Three stories in the first two weeks of May, the 50th anniversary of the launch of the Cultural Revolution, offered an intriguing peek behind the veil that usually covers Chinese politics. Two grabbed the headlines, the other was barely mentioned but it may cast a revealing insight on how China sees events unfolding.
The first story concerns President Xi Jinping’s warning of cabals, cliques and conspirators which came to light in the first week in May. The speech, delivered in January, confirmed what many suspected.
Xi chose his words carefully. “Some officials have been forming cabals and cliques to covertly defy the CPC [Communist Party of China] Central Committee’s decisions and policies,” which risked “compromising the political security of the Party and the country’’.
He also repeated comments, made during a state visit to the US last year, that the anti-corruption crackdown that has resulted in 100 senior party, government and military officials being punished — was “not a ‘House of Cards’ power struggle” to settle old scores.
The crackdown against corruption has netted some big names. It would be surprising if Xi was not facing some determined opposition. Culturally, economically, socially China is changing. This change will feed into the political process at some stage, especially as the economy slows, which is why Xi believes that the party needs a firm hand at the helm. After amassing a number of titles to earn the moniker “Chairman of Everything”, Xi sees the greatest threat to the party as a muddled response, one that he is determined to avoid.
The second story sees Xi demanding that top-ranking officers, of major general and above in the People’s Liberation Army, must up their game and has ordered “inspection teams’ to monitor their work and ensure the integrity of the chain of command. Has Xi ruffled feathers? Yes.
Cabals, senior officers under scrutiny. None of this is happening in isolation. From Beijing’s perspective, there is a clear and present danger building up close to its borders. Major General Luo Yuan, (one of those presumably to be monitored) a researcher at the PLA Military Science Academy, said in May (third story) that the US is “building an encirclement of anti-missile systems around China and the only missing link is the Korean peninsula’’. He was referring to proposals by the US to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-ballistic missile system in South Korea, ostensibly to deter North Korea. This would complete the circle. Its 2,000 km range would cover northeastern China as well as parts of Russia and the South China Sea.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned in March after meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov that “the deployment will break the strategic balance of the region and spark an arms race’’.
Any arms race needs tension to feed the purchasing of weapons and that could be ratcheted up over the next few months. Judges at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague are set to rule on the Philippines’ challenge to China regarding the South China Sea. China has indicated it will not heed the ruling. Asserting sovereignty over almost of the 3. 5 million square kilometers of the South China Sea, China’s behavior is not going down well with its neighbors. They view Beijing as acting in a high-handed manner resembling the tributary states system of the imperial era. It may be an old-fashioned and audacious sea grab, under the convenient guise of self-defense that also serves as a distraction from problems on the home front. But the three stories suggest the possibility, at least, of a different motive. If China actually feels threatened, then it must be acknowledged that different forces are at play.
The much-touted Thucydides trap, where a rising power challenges the established power, (Athens-Sparta, Britain-Germany and one that is often overlooked Russia-Japan in 1904) may not be as relevant as some suggest. What may be of greater significance, and sets a precedent, is the Not-In-My-Back-Yard mentality that underpins the Monroe Doctrine.