Asia Pacific / Politics | ANALYSIS

Xi’s move to erase term limits puts Chinese president on collision course with Japan’s Abe

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

China has set the stage for President Xi Jinping to stay in his post indefinitely in a position some have compared to that of an “emperor” — a move that could put the Asian powerhouse on a collision course with Japan and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee announced Sunday that it will seek to remove limits that bar the president and vice president from serving more than two consecutive five-year terms.

Xi, 64, was approved to begin his second five-year term late last year and had been slated to step down in early 2023. But many China experts believe he has long desired to stay in office past that — possibly even positioning himself as president for life.

Xi’s second stint as president already means that his term will overlap with that of Abe, who is expected to serve as prime minister through 2021 after his ruling coalition retained a two-thirds majority in the October Lower House election.

But while both have cemented their status as strong leaders, Xi’s complete consolidation of power could mean that Abe will now have to face off with a very different Xi — and a very different China — than the one he has dealt with since he became prime minister for the second time in 2012.

Xi has worked tirelessly — often overtly, sometimes behind the scenes — to make sure he has an iron grip on the major institutions of government: party, state, military, economy and media.

He has purged potential rivals and opened a path to indefinite rule — a move experts say carries enormous risks since it abandons a system of succession that brought much-needed stability to the country after the decadeslong turbulent rule of communist China’s founder, Mao Zedong.

Xi served up a major hint that he intended to stay at the country’s helm when no heir apparent was anointed at the twice-a-decade party congress in October.

State-run media immediately lavished praise on the decision, with the Global Times tabloid, writing that the Central Committee’s proposed amendment to lift term limits would “improve” leadership.

“From the anti-corruption campaign to comprehensively advancing the rule of law to profound economic restructuring, the CPC Central Committee with Xi at the core has sturdily opened a new era for a hopeful China,” the daily said in an editorial.

Experts said this move had long been in the making.

“He’s been preparing this ever since taking office in 2012: setting up ‘leading small groups’ on sundry topics with himself as head of all; removing those who might resist him from their bases of power through the anti-corruption campaign; instituting even tighter restrictions on social media with the help of new AI technology,” said June Teufel Dreyer, a University of Miami professor and Asia expert who served as a commissioner on the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.

“Resistance,” she said, “would appear to be futile.”

Nevertheless, Japan under Abe has worked closely with the U.S. to maintain what they call the status quo in the region.

All the while, Xi and Abe have clashed over a number of issues, including World War II history, North Korean nukes and, most notably, the South and East China seas.

In November, however, they emerged from a rare face-to-face meeting to announce that their two nations were ready to embark on a “fresh start” in the often troubled relationship.

But Xi, now freed of his constitutional shackles, could turn away from this new beginning as he seeks a bigger say for China in both regional and global affairs.

“I don’t think this bodes well for smooth Sino-Japanese relations, especially in the South China and East China seas,” said Dreyer.

In the South China Sea, Beijing has slowly chipped away at the status quo — a strategy known as “salami slicing” — by building military outposts on man-made islands, aggressively shadowing the U.S. military’s “freedom of navigation operations” and shooing away rivals’ vessels from key fishing and strategic areas.

This strategy is one Dreyer said China could eventually implement in the East China Sea, where Beijing and Tokyo are embroiled in a dispute over the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, known in China as the Diaoyu.

As Xi’s power has grown, China has already aggressively targeted the tiny islets, labeling them as a “core interest” and repeatedly sending government-backed vessels into the area.

“Relations with Japan can remain reasonably cordial only if the Abe government does not challenge the now even more powerful Xi, who will undoubtedly seek to push the envelope further,” Dreyer said.

Jean-Pierre Cabestan, an expert on Chinese politics and a professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, said that while “the good news is that Xi can make and impose many decisions on his peers or subordinates, including a detente with Japan,” the concentration of power would likely prevent the Communist Party’s leadership from questioning “any abuse of power … or adventurous foreign policy decision” by Xi.

Xi, the son of a famed Communist Party veteran, is known as a “princeling.” He rose through the ranks to the position of Shanghai’s party leader in 2007 before being promoted the same year to the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee. A year later, in a sign that he would succeed then-leader Hu Jintao, he was tapped to be vice president.

Since his elevation to the presidency in 2013, Xi has also overseen a wide-ranging crackdown on corruption that has helped him eliminate rivals and consolidate his grip on power.

As commander in chief of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, he has been at the helm of a military modernization campaign that poured cash into the country’s defense budgets while streamlining its forces.

He has also moved to shore up his legacy, last year taking on the mantle of “core” of the party leadership, elevating him above his predecessors to a position reminiscent of Mao.

For his next trick, Xi could pull off something even more evocative of Mao: adding “chairman” to his ever-increasing list of titles, some say.

“Xi is a megalomaniac and it is not surprising if he wants to grab the chairman’s title also,” said Willy Lam, a political analyst at the Chinese University in Hong Kong. “It depends on the state of the opposition. But after (he) become(s) ’emperor for life,’ he has already met his own personal target for amassing power and authority. So the symbolic title of chairman is not a big deal.”

Lam, however, warned that Xi should be wary of overextending his reach, predicting that a serious misstep by the Chinese leader could provoke his downfall at the hands of his nemeses.

“Because Xi has grabbed so much power so soon, he has made a record number of enemies,” Lam said. “But his enemies are lying low and dare not challenge Xi openly. They are waiting for Xi to make a big mistake, whereupon these enemies will coalesce and pounce on Xi ferociously.”