The emergence of China’s new leadership earlier this month is a momentous event, since it is not only the second largest economy in the world, but also a budding superpower of the 21st century.
Anything which affects China has its ripple effects for the rest of the world. This is particularly true for Pakistan, which has enjoyed a close strategic partnership with China for almost half a century.
Pakistan’s leadership and policymakers, therefore, must study closely the implications of the selection of the new Chinese leadership and the likely evolution of China’s strategic, political and economic policies in the years to come.
As widely expected, Vice President Xi Jinping, 59, was elevated to the powerful post of the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party succeeding President Hu Jintao on November 15 after the 18th Party Congress. Hu Jintao also simultaneously handed over the position of the Chairman of the Party’s Central Military Commission, which controls the armed forces, to Xi Jinping.
By way of comparison, a decade earlier, Jiang Zemin, Hu’s predecessor, had taken about two years to step down from the post of the Chairman of the Party’s Central Military Commission after relinquishing the charge of the presidency. Xi will also formally succeed Hu as the President of China, a less substantial post, in March 2013.
The new Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party also elected about two dozen members of the party’s politburo and the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, the party’s ruling body. Besides Xi Jinping, the new Standing Committee includes Vice Premier Li Keqiang, who will become Premier of China in March next year. Zhang Dejiang, Yu Zhengsheng, Liu Yunshan, Wang Qishan and Zhang Gaoli are the other members of the Standing Committee.
What do these changes in China’s leadership portend for the internal situation and for the rest of the world? Since 1980, internal stability and economic progress have been the supreme national aims of the Communist Party. The policies of reforms and opening to the outside world adopted by China under Deng Xiaoping’s leadership have ushered in an era of phenomenal progress. China’s new leadership will continue to pursue those national goals.
It is important to remember that despite the change in the Chinese Communist Party’s leadership, the old guard will continue to wield considerable influence in the formulation of China’s internal and external policies. So continuity rather than bold departures would inform China’s internal and external policies in the foreseeable future. Xi Jinping, China’s new supreme leader, himself has the reputation of being a cautious reformer. It is doubtful that he would embark upon any radically bold programme of reforms or changes in China’s policies.
That does not mean, however, that we will just see more of the same in China’s future policies. Although China in the past three decades has maintained an enviable record of high economic growth rates, its economy is now showing signs of internal strains because of growing inequalities of income and wealth, the accelerated process of urbanisation, uneven spread of the economic progress among different regions, growing allegations of corruption and official abuses among party leaders, and increasing demands from the Chinese people for higher standards of living.
China’s economic model has relied in the past on high rates of national saving and investment, and exports to accelerate economic growth. As its economy matures, the external demand for Chinese products slows down because of the weakening of global economy, and the Chinese people’s demand for higher standards of living lowers the national saving rate, the current Chinese economic model may become unsustainable. Xi Jinping and his colleagues in the new leadership team will have to come to grips with these daunting challenges in the economic field.
Although the new Chinese leaders are expected to err on the side of caution in the next few years, it is probable that the force of events will compel them to embark upon a programme of economic reforms. Keeping in view the difficulties of a maturing economy, they would have to place increasing reliance on domestic consumption to sustain China’s high rate of economic growth. They would also have to bring about a gradual shift from investment in physical infrastructure and manufacturing to the building up of social infrastructure, especially education and health, and place increased focus on research and development, investment in high-tech and knowledge-based industries, and enhancing the welfare of the Chinese people through better housing and benefits for the elderly.
The new leaders are also likely to increase investment in China’s western regions, which have been lagging behind the coastal areas in terms of economic growth. In addition, reforms would be needed for improving the efficiency of China’s state-owned industries.
As incomes rise, education spreads and awareness increases among the Chinese people, they are likely to demand growing participation in the running of the government at local, provincial and state levels. So far, the Chinese Communist Party leadership has been preoccupied with the imperative of the maintenance of domestic stability. While this over-riding consideration would continue to dominate the thinking of the new Chinese leaders, it would be interesting to see how they would respond to social pressures for political liberalisation while maintaining the centralised authority and control of the Communist Party. Keeping in view the past experience and the cautious nature of the new leaders, any move towards political liberalisation at best would be extremely slow and tentative in nature.
At the strategic level, there is little doubt that China is faced with a well-calculated policy of containment being pursued by the US. Washington is building a ring of alliances and strategic partnerships around China. This includes its alliances with Japan, South Korea and Australia, and its strategic partnership with India to build it up as a bulwark against the expansion of China’s influence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean regions. Washington’s political, economic and military links with the Central Asian Republics and even its long-term presence in Afghanistan would be partly aimed at the containment of China. The US is also exploiting the territorial disputes between China and some of the Asean member states in South China Sea to aggravate tensions between them.
The new Chinese leaders will, most probably, continue a low-risk and non-adventurous foreign policy, as pursued by their predecessors since the days of Deng Xiaoping in 1980s. At the same time, it will resist the US hegemonic designs by strengthening its strategic partnership with Russia, which under Putin is becoming increasingly assertive in it near abroad, expanding its links with the Central Asian Republics, strengthening its strategic partnership with Pakistan, and expanding its economic ties with countries in the Persian Gulf, Africa and Latin America. While China would continue its pursuit of the supreme national goal of high rate of economic growth, it would also enhance rapidly its defensive capabilities in the coming years for safeguarding its security interests, especially in its immediate neighbourhood.
The strategic factors, thus, favour continued strengthening of Pakistan-China relations. We should take advantage of these factors to provide greater substance to this vital relationship through enhanced economic and cultural cooperation and people-to-people contacts, in addition to continued close strategic and military links. Unfortunately, the weakness of our economy, the short-sightedness of our political leadership and the lack of active interest on the part our private sector have prevented us from taking full advantage of the opportunities for cooperation in economic and cultural areas. It is high time our political and business leaders took necessary to steps to rectify the situation.
The writer is a retired ambassador and the president of the Lahore Council for World Affairs. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org