The Downside of Imperial Collapse
When Empires or Great Powers Fall, Chaos and War Rise
As China prepares for this fall’s 20th Party Congress, the odds grow stronger by the day that Chinese President Xi Jinping will emerge from the meeting having secured a third term in office. This will mark a break with Chinese precedent since Deng Xiaoping wrote a two-term limit into the country’s constitution in 1982—a limit that was removed in 2018. Xi, who took office in 2013 and is now 69, could foreseeably extend his tenure well into the 2030s.
The consolidation of Xi’s rule comes as his administration faces significant headwinds both at home and abroad. China’s zero-COVID policy has provoked an economic slowdown and popular discontent. Its rivalry with the United States is intensifying, and Xi’s alignment with Russian President Vladimir Putin has created more problems than Beijing bargained for. Under these circumstances, it might be reasonable to think the Chinese leader will recalibrate once his political future is assured. But those who expect Xi to moderate his policies after the 20th Party Congress are likely to be disappointed.
Xi’s personality and political beliefs leave little room for a reconsideration, let alone a reversal, of his vision for the country. What he has described as the “China Dream”—or the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”—sees the Chinese Communist Party leading China’s reemergence as a great power. Xi has shown signs of restraint since Beijing hosted the Winter Olympics in February, prioritizing stability over bold action that would risk undermining his agenda at the Party Congress, but his frustration with China’s strategic position and domestic troubles has been mounting. When the political pressure is lifted after the Party Congress, Xi seems poised to revamp his assertive foreign policy, intervening more directly in disputes on China’s periphery and pushing more forcefully against the United States’ presence in the Pacific. Xi will be back with a vengeance—and he will have uncontested authority and the full power of the Chinese state behind him.
So far, 2022 has not gone well for China. Beijing had hoped that the competition with the United States would slow down under President Joe Biden, but instead it has accelerated as Washington reinforces its network of alliances and partnerships to more effectively counter China. In an attempt to reduce its isolation, Beijing strengthened its strategic alignment with Moscow. Xi and Putin declared “no limit” to the two countries’ cooperation during Putin’s visit to China for the Winter Olympics—and Putin tested this proposition with his invasion of Ukraine, evidently aware that he was exploiting Chinese naiveté while counting on Chinese support. The Russian war triggered international outrage and sanctions, complicating China’s foreign relations and casting doubt on the wisdom of Xi’s decision to align closely with Russia. Skeptical views of China’s Russia policy have circulated on Chinese social media platforms. In widely read posts, Hu Wei, a senior scholar affiliated with the Counselors’ Office of the State Council, a government advisory body, questioned China “binding itself with Russia,” and Gao Yusheng, a former Chinese ambassador to Ukraine, predicted that “Putin is bound to fail” in his war effort.
Beijing’s zero-COVID policy and the prolonged lockdowns in Shanghai and other cities this spring have been another source of domestic discontent. Some Chinese observers speculated that the zero-COVID policy was deployed to undermine the power base of the “Shanghai gang”—a group of party officials who gained influence under former President Jiang Zemin—after Shanghai city leadership took a more liberal approach to pandemic management and economic development than Xi preferred. The toll of COVID restrictions has been tremendous in both human misery and economic cost. Shanghai’s GDP contracted by 5.7 percent in the first half of 2022. China’s overall GDP growth in the second quarter of 2022 was 0.4 percent, its lowest rate in decades.
Controversy over Russia and COVID policy may not be enough to challenge Xi’s reign, but the timing is particularly inconvenient for him. By embarking on an unprecedented third term, Xi will be ushering in a new governance and political model for China. Even for a leader as powerful as Xi, breaking away from established tradition requires significant political capital. He needs to rally broad support among party elites. In China’s meritocratic system, any change must be justified. Xi has to prove his superior wisdom and decision-making abilities—and he needs concrete successes to highlight in support of his claims.
Xi has avoided major foreign policy initiatives that could escalate tensions with neighbors or adversaries this year. Most important, he does not want China to become embroiled in a conflict that would distract him from or undercut his position in the domestic political battles that are now his top priority. This does not mean that China will not react if its interests are under threat—although Chinese reactions to perceived provocations, such as the United States fortifying its support of Taiwan, have been relatively mild so far this year. U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s reported visit to Taiwan, if it happens, could trigger a Chinese military response, but it is highly unlikely that China will use the opportunity to attack Taiwan. China is prioritizing stability, at least until the Party Congress is over.
This restraint has been apparent in China’s handling of contentious issues on its periphery. For instance, since 2020, China and India have held 16 rounds of talks regarding their border dispute. Although the talks have yielded little substantive progress so far, China has eagerly pursued improved diplomatic ties with India in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And as the new South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol reorients Seoul’s foreign policy to emphasize security cooperation with the United States—a significant departure from former President Moon Jae-in’s balancing between the United States and China—Beijing has so far refrained from speaking out forcefully against the change or taking retaliatory measures.
Xi’s frustration with China’s strategic position and domestic troubles has been mounting.
Despite its putative alliance with Moscow, China has declined to take a clear stand on Russia’s war in Ukraine, too. Its economic and military support of Russia has been surprisingly thin, given the expectation that pressure from the United States to condemn Moscow’s behavior would trigger more Chinese defiance. In diplomatic statements, China has defended Russia’s actions and accused NATO of aggression, but Beijing’s fear of U.S. sanctions and the further disruption of U.S.-Chinese relations has moderated its policies in this delicate year of political transition. As a result, Russia has complained loudly to Chinese officials that China has not held up its end of the two countries’ partnership.
Even on Taiwan, Beijing’s most sensitive issue, the Chinese government’s policies have been largely reactive to what it perceives as a U.S. and Taiwanese “salami-slicing” strategy—an effort to inch forward bilateral ties. Rather than escalating, Beijing, for the most part, has kept the intensity of its actions below the threshold set in previous years. So far in 2022, the number of Chinese warplane intrusions into the Taiwanese Air Defense Identification Zone on a single day has not exceeded the record of 56 set on October 5, 2021. Beijing has continued its diplomatic, economic, and legal coercion of Taiwan, but it has not advanced further in luring away Taipei’s remaining diplomatic allies since Nicaragua severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan in December 2021. Nor did Beijing react strongly when Taiwanese Vice President William Lai visited Tokyo to attend former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s funeral in July—a notable example of restraint given the seniority of Lai’s position and his past advocacy of Taiwanese independence.
Election season in democratic countries is often marked by lofty campaign rhetoric and political posturing, with candidates making promises they may or may not keep once in office. In China, however, political power struggles are fought and won within the Chinese Communist Party. For Xi, as the incumbent hoping to extend his rule, stability is useful while this competition plays out. But the same logic does not hold after he secures a third term. Some observers have assumed that, after the Party Congress, Xi will moderate his foreign policy because he no longer needs to prove his strength to the party elite. This is a grave misunderstanding. Domestic politics may no longer require Xi to look tough, but his desire to maintain that image and his ambitions for China will not have changed.
The world, therefore, should not expect China to be any less assertive or confrontational after the 20th Party Congress than it has been for most of Xi’s tenure. Beijing’s actions will follow Xi’s convictions, and Xi believes in China’s growing power and in securing the country’s rightful place in the international system. His mission will remain “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” If anything, Xi, having grown increasingly frustrated this year with China’s foreign and domestic challenges, will be prepared to project Chinese power even more forcefully and vehemently after his political drama concludes. Free of his current constraints, Xi will ratchet up China’s activities abroad to put the embarrassment of 2022 firmly behind him.
Once his third term is confirmed, Xi’s status as China’s undisputed leader will enable him to take such action with little to no opposition within the Chinese government. Dissenting views, though faint, have persisted inside the system, but Xi’s success in claiming apparently indefinite rule and his appointment of loyalists to key positions will eliminate them. The echo chamber in which China crafts its foreign policy will be sealed even tighter, amplifying the voices of security services and propaganda departments. With no expiration date for Xi’s reign, his critics will have few channels, official or unofficial, through which they can express their opinions or hope for a change in leadership. Bureaucrats will not only follow Xi’s policies but also augment the tough approach they believe is Xi’s preference.
Even if some officials in China wish to tone down Beijing’s assertive foreign strategy, regional developments may not give Xi the option. Intensifying competition with the United States has set in motion a vicious cycle. Washington is consolidating its alliances and partnerships to counter an assertive China, fortifying bilateral security arrangements with Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, as well as the security agreement between Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom known as AUKUS; the Quad, with Australia, Japan, and India; and the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, announced in Tokyo in May. In China, meanwhile, an anti–United States propaganda machine has been fully mobilized, creating a hypersensitive environment in which any move by Washington whips the “Wolf Warrior” diplomats—Beijing’s new generation of aggressive and coercive representatives abroad—into a frenzy of fanatic overreaction. This approach has a strong domestic incentive: although China’s authoritarian government has enough control over public opinion to lower the temperature if it chooses, so far Beijing has more often found it useful to fan the flames of nationalism as it tries to coerce foreign governments and advance its policy goals.
Once the Party Congress is behind him, Xi will seek to reassert Chinese power in areas of strategic priority. Disputes in the western Pacific will be at the top of his list. Tensions are already building around the Korean Peninsula, with North Korea’s next provocation only a matter of time and Washington and Seoul intent on enhancing their deterrence against Pyongyang. In Beijing’s view, these developments undermine China’s military security and its regional influence. In addition to tying South Korea more closely to the United States, a focus on deterrence reduces the incentive for diplomatic engagement with North Korea—an endeavor that boosts Beijing’s leverage. As Washington and Seoul strengthen their military capabilities on the Korean Peninsula, Beijing will engage in tit-for-tat deployment of its own forces within Chinese territory and step up its support for and coordination with Pyongyang. Many Chinese experts on Korea have condemned the Yoon administration’s efforts to align with the United States to counterbalance China as a grave strategic misjudgment. Some even anticipate maritime military skirmishes between China and South Korea in the coming months. A similar dynamic is at play between China and Japan as Tokyo strengthens its capacity to counter Chinese military and paramilitary tactics, such as intrusions by warplanes, naval vessels, and fishing vessels into the airspace and waters surrounding the disputed Diaoyu Islands (known in Japan as the Senkaku Islands).
Even more concerning are Beijing’s plans for Taiwan. Chinese leaders are increasingly enraged over U.S. actions that they see as hollowing out Washington’s “one China” policy and Taiwanese actions—both domestic legislation and international outreach—that they interpret as moves toward independence. China has taken a series of legal steps over the past few years, too, inching forward Beijing’s claims in the Taiwan Strait. Since 2020, the Chinese government has formally denied the existence of the median line, long tacitly acknowledged as a maritime border between mainland China and Taiwan. This past June, Beijing went further by claiming that the strait cannot be considered international waters. Next, China may take concrete steps to put this claim into practice—administering the strait as an exclusive economic zone, for instance—in a bid to eventually oust the U.S. military from the waterway, making it more difficult for the United States to intervene in a potential conflict over Taiwan. And as Taiwan’s local election in late 2022 and presidential election in 2024 approach, China will intensify its military coercion and intimidation in the hope of tipping the scales in favor of the Taiwanese political party that is accommodating to Beijing. The brief hiatus in China’s diplomatic pressure campaign will be over, too, as Beijing moves forward with its standing plan to push additional countries, such as the Vatican, to sever diplomatic ties with Taiwan.
Once the Party Congress is behind him, Xi will seek to reassert Chinese power.
The region as a whole will likely become more tense—and less safe—after the 20th Party Congress. China has dragged its feet in negotiations with Southeast Asian countries over a code of conduct for the South China Sea, which would establish rules for maritime activities and a dispute-resolution process to enforce them. And in the meantime, Beijing has been equipping at least three artificial islands with military planes, antiship and antiaircraft missile systems, and laser and jamming technology. The Chinese military’s pushback against U.S. freedom of navigation operations will likely grow bolder during Xi’s third term. This year China has already made several aerial and naval intercepts of U.S. warplanes and vessels that raised alarms among U.S. military officials. Beijing may see the risk of these incidents escalating into full-blown conflict as acceptably low, which means it will continue to employ these tactics in an effort to drive the U.S. military away from China’s periphery.
It is wishful thinking to expect China’s economic slowdown to curb Xi’s ambition or soften his tactics. Xi’s past behavior shows that he does not consider economic performance to be his primary source of legitimacy—just look at his stubborn adherence to the zero-COVID policy despite its tremendous economic costs. Instead, his actions are predicated on the belief that China has accumulated enough wealth to make displays of strength worth the economic price.
China has weathered more than two years of self-imposed, COVID-induced isolation. In 2022, China’s foreign policy has been relatively mild compared with what it could have been. After the 20th Party Congress, however, China will gradually reopen to the world. The return to normal exchanges, trade, and travel will no doubt be eagerly welcomed. But the darker side of the same coin is the resumption—and potential escalation—of China’s assertive foreign policy. When the Chinese Communist Party meets, Xi will be coronated as the “People’s Leader”—a title held only by Mao Zedong and his successor, Hua Guofeng. A strengthened Xi is not going to be more moderate. He will have less to prove to his domestic audience. But he will have all the power and the opportunity he needs to pursue his “China Dream.”
U.S.-Chinese Competition Is Getting Sharper—but Doesn’t Necessarily Have to Get More Dangerous