WASHINGTON: The president of China, seeming to cast aside the better part of four millennia of Chinese tradition, declared today that he sees “a new historic juncture in China’s development,” one that clearly calls for his country to flex its global muscles and change the rules that have guided the world since at least World War II.
“China will continue its efforts to safeguard world peace, contribute to global development, and uphold international order,” the increasingly powerful Xi Jinping said at the massive Communist Party Congress, held every five years to rubber-stamp the leadership’s ascendancy and signal its intentions to both the Chinese people and the world. “China will continue to play its part as a major and responsible country, take an active part in reforming and developing the global governance system, and keep contributing Chinese wisdom and strength to global governance.”
To me, this commitment to “reforming and developing” the rules that govern international behavior is the most intriguing. China has consistently rejected international laws and norms, which it views as tools of the western world, led by the United States. Will this mean that China will press for a wholesale rewriting of fundamental documents such as the Geneva Conventions, continue to reject the ruling of international tribunals if it doesn’t like them (remember the ruling on China’s claims in the South China Sea), and press ahead with the global bribery and corruption that marks so much of its “international development efforts” in Asia, Africa and Latin America?
China’s foreign policy will be defined by its “Chinese characteristics,” Xi said in his really long speech, three-and-a-half hours. “China will never pursue development at the expense of others’ interests, but nor will China ever give up its legitimate rights and interests,” he said. Clearly signaling that actions such as those of building fake islands in the South China Sea and challenging the Vietnamese over oil and other economic claims will not cease, the Chinese supreme leader said: “No one should expect China to swallow anything that undermines its interests.”
After its establishment of China’s first overseas military base at Djibouti, the declaration of the almost trillion dollar “Belt and Road Initiative,” and now Xi’s speech today, there seems little doubt the Chinese supreme leader wants his country to boast not regional but global influence, in stark contrast to all but a tiny sliver of its history.
Xi made his comments about international relations just three weeks before President Trump pays his first visit to the world’s fastest rising power. He seemed to offer a rebuke to the Trump administration’s America First approach, saying: “No country can alone address the many challenges facing humanity; no country can afford to retreat into isolation.” By contrast, he said, “China will continue its efforts to safeguard world peace, contribute to global development, and uphold international order.” So, while Trump withdraws from or tries to renegotiate international agreements, alienates allies and focuses his efforts on Pittsburgh, not Paris, Xi seems to be indicating that the Chinese will press ahead, engaging where they can in their own interests.
If you want some idea of just how gay and happy Xi believes the future to be, just read this poster which a colleague at the New Yorker says was posted at the party congress: “Life in China Is Good! Everyday Is Like a Holiday!”
Will the rest of the world enjoy the Chinese holiday or will it pine for the good old days of the Pax Americana?