China's ruling Communist Party concluded its 20th National Congress on October 22, cementing Xi Jinping's status as the country’s most powerful leader in decades by awarding him an unprecedented third five-year term as party general secretary. The CCP also revealed the new lineup of the Politburo Standing Committee, China’s most powerful political body, made up entirely of Xi loyalists. APARC scholars outline the key takeaways from the Congress and consider its implications for China and the world.
Xi's “Work Report” address to the party congress indicates continuity in policy direction. Xi’s long-term ambitions, driven by the grand “Chinese dream” of the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” have not changed, but now he can be more assertive than before in pursuing them, writes APARC and Korea Program Director Gi-Wook Shin in a co-authored Los Angeles Times opinion piece. Xi has demonstrated that he does not shy away from conflict with the United States, and China will likely strengthen ties with Russia, North Korea, and other like-minded authoritarian nations, says Shin. With Xi at the helm for a third term, “we should expect a more aggressive China and increasing turbulence in the regional and global order."
Center Fellow Oriana Skylar Mastro, an expert in Chinese military and Asia security, agrees that the next five years under Xi’s leadership look set to get more confrontational between the world’s two great powers. In coverage by multiple media outlets, Mastro explains the implications of the Party Congress for the United States and its partners.
In Xi's report to the Party Congress, he called for further investments in the military and reaffirmed that China will not rule out using force to bring Taiwan under its control. His address indicates that, despite recent challenges, such as economic slowdown and the rippling effects of the COVID pandemic, the Chinese think their country is on track with its trajectory, whether it be toward reunification with Taiwan or having a world-class military, Mastro tells the Christian Science Monitor. “We will probably continue to see, in their minds progress, and in our minds disruptions and harassment.”
Along with securing a third term in office, Xi also named two top generals as vice chairmen of the Central Military Commission, the top body overseeing the armed forces, as he looks to modernize China’s military and keep up pressure on Taiwan. One vice chair role went to He Weidong, who led the military command responsible for Taiwan. There is speculation He played a role in planning China’s unprecedented military drills around the island following U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit in August 2022, Mastro says via Bloomberg. “The promotion of He Weidong is generally considered within China as a sign that Beijing is strengthening military preparations, or in the words of some Chinese military commentators, ‘strengthening combat preparations for military struggles against Taiwan,’” she notes.
China wants to reach the point where its predominant power allows its actions to go uncriticized and countries in its periphery accommodate Chinese preferences, Mastro explains in another interview with Bloomberg.
Under Xi’s watch, China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army, has undergone a tremendous modernization, with the goal of becoming a “world-class force” by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. One area in which the PLA appears to be making progress is in bringing forces together for more complex joint exercises, helped by interaction with other militaries, especially Russia’s. “We are observing an increasing complexity and sophistication in how they are performing in exercises,” Mastro tells the Wall Street Journal.
With regards to the Taiwan flashpoint, it is almost guaranteed we will see lower-level conflicts and disruptions, Mastro predicts. China does not have to impose a complete blockade over the island, and could do something like a blockade for a week or two “just to teach Taiwan a lesson if they don’t like what happens in the next election, for example,” she says in an interview with the Hindustan Times.
China’s consistent trajectory of improving its military capabilities means a heavier reliance on those capabilities to achieve its goals over time, Mastro explains via Radio Free Asia. “The bottom line is, the next five years are undoubtedly going to be rockier for U.S.-China relations and for other countries with security concerns in the region,” she concludes.
The scenes from the 20th Party Congress reinforce the idea in the Biden administration’s new National Security Strategy, which recognizes that “the PRC presents America’s most consequential geopolitical challenge.” National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, speaking hours after the strategy’s release, singled out China and did not mention Russia in his opening remarks to reporters, underscoring an intention to not allow Moscow’s war against Ukraine to distract from the Biden administration’s assessment that Beijing is a more crucial challenge to U.S. national security, Mastro tells the South China Morning Post. “I think the administration correctly assessed that in order to compete with China we have to stay focused, and we couldn’t be distracted by other challenges which are absolutely important but are not of the same severity or calibre as what China presents.”
More media coverage:
- Report from the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China: What does Xi Jinping's Third Term mean for US-China relations and Taiwan? – VOA Chinese, October 22
- What Will Xi’s Third Term Mean for India-China Ties? – The Hindustan Times, October 17