This summer is not unfolding as Chinese President Xi Jinping anticipated. He had planned to bask in the reflected glory of the celebrations of the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s reversion to China and the forging of a new relationship with the United States that would put the two great powers on a more equal footing, both of which would consolidate his position in the run-up to the all-important 19th Chinese Communist Party Congress to be held later this year.
Instead, the Hong Kong fete underscored problems in Beijing’s international standing, relations with the U.S. are on the downswing and China is being challenged on other foreign policy fronts. None are insurmountable, but cumulatively they are troubling for a leader who must show positive results as his party contemplates its next five years.
The Hong Kong festivities went largely as planned and the events were unblemished by protests. Xi and other Chinese leaders, though, are troubled by the growing divide between residents of the city and the mainland. Rather than closing the gap between the two, Hong Kongers seem to take growing pride in and identify with the distinctive identity of their “special administrative region” (or, more precisely, its more independent predecessor). This has necessitated a crackdown by authorities in Beijing and Hong Kong, which intensifies the ill will, which generates a tougher response.
Moreover, Beijing’s heavy hand has raised questions about China’s commitment to international law. Last week, China’s foreign ministry challenged Britain’s right to enforce the 1984 U.K.-China Joint Declaration on Hong Kong, which set the terms for the city’s status after reversion. A spokesperson declared that “as a historical document, (it) no longer has any practical significance, and it is not at all binding for the central government’s management over Hong Kong.” That flat statement assumes especially unnerving significance as Beijing negotiates with Southeast Asian government on a code of conduct for the South China Sea.
Xi is also facing a reversal in relations with the U.S. Earlier this year Xi left the Mar-a-Lago summit with President Donald Trump thinking he had put the bilateral relationship on new footing as Trump abandoned all tough talk toward China and instead embraced his new friend and partner in foreign and economic affairs. In the last few weeks, however, Trump “tweet shamed” China for its failure to get Pyongyang to behave better, and imposed secondary sanctions on China’s Bank of Dandong for trading with the North. Following North Korea’s test-firing of what is believed to be an intercontinental ballistic missile on Tuesday, Trump reiterated the criticism of China for its trade relations with the North, tweeting, “Trade between China and North Korea grew almost 40 percent in the first quarter. So much for China working with us — but we had to give it a try!”
He has announced a $1.4 billion package of arms sales to Taiwan, resumed freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea and looks set to announce higher tariffs on Chinese steel exports to the U.S. Last month, the U.S. also identified China as one of the worst offenders in the State Department’s annual report on human trafficking. None of these gestures suggest a “special relationship” is in the making.
In addition, Trump last month hosted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during which the U.S. president declared that India would always have “a true friend in the White House” and the two men made pointed comments about the rule of law and peaceful dispute resolution that were aimed at China. That meeting occurred as China was complaining that the Indian Army had crossed into contested territory in the state of Sikkim, a juxtaposition of military might and diplomacy that must worry Beijing.
Finally, there is the South Korean government’s refusal to bend to China’s demands and reverse and reject the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system. Beijing claims that THAAD has little value against the North Korean missile threat; rather, its real worth is its potential ability to undermine China’s strategic deterrent and is thus a threat to its own defense. China worries that THAAD in South Korea is the first step in a regional missile defense architecture that would reduce its ability to threaten neighboring governments in the event of a crisis.
Most significantly, however, Beijing is angered by Seoul’s continuing readiness to ignore Chinese concerns. From Beijing’s perspective, its priorities should eclipse all others. The Chinese government had hoped that a progressive government in Seoul would see the error of its predecessor’s ways, reverse the Park Geun-hye government’s decision to deploy THAAD and begin the readjustment of South Korean foreign policies to become more accommodating of Chinese interests. That has not yet happened and, judging from the summit of Trump and South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in, it is not likely.
All these developments put Xi on the defensive. He is increasingly forced to respond to external developments rather than shape them as he would prefer. Xi’s ambition in the lead-up to the 19th Party Congress is to be the master of his and his country’s destiny, and use that power and influence to stock the party leadership with supporters and, it is whispered, to extend his rule beyond the standard 10 years. His foes within the party — and there are many — will use the events of the past few weeks to build a case against him.