Perhaps the most fitting description of China today is ‘ambitious’ - an ambitious country, an ambitious foreign policy and, most of all, an ambitious President. The last few months have confirmed Xi Jinping as China’s most powerful leader since Chairman Mao. During Xi’s rise to this position, China’s foreign policy has similarly become more ambitious. There is a clear link between these developments. In fact, the implications of personalistic rule are potentially problematic for Chinese foreign policy and the entire Indo-Pacific region.
With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility
Since assuming the Presidency in March 2013, Xi Jinping has rapidly consolidated positions of power for either himself or close allies. This personalistic style of rule has reversed longstanding norms of ‘collective leadership’, wherein the President was considered primus inter pares. This culminated recently with a constitutional amendment removing Presidential term limits, and enshrining ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ as China’s official guiding policy. In so doing, Xi has effectively rendered himself the ‘Chairman of Everything’. By accumulating personal control over most political processes within one of the most powerful nations on earth, however, Xi also accumulates considerable responsibility.
One of the greatest responsibilities for Xi is his ambitious foreign policy. Some have argued that under Xi leadership, China has rejected Deng Xiaoping’s mantra of ‘maintaining a low profile’ and is now emphasising its status as a major global player. Projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) are testament to Xi’s focus on strengthening economic ties in the Indo-Pacific region. Some critics highlight the self-serving motivations behind the BRI, alleging that China’s modus operandi is “lend unsustainably and move quickly”.
In the past, China’s foreign policy was just that - China’s. However as Xi Jinping has consolidated power within party and state structures, foreign policy is becoming increasingly personalistic.
In the past, China’s foreign policy was just that - China’s. However as Xi Jinping has consolidated power within party and state structures, foreign policy is becoming increasingly personalistic. Terms such as ‘Foreign Policy with Xi Jinping characteristics’ and ‘Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative’ have started to be used by officials, academics and journalists. Xi’s role as the Chairman of various policy working groups has also conferred a high degree of personal control over foreign policy decisions. Furthermore, he has become the “commander-in-chief” of the People’s Liberation Army, while key foreign policy positions have been filled by many of his close political allies.
By assuming personal responsibility for foreign policy-making processes, these changes influence the way that authority and responsibility are exercised. Xi can now claim personal credit for all China’s foreign policy successes; but is equally responsible for its failures.
If China’s foreign policy is a success, Xi Jinping stands to gain considerable personal prestige. The perceived diminishing presence of US leadership in the Indo-Pacific region presents a golden opportunity to Xi. By solidifying China’s position as regional leader, he could realise his promised ‘renaissance of the Chinese nation’ and thus create a legacy on par with that of Chairman Mao or Deng Xiaoping. However, given the ambitious nature of this endeavour, this promises both reward and risk.
The Risks of the Belt and Road Initiative
The Belt and Road Initiative is a $900 billion gamble. The majority of BRI countries are developing nations, and some have varying degrees of domestic political instability. Such countries are precarious environments for infrastructure projects because of the inherent vulnerability of their economies and institutions. Herein lies a paradox - countries participate in the BRI because they are developing, but the BRI is risky precisely because its participants are developing.
Pakistan, for example, could benefit significantly from the industrial projects proposed under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. The success of these initiatives is hardly guaranteed, however, with Pakistan ranking 147th for Ease of Doing Business by the World Bank; and facing conflict both within and without its borders.
The risks of investing in politically and economically insecure countries are manyfold. These include the risk of projects failing to function or being poorly implemented. A BRI container terminal in Sri Lanka, for example, was so underused that the country could not pay back its $1 billion loan to China. The burden of debt is not unique to Sri Lanka. Many BRI participating countries have been, and will be, confronted by rapidly growing debts to China. Testament to this is the Lao-Chinese high speed railway project whose costs are estimated at $6 billion, whilst Lao’s GDP stands at just $12 billion.
For the economic giant, the BRI is more about geopolitics than commercial projects.
Not only can debt exacerbate the domestic insecurity of participant states, it also poses a threat to China. For the economic giant, the BRI is more about geopolitics than commercial projects. If the failure of certain BRI projects led to major fiscal stresses – and even the much-feared ‘debt traps’ – amongst its neighbours, China stands to lose key regional relationships which are essential to efforts to balance power against the US.
Implications for Chinese foreign policy and the Indo-Pacific
The combination of personalistic rule and high-risk foreign policy has implications for the Indo-Pacific region. History shows the dangers associated with one person wielding disproportionate power within political systems, especially in very large countries. Indeed, China itself suffered a devastating famine during Mao’s Great Leap Forward. Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, established the norm of collective leadership precisely to avoid the repetition of such a fatal mistake.
Concentrating decision-making power in Xi Jinping exacerbates the risks of ambitious projects such as the BRI. Rather than relying on a broad group of experts, Chinese firms, banks and government departments are likely to act on what they perceive – rightly or wrongly – to be the intentions of the President. This is an unlikely context to deliver prudent decision-making, especially given the complex and high-risk nature of some of the massive infrastructure projects included in the BRI.
Failed BRI projects would have a profound effect on the region. Many countries would be left with nothing to show other than unfinished or ill-purposed infrastructure, and accumulate considerable debt – much of it to Chinese agencies – in the process. With many participant countries already experiencing domestic instability, greater fiscal stress could threaten these already weak states.
For China itself, BRI failure would jeopardise the country’s regional ambitions. China’s soft power is dependent on its ability to deliver economic assistance to neighbouring countries. China’s human rights record and controversial approach to territorial disputes undermine any other chance at regional soft power. Thus, if BRI projects fail to deliver results, regional trust in China will be diminished, its soft power weakened and its chances at regional leadership compromised. Given recent changes to the constitution, responsibility for such a failure might personally fall to Xi Jinping.
Given recent changes to the constitution, responsibility for such a failure might personally fall to Xi Jinping.
For a leader like Xi, “the buck stops here” is more than just a publicity stunt. By assuming all power he assumes all responsibility. If he were to fail to deliver his ‘great renaissance of the Chinese nation’, Xi Jinping’s legitimacy would be compromised. This could further compromise China’s ability to deliver on its foreign policy, with far-reaching consequences for regional geopolitics.
Fortunately, the likelihood of such a scenario is small. Widespread failure of many BRI projects is unlikely; more probable is the success of some and failure of others. Nonetheless, personalistic rule increases the likelihood of poor decision-making, and may lead to a greater ratio of bad-to-good BRI projects. Only time will tell the outcome of Xi’s gamble, but the future of the Silk Road is far from assured.
Featured image courtesy of Pixabay.