially heralding a new era in Chinese national development. Beijing seems poised to expand its global power and influence through the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), expansive build-up and modernization of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), assertive foreign policy, and forceful public diplomacy.A closer examination of Xi’s remarks reveals Beijing’s true national ambitions (if taken at face value). He spoke at great length about the “Four Greats – experience the great struggle in the new era, construct the great project of CCP building, and promote the great cause of socialism with Chinese characteristics, in order to realize China’s great dream of national rejuvenation.” All in all, the speech outlined Chinese strategic intent in terms of “what” (national rejuvenation), “when” (by what date should national rejuvenation be achieved by), and “how” (ways and means to achieve national rejuvenation).

The “what” and “when” is articulated as: “By 2049, China’s comprehensive national power and international influence will be at the forefront.” In other words, Xi aims to restore the Middle Kingdom’s status as a leading world power and civilization thereby realizing a “modern and powerful China” by 2049.

The “how” consists of several strategic goals. First, promote abroad “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in a New Era.” Until now, Beijing did not actively export its ideology to the world. However, Xi views Western liberal democracy as at best an obstruction to China’s rise and at worst a threat to the Chinese Dream. He believes Chinese socialism is philosophically and practically superior to the Western alternative, as evidenced by China’s meteoric national development and economic growth; the China model provides a way to catch up with the developed nations and prevent the regression to humiliating colonialism.

The second major goal is to displace the extant Western-oriented world order with one without dominant U.S. influence. This includes offering developing countries a strategic economic and political choice of China’s “benevolent” governance, involving mutual friendship but not encumbering alliances – economic development with political independence. In essence, take note of China, a rising power and growing economic juggernaut that does not have to make political accommodations, an appealing case to developing states, particularly those under authoritarian rule.

The third goal is to further develop the PLA to enable and safeguard national rejuvenation. Xi charges the PLA to realize military modernization by 2035 and become a world-class military by 2049, which means the PLA must attain regional preeminence by 2035 and global parity with the long-dominant U.S. military by 2049.

The fourth goal is to exercise a more assertive foreign policy to promote and advance the Chinese Dream. National security is now just as important as economic development. The new strategic approach calls for the balanced integration of both interests – long-term economic development with concomitant economic reforms intended to restructure and realign the global political and security order and safeguard and enhance the internal apparatuses of China’s socialist system until it can be the center of that new global order.

These four goals are good organizing principles to assess strategic actions that Beijing will probably undertake in this coming year.

Promote Abroad “Socialism With Chinese Characteristics”

In the last few years, China has experienced a think-tank renaissance in response to the government’s call for “new types of think tanks with Chinese characteristics to tell the China’s story.” The think tank surge is part of a national strategy to improve policy making, influence domestic and international public opinion, increase China’s soft power around the world, and now promote “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” The latest authoritative estimate put the number of listed and sanctioned Chinese think tanks at 435, second only to the United States with 1,835. Most of these Chinese think tanks were established either from scratch or by renaming and restructuring extant policy research organizations; all of them have varying degrees of government sponsorship and affiliation.

Complementing the think thanks is a growing online army of Chinese “patriots” who promote China, rebut criticism of Chinese policies, and now champion “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” While Moscow has relied on bots to push its political agenda and message online, Beijing has raised a volunteer army of real people to do its political bidding (nationalist trolls). For years, they were known as “50 cents” for their supposed monetary remuneration for each patriotic post. Nowadays, with nationalism on the rise, this new breed of social media warriors often works for free – happy to carry out their patriotic duties and serve their homeland.

China’s state media has also rapidly expanded its overseas influence campaign to include pushing jingoistic materials on Western social media platforms. Over the past year, Beijing has launched initiatives to encourage netizens to promote “socialism with Chinese characteristics” throughout the social media community. One such initiative is the CCP Youth League’s “Volunteer Campaign to Civilize the Internet” that urges netizens to steer online discourse in a patriotic direction and positive manner. The latter is more often than not lacking. Over-exuberant nationalist trolls have been known to coordinate “mass bombings” of public figures’ social media platforms, flooding them with intimidating posts and shutting down online debate.

Displace Western-Oriented World Order

In his New Year’s Speech on December 31, Xi confidently declared to the world that Beijing is ready and willing to be the keeper of international order and replace Washington to lead the world in the new year:

China will resolutely uphold the authority and status of the United Nations, actively fulfill China’s international obligations and duties, remain firmly committed to China’s pledges to tackle climate change, actively push for the BRI, and always be a builder of world peace, contributor of global development and keeper of international order…the Chinese people are ready to chart out a more prosperous, peaceful future for humanity, with people from other countries.

Xi’s words are not empty rhetoric, but supported by meaningful, impactful, and enduring actions.

In line with BRI priorities, China will foster closer ties with countries along the Belt and Road, as well as branch out to future trade corridors. Beijing has already made plans to follow up its inaugural Belt and Road Forum (BRF) last May with another BRF in 2019 to expand the project and bolster China’s growing economic positions across the globe. A couple days after the BRF, Xi welcomed Argentine President Mauricio Macri in Beijing by proclaiming that “Latin America is the natural extension of the 21st century Maritime Silk Road” while applauding Buenos Aires’ support and participation in the BRI. The meeting underscored the BRI’s rapid expansion into Latin America since its inception four years ago.

A month later, China’s National Development and Reform Commission and State Oceanic Administration released a policy paper outlining its plans to further advance its developing sea corridors through the Indian and Pacific Oceans to Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia, as well as land corridors connecting China with Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and Russia. The paper also discussed building the “blue economic passage” linking China with Oceania and the South Pacific, travelling southward from the South China Sea across the Pacific Ocean; another passage is envisioned leading up to Europe via the Arctic Ocean once the Northern Sea Route becomes more navigable.

Beijing sees climate change as another possible area in which to exercise global leadership. Although the international community has turned to China for leadership on climate change after the United States’ withdrawal from the 2015 Paris Agreement, Beijing appears in no particular hurry to embrace the mantle (and burden) of leadership yet. From the Chinese point of view, leadership is not without political and economic costs and consequences, and Beijing must carefully consider the potential pros and cons. That was why in Xi’s report to the 19th National Congress of the CCP, he calculatingly chose the word “torchbearer” rather than “leader” to define China’s emerging role – which suggests Beijing wants the image and prestige of global climate leadership without necessarily leading other countries toward a sustainable future.

However, in the same speech, he also declared “China had taken a driving seat in international cooperation to respond to climate change.” To many observers, Xi’s messaging could not be clearer. He intends for China to step up in the absence of U.S. leadership on climate change. Nevertheless, whichever path Beijing decides to take in the future, China has already taken the strategic initiative and narrative on this matter barring an about-face in U.S. climate change policy.            

Further Develop the PLA

For decades, China has been blatantly, surreptitiously, legally, and illegally appropriating key technologies from corporations, research institutions, academia, militaries, and governments from around the world to gain a competitive business edge, advance its military capabilities and capacities, and ultimately become a global economic and military power. Ways vary from espionage, cyber theft, intellectual property rights violation, corporate acquisition, technology transfer, joint research and development, academic collaboration, and reverse engineering. Means include coordinated and synchronized operations across business sectors, academic institutions, and government agencies to collectively go after targeted “leap” technologies for import back to the homeland.

In recent years, the PLA has heavily leveraged this “whole-of-nation” effort to modernize and upgrade its warfare capabilities and capacities through several key transformative dual-use technologies like artificial intelligence (AI)  and quantum computing (QC). In the decades ahead, AI could transform warfare, creating new disruptive military capabilities and changing the ways that militaries command, train, and deploy forces. While QC shows some promising military applications in the areas of encryption and decryption, radar sensing, navigation, and communications. QC also has potential operational implications for submarine and air warfare in terms of limiting submarine operations and operating areas and rendering stealth aircraft obsolete.

Exercise More Assertive Foreign Policy

Over the past year, more reports of undue Chinese meddling in the domestic affairs of foreign governments – Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, Canada, Germany, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, the United States, and others – have surfaced. Activities range from buying political influence, censoring academic dialogue, infiltrating “agents of influence” throughout governments, spying, recruiting and grooming up-and-coming politicians sympathetic to Chinese interests, and manipulating media. Altogether, these activities to guide, buy, or coerce political influence through manipulation and/or pressure can be characterized as “sharp power.” Sharp power stops well short of hard power and is distinct from soft power, but more harmful. It has three conspicuous features – it is widespread, engenders self-censorship, and is difficult to attribute. In sum, Chinese sharp power seeks to infiltrate and undermine politics, media and academia, while furtively promoting a positive image of China and misrepresenting or manipulating information to quell dissent and dialogue.

The increased attention, scrutiny, and condemnation of Chinese sharp power may push Beijing to “temporarily” suspend, scale back, or adjust its activities. It will not, however, cease its activities altogether, as evidenced by the recent Global Times editorial justifying Chinese sharp power as accepted statecraft:

For many decades, China was a useful “otherness” created to serve the political and economic interests of Western countries, the United States in particular, on the domestic and/or international stage. The recent wave of anti-China rhetoric in response to China’s assertiveness in wielding sharp power in the West is illustrative. In short, fears of China often tell as much as about those who fear as they do about China itself.

Based on current policy trends in Beijing, this coming year will likely see China more determined to expand its global power and influence through the ambitious BRI, expansive military build-up and modernization, assertive foreign policy, and forceful public diplomacy. Left unchallenged and unhindered, Beijing may become even more emboldened and accelerate the pace of its deliberate march toward regional and global preeminence. If so, it is much easier to slow or stop a large boulder rolling down a hill near the top than to wait until it gains speed and momentum near the bottom. Hence, the new U.S. National Security Strategy, calling for America to embrace the strategic competition with China and plan and act accordingly, is a step in the right direction.

Tuan Pham has extensive experience in the Indo-Pacific, and is widely published in national security affairs and international relations. The views expressed therein are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Government.

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