By Allen Carlson.

Now that the dust has begun to settle following last fall’s 18th National Party Congress, an event that anointed Xi Jinping as the China’s paramount leader, it appears China now stands at a crucial crossroads within its rise as a major global power. As a result, fascination with the country and its future is greater than ever before. This interest is grounded by a series of questions that boil down to two broad issues: how much will China under Xi be transformed at home, and on the world stage?

There are no singular answers to such queries. Those who contend otherwise are forwarding partial and misleading arguments. The more accurate, and honest response, is that it is still to early to tell how things are likely to play out in China during the next several years. This lack of clarity is due in part to the absence of transparency within the Chinese political system. More importantly, it also stems from the fact that China’s leaders do not yet appear to share a common vision over either set of issues. Much as is the case within the rest of the world, China’s leaders and general population are struggling to make sense of their place within a volatile international environment. There are three main components to such issues.

China At Home: Expect More of the Same, But Challenges Loom

Internally it is unrealistic to anticipate any radical changes within China being implemented from above. Simply stated, neither Xi, nor his second in command Li Keqiang, has the power to push such changes through. Moreover, it is also far from clear that either man has any interest in forwarding extensive political reforms. Xi and Li rose to the top of the Chinese political establishment by playing within the rules of such an institution. As a product of it they are unlikely to be inclined to dramatically alter its constitution. In other words, there is very little available information that indicates Xi is poised to become China’s Mikhail Gorbachev.

This being the case, it is safe to assume that Xi is well aware of the underlying challenges that face China today. It is a state that is now well into its third decade of opening up its economy, while maintaining tight control over the political system. This formula has worked well, but it is also beginning to show signs of wear in the form of yawning economic inequalities, social unrest, and public dissatisfaction with endemic corruption and scandals.

Since Xi and his fellow leaders face such a wide array of domestic political challenges, and will be preoccupied in the coming years with just maintain the existing status quo within China, tectonic change is also unlikely to occur in the country’s relationship with the rest of the world. In other words, the broad policy guidelines formulated by Deng Xiaoping in the early 1990s relating to maintaining a low profile and avoiding confrontation, while strengthening China’s international position, will remain intact.

China in Asia: Ongoing Turbulence, but Limited Prospects for Outright Conflict

During the last year, many observers contend that a major shift in China’s relationship with its neighbors has occurred, as Beijing appears to have taken a significantly more muscular approach toward dealing with its outstanding maritime disputes in both the South China and East China Seas. On the one hand, these brewing tensions do suggest gathering storm clouds in the region. However, it is also important not to overlook the fact that to date virtually all of the confrontation in both China’s contested eastern and southern maritime regions has been in the realm of words and symbolic actions, not military engagements.

Shots still have not been fired in either the South or East China Sea. Moreover, this condition is consistent with the trend that dates to the mid-1990’s of Chinese deferral from engaging any of its neighbors in direct military conflict. Additionally, in principle, the 2002 Code of Conduct on the South China Sea still holds (if barely), as does the Sino-Japanese agreement from the 1970’s to set aside differences over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. In other words, the fulcrum has not tilted fully in either region in the direction of war. In this sense, there is some continued room for optimism about both disputes.

China and America: New and Established Great Powers Squaring Off, Yet Deeply Interdependent

A similar, cautiously optimistic, assessment can also be forward regarding the U.S.-China relationship. Despite multiple signs of tension and distrust, the bilateral dynamic between these two giants appears to be guided on both sides of the Pacific by an overarching awareness that our futures are inextricably linked.  Thus, even if we do have differences, they are not yet insurmountable.

Such stability is grounded by two broad structural factors. First, America is being forced to face for the first time since the end of the Cold War serious questions about the sustainability of its hegemonic status on the world stage. Such a changing equation is being driven primarily by internal, rather than external developments, in that the impact of the 2008-2009 financial crisis is still reverberating throughout the American economic and political system. This has led most American analysts to concur that there are now many more constraints upon US power than was previously the case. Where there is pronounced disagreement is over what Washington should do in the wake of such a turn of events. Indeed, it is this quandary, which is likely to be the central foreign policy debate of Obama’s second term, that echoes throughout most discussions in the nation’s capital over how the President should be approaching China.

Second, the question of U.S. decline invokes the issue of China’s rise. In short, while it is pronounced, and may even alter aspects of the current order, China is not now, nor likely to be in the near future, a superpower. Rather, it has become something of a paradoxical great power, in that it has accumulated rather impressive strengths abroad over the last decade, but at the same time has faced growing internal challenges within its own borders. Such a juxtaposition does not then make China a superpower, but has turned it into the world’s second most influential state, one that now has an extensive presence far from its own shores, but which is still quite unsure of itself, and relationship to its own people, at home.

It would then be a mistake to assume that the U.S. and China are allies, or even destined to cooperate, on the world stage. However, it is fair to assert that there is an awareness among the leaders of both countries that our fates have become intertwined, and even if we do have disagreements, the frictions produced by such contentions need to be contained if we are both to prosper.  In conclusion, neither side appears to have the motivation, nor will, to change the basic contours of the US-China relationship, for better or worse.

Allen Carlson is Associate Professor in the Government Department at Cornell University. He is co-editor with Ren Xiao of New Frontiers in China’s Foreign Relations.

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