China Prepares for New Leadership

The lame duck factor is a fact of American political grammar. It describes the third year of the final term of a sitting president. From then on, all important policy decisions or policy changes must wait until the election of his successor. Is a similar phenomenon also emerging for China, which is not a democracy?

Even for a non-democratic system, China has institutionalized the process of orderly succession of its president and prime minister. President Hu Jintao has a little more than a year left before he must step down. How does that fact weigh among US China-watchers who are advising President Barack Obama? Are US-China relations going to be less or more confrontational or conciliatory when his successor comes to power?

From the perspective of the lame duck factor for China, Hu made his last consequential trip to Washington last week. He visited the US amid high speculation about the People's Liberation Army's purported independence from China's civilian leadership. Given how far off the US intelligence analysts have been about a number of issues regarding China, one cannot attach much weight to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates' assertions that when he was about to meet the Chinese president, Hu was not aware that the PLA made the decision to fly China's stealth fighter J-20 at that time. Gates also made an observation about a possible disconnect between the PLA and China's civilian leadership. Hu was even described as a weak leader.

Hu had barely returned to China from his American trip when the New York Times ran a story that The Chinese leader "has already begun preparing for his departure from power, passing the baton to his presumed successor, a former provincial leader named Xi Jinping…"

Even if the lame duck factor is a real phenomenon for the People's Republic of China, one still cannot overstate its significance, because policies in the post-Deng Xiaoping era are a product of bureaucratic consensus and not necessarily driven by one dominant leader. Since no one really knows – certainly not the US intelligence agencies – which leader's views would become as the driving defense or economic policies, it is hard to state which politician would emerge as the architect of what particular policy in the coming years. The era of political giants in China is over, with the death of Deng. The fourth and the fifth generation of leaders are, and will be, known for their personal touch in a considerably less significant way than was Deng.

When we put into perspective what we know about Hu's expected successor, Xi Jinping, who is currently serving as China's vice president, the uppermost fact that emerges is that he is a princeling, the son of a well-known leader. As such, he brings with him a lot of "political acumen, family connection and ideological dexterity." However, none of these characteristics points to the possibility that he is likely to be a charismatic leader, even remotely resembling the allure of Mao Zedong or Deng. Xi is reported to have "deeper military ties than his two predecessors," Hu and former President Jiang Zemin, when they took the helm. Even that type of relationship is not likely to enable him to play a dominant role in military affairs.

Xi is likely to be more of an expert in steering bureaucratic consensus to support his policy preferences. If he were to succeed in doing that, it would say a lot about his leadership. However, no one expects him to break new directions on major policy issues important to the United States or any other major country.

Xi is socialized – as has been every leader of China in the post-Deng era – to give enormous primacy to China's economic growth. He will have ample room to maneuver in his dealings with Washington or New Delhi, or other major European, Latin American, and Asian powers, but only about what has been previously agreed to in the backroom dealings with Beijing.

How much room will he be allowed to promote innovative ideas of his own within the ranks of China's communist party? That depends more on China's own speed of continued economic development and the shape of global affairs than anything else. The linkages between domestic and international politics play as significant a role in Beijing as they do in Washington or in any other capital.

It is an established fact that China draws its own policy cues from what the United States is doing at a given time, both in the realms of economic policy and the modernization of its military. If the decline of the United States were to appear more conclusive or irreversible in the next few years than it is in the beginning of 2011, then one can rest assured that China will be more assertive (even in a friendly way) about making its own policy preferences known about reforming the international monetary system and global environmental laws, and regarding other affairs of East Asia.

For example, one has to keep an eye on how far China would go in adding more issues to its list of "core interests" in the coming years. At least for now, it knows that it does not have much leeway in extending that list, because the United States has responded rather decisively about the importance of diplomatic resolution of issues listed under its core issues, as opposed to unilaterally adding issues to that list and then declaring that they cannot be negotiated. By the same token, when China and Japan were having diplomatic spats about the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, the Obama administration was also unequivocal about siding with its major ally in the region, Japan. Those were clear signals to the Chinese conservative leadership to back off.

As China's global profile continues to grow, it is required to have at its helm leaders who are well-versed in the incessantly transforming nuances of global politics than those leaders from the third and the fourth generations.

By the same token, the internal process of policy deliberations of China has to become equally sophisticated, with growing reliance on specialists and experts on complicated issues of global trade and military competition. All these developments underscore the emergence of a leader who feels very much at home in dealing with complex issues, a pragmatic person, and a person whose charisma is used to influence and promote internal consensus of China in global arena in a highly deliberate manner. Xi Jinping seems to fit that bill.

China seems to have reached a state in its development when it is likely to be more assertive in demanding that the international rules of the game be changed. There is nothing inherently confrontational about that. The global political and economic institutions – the U.N., the IMF, and the World Bank – belong to the anachronistic realities of the post-World War II era. The so-called "great powers" of that era (Britain, France, and Russia, for instance) need to be moved into less significant categories of nations.

Room must be made for China, India, Brazil, and even South Korea, Turkey, Indonesia, and Mexico, since they are increasingly emerging as new powers of the future. A new Chinese leader might be more forthcoming and assertive on such issues. In this sense, the end of China's lame duck era of Hu's leadership is a good thing for more realistic debates affecting the world at large.

Ehsan Ahrari, Ph.D. is a specialist in great power relations and transnational security. His latest book on great power relations is entitled, The Great Powers and the Hegemon: Strategic Maneuvers. He can be reached at ahrarie@gmail.com