China’s ambition burns bright – with Xi Jinping firmly in charge



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Xi Jinping affirmed that, within a few decades, China would become a prosperous modern socialist society and the world’s most important country.
Reuters/Thomas Peter

Nick Bisley, La Trobe University

The most important political event of 2017, the 19th Chinese Communist Party Congress, has concluded. And while there was much to digest, one image above all stands out: Xi Jinping’s political dominance and his burning ambition for China.

The party congress is held every five years and has two main functions. The first is to lay out the policy program for the coming half-decade. The other is to confirm the people who will occupy the key leadership roles within the party. In short, it’s about policy and people.

The tone was set at the Xi’s opening address. Formally presenting the work report of the 18th Central Committee, he outlined the huge steps China has taken over the past five years and his vision for China over not just the next five years, but out to 2049 – the centenary of the People’s Republic of China’s foundation.

He affirmed that within a few decades, China would become a prosperous modern socialist society and the world’s most important country, both in terms of national power and international influence.

Gone is the old dictum that China has to bide its time and hide its power. Humility and caution have been replaced by confident and assertive leadership.

Xi also declared that China would remain economically open and provide leadership on climate change and other environmental concerns. The centrepiece of China’s international policy will be the Belt and Road Initiative that is now part of the party’s constitution.

But Xi was equally stern about threats and challenges, whether from within or beyond – the country would use all means to defend its interests and sovereignty. This means China’s muscular approach to disputes in the East and South China Sea, with India and elsewhere, is certain to continue.

Hard work, ongoing reform and leadership will be needed to bring all this about. The only force capable of doing this, made clear at the congress, is the Chinese Communist Party.

While nods were made toward market forces playing a more important role in resource allocation, the congress’ message was unmistakable: the key player in the economy, indeed in all aspects of Chinese life, will be the party. This is Leninism for the 21st century.

And the party will be unified around an austere vision laid out by Xi. The anti-corruption program that has been such a significant part of his first five years in office will become a permanent campaign.

Xi had launched the anti-graft measures to root out the significant problem of corruption, but also to eliminate rival centres of power. That will be a core element of party business in the future.

In his first five years, Xi focused on consolidating his power base, unifying the party and presenting a more confident face to the world. The congress made clear that the next five are about paramount leader Xi driving China to its position atop the international totem pole.

At the very start of the congress, the opening address gave a clue as to what was coming the work program presented by Xi was “for a new era”.

Xi made clear that the People’s Republic of China’s history can be divided into three eras. The first was the creation of the republic, led by Mao. The reform period, led by Deng Xiaoping was its second. Now the third era, in which the “Chinese dream of national rejuvenation” to be realised by Xi, has begun. With the Leninism of party centrality has also come a disturbing nascent cult of personality.

To formalise this on the congress’ final day, delegates unanimously voted to incorporate “Xi Jinping thought on socialism with Chinese charactersitics” into the party constitution. His is now a core purpose of the party and marks him out as the most powerful figure within the party for so long as he remains alive.

Prior to the congress there was much speculation about whether or not he would seek to break the party norm of two five-year terms as general secretary. By this move he has rendered such questions moot.

Whether he remains in office for more than five years or whether he formally stands down has become almost immaterial: he will be the dominant figure in the country.

To reinforce this, when the new seven-man standing committee of the politburo was announced the day after the congress’ conclusion there was no obvious successor as part of the grouping. All five of the new faces – Li Zhanshu, Wang Yang, Wang Huning, Zhao Leji and Han Zheng – will need to retire at the next congress. So while the leadership is new, it is entirely subordinate to the general secretary.

Xi now clearly sits atop the party and the party commands China. Over the coming three decades China will seek to become the world’s dominant country.

Notwithstanding Xi’s huge confidence there is a very considerable amount of work to be done to realise these ambitions. It is far from certain whether China’s economy be reformed in the ways necessary to drive the levels of growth needed to fuel this program.

Equally, the party will face continual challenges of unity and legitimacy.

The ConversationInternationally, it is difficult to imagine the US acquiescing to China’s desire to supplant it at the centre of world affairs.

Nick Bisley, Executive Director of La Trobe Asia and Professor of International Relations, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Kim Jong-un’s nuclear ambition: what is North Korea’s endgame?



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Reuters/Toru Hanai

Nick Bisley, La Trobe University

North Korea’s sixth nuclear test, following soon after a series of missile provocations, tells us a great deal.

Most obviously, North Korea does not feel at all constrained by US President Donald Trump’s rhetoric, and nor has it been coerced by UN sanctions. It also illustrates the acute regional tension caused by the acceleration of the isolated country’s weapons acquisition program.

While we wait for technical detail that will reveal the exact magnitude of the blast, and thus how close the regime has come to acquiring a viable nuclear weapon, it is important to try to determine just what it is that North Korea seeks in taking the risky, expensive and diplomatically fraught steps down the nuclear path.


Further reading: Q&A: what earthquake science can tell us about North Korea’s nuclear test


Determining intent in the mind of political leaders is always a fraught endeavour. Working out what the leader of a highly closed society like North Korea wants is harder still.

On this question there is little reliable information, and the best we have is educated guesswork. But discerning what Kim Jong-un wants from his nuclear gambit is necessary to determining how to respond to North Korea’s latest test.

North Korea’s nuclear program began in the early 1990s, and in its first decade or so was often thought to be a means of extorting financial and material support. The Agreed Framework, established in 1994 to manage the crisis, looks in hindsight like a reward for stopping the country from behaving badly.

Given how economically fraught North Korea’s existence had become after the Soviet Union’s collapse, nuclear blackmail as a means to remain viable had a certain logic.

The tempo and success of the various tests show that North Korea’s nuclear program is not a creative revenue-raising exercise. For one thing, the country is no longer as economically fragile as it was in the 1990s. More importantly, the program is so far down the path of weapon acquisition that this motive can be ruled out definitively.

If there were any doubts, the latest tests show North Korea is committed to acquiring a nuclear weapon that can hit the US and other targets both near and far. The reasons are as follows.

Contrary to the way it is often portrayed, North Korea is motivated by the same concerns as all country. Above all, Kim wants nuclear weapons to increase the country’s sense of security.

Due to their destructive force, nuclear weapons are thought of as the ultimate guarantee. The regime perceived that Iraq and Libya were vulnerable to regime change because they could not deter the US or other powerful countries.

As a country that believes the US and its allies pose a significant threat, nuclear weapons are increasingly seen as the only way it can protect itself. While North Korea has a very large military – its defence force is comprised of nearly 1.2 million people – its equipment is badly outdated, and would perform poorly in a fight with US or South Korean forces.

Nuclear weapons are thus a way to maximise the chances of regime survival in what North Korea thinks is a hostile international environment.

The ability to confer disproportionate power on their owners bestows nuclear weapons with considerable prestige. North Korea wants to be taken seriously as a military power of the first rank. The only way in which it can achieve that ambition is through acquiring nuclear weapons.

And while North Korea has been protected by China – it is the reclusive country’s only partner – it is also aware of the vulnerability that that dependence brings. An indigenously developed nuclear weapon promises security, status and autonomy.

Finally, Kim has made nuclear weapons a core part of North Korea’s identity under his leadership. The country’s constitution was amended in 2012 to describe North Korea as a nuclear-armed state.

This was a clear statement of intent not only about getting the weapons, but about their importance to North Korea’s political identity. They are intimately bound up with Kim’s leadership and his sense of North Korea’s place in the world.

How to calibrate the response to North Korea has to start from recognising the fundamental importance of the weapons to North Korea, and more particularly to Kim’s leadership. He cannot be bought off, and the desire to have a properly nuclear-free Korean peninsula is impossible for as long as he rules.


Further reading: Trump can’t win: the North Korea crisis is a lose-lose proposition for the US


All policy options are unpalatable but some are much worse than others.

Regime change or some other coercive effort to stop North Korea comes with the risk of horrendous loss of life as well as no clear guarantee that it would work.

Equally, cutting off the already very isolated country could cause it to collapse with millions of refugees. And more likely North Korea would figure out a way around any more strict sanction regimes, as it has done for many years already.

The best-case scenario is a negotiation in which North Korea agrees to freeze its program. It would not hand over what it has but it would stop going any further. Yet even this is difficult to envisage, and politically would be very difficult for Trump to accept.

The most important thing policymakers in the US, China, Japan and elsewhere can do now is begin to prepare for a North Korea with nuclear weapon capabilities. It is the most likely outcome given Kim’s ambitions and the very limited choices the outside world has.

But while it would be dispiriting development, it would be likely to create a more stable environment than the volatile context created by North Korea’s sprint to the finish.


The ConversationFor more on this topic, you can listen to Benjamin Habib and Nick Bisley discuss North Korea on this recent La Trobe Asia podcast.

Nick Bisley, Executive Director of La Trobe Asia and Professor of International Relations, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

ACADEMIC: ‘FAITH-BASED’ PARTIES HAVE LITTLE CHANCE IN NEW ZEALAND


After New Zealand’s prime minister, Helen Clark announced a general election for 8 November, several “faith-based” political parties have said they will contest the poll, reports Ecumenical News International.

Still, one political observer has suggested the increased number of Christian parties will splinter the faith-based vote, and limit any chance of parliamentary success for them.

Raymond Miller, political studies professor at Auckland University, told a New Zealand church magazine earlier this year that the ambition of a host of Christian-based political parties “did not match reality”.

Miller said the formation of three Christian parties – the United Future Party, the Family Party and the Kiwi Party – would split the conservative Christian vote.

Report from the Christian Telegraph