Author : Manoj Joshi

Originally Published 2020-12-22 12:08:34 Published on Dec 22, 2020
The Chinese are now seeking to finesse a situation where their continued economic growth requires them to open up their service and financial sectors in the world, while preventing their adversaries from using this to undermine the CPC control of China.
Containment threat to China
Some people think that the Biden era may see a reduction in the pushback that China has been facing. But the Chinese themselves are bracing for an intensification of that pressure and, indeed, a wider challenge. This is evident from the recent references to ‘national security’ in discussions in the higher echelons of the Communist Party of China (CPC). Not to forget, of course, the ramming through of the National Security Law in Hong Kong earlier this year. Earlier this month, the CPC’s apex body, the politburo, held a study session on national security, the first on the subject since 2014, when the subject discussed was counter-terrorism. Politburo group study sessions, usually chaired by General Secretary Xi, are aimed at providing the Chinese leadership in-depth briefings on issues of the day. In this case, the invitee speaker was Yuan Peng, head of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), a think tank associated with the Ministry of State Security that runs China’s intelligence apparatus. He’s probably the first international relations scholar to be accorded this privilege. Yuan is a specialist in US-China relations who has worked his way up the CICIR, one of the most influential Chinese think tanks. Details of what Yuan said are not available. But his previous writings and background suggests that the danger and opportunities from the confrontation with the US is very much in the politburo’s mind. A flavour of Yuan’s ideas is available in a lengthy article he wrote in June on the website aisixiang.com. He made the following points: the epidemic was comparable to a world war and the existing international order was unsustainable; the world economy is in full recession, only one step away from the Great Depression; relations between major powers are changing, while the antagonism of the Sino-US relations has come to the fore; the centrality of the Asia-Pacific region has become clearer; globalisation was facing a counter-current and global governance faced an unprecedented crisis; the disputes over systems, models and technology have become the core of international politics; China was engaging the world on its own terms after the century of humiliation.

The Covid threat had shown how the security of China could be threatened in unconventional ways.

Given the rise of China, and the relative weakness of the US, Yuan expected that Washington would be tough towards China and “containment and suppression will intensify.” He concluded his lengthy article by arguing that Covid’s lesson was on the need for reorganising the relationship between development and security. The Covid threat had shown how the security of China could be threatened in unconventional ways. China needed to ensure that it was safe against a broad spectrum of threats that confronted the country. Some of this thinking was evident in the resolutions of the fifth plenary session (5th Plenum) of the CPC at the end of October that had been called to discuss the 14th (2022-2027) Five Year Plan. The basic theme of the plan is the importance of “technology self-reliance…(as) strategic support for national development.” But two new areas were introduced. One was the need to integrate development and security to “build a higher level of peace and safety in China.” The other was on building economic and military strength together. In his remarks at the Politburo Study Session, Xi referred to the 5th Plenum’s call to integrate ‘high quality development’ with ‘high-level security’ to guide the country in the 14th Plan period. He outlined a 10-point agenda for holistic national security architecture and predictably emphasised the importance of the “absolute” leadership of the CPC and the need for a centralised and unified leadership. Only this system could fulfill the country’s need for a “strong security guarantee” for the “China dream.” China is a “national security state,” which reportedly spends more on internal security, than external. But the Chinese system is highly stratified, with a command system emphasising a top-down approach. To make it more flexible and resilient is probably the challenge that Xi Jinping and his colleagues in the Politburo are trying to meet.

China is a “national security state,” which reportedly spends more on internal security, than external. But the Chinese system is highly stratified, with a command system emphasising a top-down approach.

Right now, to add to their worries, though somewhat belatedly, the US has stepped up its challenge to China in the South China Sea. This effort is also accompanied by an ideological challenge to the CPC. US government officials like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Deputy National Security Advisor Matt Pottinger, insistently identify the CPC as the fountain of all evil. Earlier this month, the US imposed tighter visa regulations for party members and their close relatives. Considering anyone who is someone in China is in the CPC, the restrictions will disproportionately affect the Chinese elite. The Chinese are now seeking to finesse a situation where their continued economic growth requires them to open up their service and financial sectors to the world, while preventing their adversaries from using this to undermine the CPC control of China. They need to do this in a context where the old consensus on engaging China has broken down and countries are increasingly looking at ways and means to come together to confront China in a range of contentious areas in the western Pacific, to the rules of international business and behaviour. Mind you, there is nothing in the tone and tenor of Beijing that suggests that the Chinese are backing off in any of these areas; indeed, what they are doing is to shore up their security and push on their set direction. As scholar Tai Ming Cheung has noted, a key feature of the Xi Jinping era have been the efforts to turn China into a ‘national security fortress.’
This commentary originally appeared in The Tribune.
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