The Changing of the Guard

Just months away from a complete handover of power that occurs just once every ten years, China’s top political leaders gather in the town of Beidaihe to begin discussing the makeup of China’s top two political entities: the 25-member Politburo and its prestigious and exclusive 9-member Standing Committee, widely considered to be the most powerful group in Chinese politics. Chinese leaders have met in Beidaihe ahead of these transitions for over half a century, dating back to the days when Mao Zedong held formal meetings to select China’s top brass in the beachside town. These days, such meetings are usually informal and clandestine; more of a smoke and mirrors game that will determine the way China behaves on the world stage for at least the next decade.

Questions remain as to the intentions of China on the world stage as it continues on the upward economic (and increasingly military) trajectory that began in the 1980’s under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, specifically questions about where China sees itself in relation to other global powers and overaching international institutions. China, already a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, made great strides towards integrations into the existing global order in the 1990’s when it joined the World Trade Organization and continues to show its willingness to work within the existing global order to achieve its goals. According to John Ikenberry, professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton, in his assessment of rising powers and existing institutions, China has more to gain by influencing the existing global order to its own needs than to completely reorganize it into an entirely new system.

China’s most obvious concern on the international stage at the moment is its relationship with the current world hegemon: the United States of America. Though the relationship between the two major global powers has thus far been peaceful and mostly cooperative, large areas of contention (financial regulation and climate change policy notably amongst them) remain that damage the level of trust between the two nations. Additionally, ethical issues such as the human rights record in China and the status of Taiwan highlight the stark differences in values between the two nations. Rosemary Foot, professor of International Relations at Oxford University, has characterized the relationship between the two nations as ‘systemic’ in nature, able to affect the creation of global norms and standards either through cooperation or disagreement on issues of vital importance to the international system.

What is clear is that China values national sovereignty above other values, an issue that often leads them into disagreement with the United States on how best to respond to global emergencies. The crises in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, for example, are seen by China as domestic conflicts best left to be resolved on their own rather than issues requiring immediate international attention. Similarly, China is not looking to form any sort of “anti-Western” coalition with India, Russia, or Brazil (other rapidly rising nations) anytime in the near future. For the time being, China’s immediate goal seems to be consolidation of its power in the East Asian Pacific region, a region that the former Chinese empire historically exercised almost undisputed control over before the arrival of the European colonial powers. 

When Mr. Xi Jinping ascends to power in the fall as President of the People’s Republic of China and Chairman of the Communist Party, things are unlikely to dramatically change course in Chinese foreign policy. What we have seen and understood as outside observers of Chinese politics is that tradition and continuity are very much sacred in high politics and that many interests (both domestic and international) are carefully weighed and measured before any sort of action is taken by China’s leadership. The changing of China’s top leadership is an historic moment which the world would do well to mark as the powerful nation continues to decisively shape international politics. 

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