The Economist had an interesting piece regarding China’s current leader Xi Jinping. You can read it here Xi who must be obeyed. There really is nothing new to anyone who has been watching the Chinese developments for the past year or so. Xi is continuing to consolidate power using the anti-corruption drive to eliminate opposition. The US should be concerned.
Once Xi is able to consolidate power he will no longer be constrained by the consensus decision making that characterized China’s foreign policy after Mao. For the students of history it is worth to remember that the times China used its military force since 1949 has been during the time of Mao’s rule, 1950s and late 1960s. Therefore, once Xi is firmly in charge there will be a much higher chance of US-China conflict.
There are some out there that believe Xi will actually reform China and reduce corruption. That belief is false. The reason China is corrupt in the first place is because of the political system Xi is trying to strengthen. There is no doubt there will be corruption show trials, similar to Stalin’s purges of 1937, with high ranking individuals convicted, however afterwards the corruption will continue. The only way for Xi to actually fight corruption effectively would be to change the political system and introduce a system of checks and balances. That, he will not do as it will lead to his and Chinese communist party downfall.
So, now the US is entering into a more dangerous period of US-Chinese relations. The reason for this is that once the anti-corruption campaign winds down the Chinese citizens will see that nothing has really changed. The Chinese state will remain corrupt. Its current claim to legitimacy through high economic growth is already being challenged and as evident by the Chinese economic slowdown. If the growth continues to slow and the state is not reformed, the Chinese people will start question the legitimacy of the Chinese elites that rule them.
If that happens, what is the best way for the leadership to deflect Chinese people’s anger? Foreign conflict is most likely and there are no shortage of pretexts. The old question of Taiwan is number one. A close second is the South China Sea claims. The ridiculous nine-dashed lines Chinese claim of the whole area is already being used to inflame passions in both China and the other five countries laying claim to the same area. The inclusion of that map on the new Chinese passports should be a wake-up call to those who think the issue can be negotiated away.
For those who think armed conflict is impossible, should think again. Wars have been started for less. Once Xi is the sole decision maker, it will be more likely that a miscalculation on his part could lead to an armed conflict between China and US. The Chinese will lose but they could hurt the US if we are not ready.
So, what can US do? Number one priority is to continue re-balancing force structure towards the Pacific region. Limit involvement in the Middle East, which drains the material and financial resources that could be used to strengthen deterrence against China. Continue the development of the Air-Sea Battle doctrine. Transition training across all services away from COIN towards Major Combat Operations. Ensure our allies in the region continue to modernize and develop their armed force for major conflict against a near peer adversary.
While it is impossible to know what Xi or a leader such as him is thinking, it is highly unlikely that his is suicidal. That is, he will not start a conflict he knows he will lose. Therefore the best way to ensure there will not be a conflict is to present an overwhelming force of deterrence. The Chinese leadership has to know that based on the US commitment to the region any war between US and China will result in Chinese defeat and most likely overthrow of the Chinese communist party and the dismemberment of the Chinese state. The non-democratic regimes normally do not survive a battlefield defeat as evidenced Austria-Hungary and Russian Empire after WWI.
The latest Xi Jinping news should refocus US strategic planning towards a true threat to our existence and away from the mosquito-like threat represented by the terrorist groups such as ISIS. Very simply we cannot lose a war against a near peer adversary, such as China. At the same time if we chose to engage the minute threat represented by ISIS and similar groups, we should not over-hype the danger from those group. Contrary to what some believe the 30,000 ISIS members will not “kill us all.”