Tag Archives: Xi Jinping

A Tale of Three Speeches: How Xi Jinping’s 40th Anniversary Speech Marks A Departure

This article originally featured on China Leadership Monitor and is republished with permission. It originally published under the title, “A Tale of Three Speeches: How Xi’s Speech Marking the 40th Anniversary of Reform and Opening Differs from those of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao.” Read it in its original form here.

By Minxin Pei

Xi Jinping’s speech marking the 40th anniversary of reform and opening on December 18, 2018 recapitulates the substantial ideological and policy changes he has initiated since coming to power in late 2012.  A comparison of this speech with speeches by Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao on the 20th and 30th anniversary of reform and opening respectively reveals significant differences in terms of ideological rhetoric and substantive policy issues.  Whereas the speeches by Jiang and Hu adhere to the basic ideological and policy guidelines established by Deng Xiaoping, Xi Jinping’s speech underscores his personal authority and political vision.  Most significantly, Xi’s speech emphasizes the supremacy of Communist Party centralized and unified strongman rule and China’s bold and expansive role in international affairs.  The uncompromising tone of his speech suggests that it is unlikely that Xi will make substantial changes to his domestic and foreign policies despite the strong headwinds both domestically and internationally.

Parsing speeches by top Chinese leaders for clues about their ideological leanings and policy preferences recalls the now much-derided Kremlinology.  The torrent of information pouring out of China in the post-Mao reform era casts doubts about the utility of textual analysis.  Yet, as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under General Secretary Xi Jinping increases the intensity of its control over the flow of information, scrutiny of the language in pronouncements by the top leaders is likely to provide useful insights into their ideological mindsets and policy priorities 

The speech delivered by General Secretary Xi Jinping on December 18, 2018, commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Third Plenum of the 11th CCP Congress, is a case in point.1  During the six years since becoming party leader, Xi has instituted radical policy changes affecting the distribution of power, security for ruling elites, ideology, state-society relations, and foreign policy.  An implicit rule of Chinese politics is that such changes must be elevated to a new political narrative and accorded fresh ideological legitimacy in a carefully crafted political speech delivered on a key occasion, such as a national CCP congress or an anniversary of a major historic event. The political symbolism and substance of Xi’s speech marking the 40th anniversary of reform and opening cannot be overstated.  Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, Xi’s two immediate predecessors, also delivered highly publicized speeches celebrating, respectively, the 20th and 30th anniversary of the historic Third Plenum of the 11th CCP Congress.

On the surface, these anniversary speeches may not appear to be fertile ground for mining evidence of the differences between the ideas and policies of successive top leaders during the post-Deng era.  However, despite their dry language, they nevertheless yield useful clues about the personal, ideological, and policy differences among  different generations of top leaders because such high-profile anniversary speeches are drafted by an assigned writing team and typically undergo several revisions to ensure that the speeches both fully and accurately reflect the thinking of the top leadership.  The final draft is reviewed, edited, and approved by the top leader himself.

In the following pages, we will dissect the rhetorical and substantive differences between Xi’s speech on December 18th and the speeches by Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao on similar occasions in 1998 and 2008.2  We first examine the subtle differences in their references to key terms and in their phraseology to both describe past policies and leaders and to spell out the party’s bottom-line positions on reform.  We then focus on the noteworthy differences in the policy statements contained in these speeches.  Specifically, such statements are included in the section devoted to “lessons learned” from the previous decades.  In reality, these lessons, typically numbering about ten points, not only summarize the leader’s own interpretation of the achievements of the previous decades but also describe the guiding principles for future domestic and foreign policies.  We conclude with an analysis of the implications of the observed differences between Xi’s speech and those of his two predecessors.

Rhetorical Differences

High-profile speeches by top leaders follow implicit rhetorical rules.  In particular, they are supposed to make obligatory references to the official ideology and the past leaders and their achievements.   The CCP’s fundamental political principles and policies, such as those expressed in 1979 by Deng Xiaoping (the so-called four “cardinal principles”), must also be reiterated.3 On the whole, the rhetoric in the three speeches under examination may not seem significantly different in these respects.  Nevertheless, we can still detect subtle and non-trivial rhetorical differences that indicate how Xi Jinping regards his own status in the pantheon of CCP leaders.

Despite the obligatory nature of such references, the frequency of invoking the orthodox Communist ideology as well as previous Chinese leaders and their ideological doctrines can serve as a useful proxy for the degree of ideological legitimacy the present leader attaches to the orthodox ideology and to his predecessors.  A speaker who believes that his policies are more faithful to the orthodox ideology and to the doctrines of his predecessors will more frequently refer to the said ideology, doctrine, and leader.  When there are fewer such references, the speaker is generally less ideologically beholden to former doctrines and leaders.  It is also reasonable to assume that the leader who makes the least number of references to his predecessors is implicitly hoping to highlight his own status and contributions.

Based on this assumption, an examination of the number of references to Marxism-Leninism, Mao, and Deng Xiaoping in the three speeches under examination would reveal substantial differences in how Jiang, Hu, and Xi perceived their ideological faithfulness.  Of the three speeches, each leader made about the same number of references to Mao (four for Jiang, and five each for Hu and Xi).  This may suggest that all three leaders were aware of the potential political peril of excessive references and homage to Mao’s ideas and legacy.  Nevertheless, a close reading of the assessment of Mao in the three speeches reveals subtle and important differences between Xi and his two predecessors.

In the speeches by Jiang and Hu, the assessments of Mao’s contributions are almost identical—both brief and even perfunctory.  There is no hint of rethinking the Maoist legacy. By comparison, Xi’s speech represents perhaps the most important—and positive -—revision of Mao’s legacy. Xi not only devotes more space (one long paragraph) to describe Mao’s achievements but also adds key terms to put a positive spin on the disastrous Maoist period.  The most notable section reads, “In the process of exploration, despite serious detours, the party gained unique and original theoretical results and monumental achievements, providing precious experience, theoretical preparations, and material foundations for creating Chinese-style socialism in the near historic era.” (在探索过程中,虽然经历了严重曲折,但党在社会主义革命和建设中取得的独创性理论成果和巨大成就,为在新的历史时期开创中国特色社会主义提供了宝贵经验、理论准备、物质基础).4 Critically, Xi’s speech portrays the Maoist period positively as a “process of exploration” — a far cry from the phrase “the decade of calamities” (十年浩劫) that the party usually uses to describe the Cultural Revolution.  Additionally, by linking the “theoretical” and “material” achievements of the Maoist period to the “new historic era,” Xi’s speech endorses the view that the Maoist period and the post-Maoist period are inseparable and cannot be used to “negate one another,” a point that Xi first advanced in January 2013.5 

In terms of references to Marxism-Leninism, Hu’s speech contains the most references to Marxism-Leninism (24), whereas Jiang and Xi invoke Marxism-Leninism ten times and eight times, respectively.  As for Deng, Jiang makes 18 references to him whereas Hu and Xi refer to him eight and six times respectively.  These notable differences in invocating the sources of ideological legitimacy and inspiration may be interpreted as Jiang’s desire to be seen as Deng’s faithful heir whereas Hu may have been seeking to present himself as a more faithful adherent to orthodox Marxism-Leninism.  In the case of Xi, he appears to be far more confident in presenting himself as a leader less dependent on the traditional sources of ideological legitimacy.

Xi’s efforts to set himself apart from his two immediate predecessors are also apparent in other parts of his speech.  For example, norms of modesty and political constraints probably prevented Jiang and Hu from lauding the achievements of their first terms, as there exist no such references.  But Xi’s speech contains a long section listing the accomplishments of his first term.  A rhetorical deference to the previous leaders is notably different as well.  Both Jiang and Hu specifically salute the achievements of their immediate predecessors.6 In contrast, Xi does not salute the achievements under Hu’s leadership.  In referring to previous leaders, both Jiang and Hu use two key phrases, “collective leadership” (集体领导) and “as its core” (核心) to describe their predecessors.  Xi replaces “as its core” with “as its main representative” (为主要代表) when referring to Mao, Deng, Jiang, and Hu.  The key phrase “collective leadership” has completely disappeared from Xi’s speech.

These rhetorical changes were evidently designed to signal Xi’s power and status.  Because the official Chinese media never drops the phrase “as its core” when describing Xi’s position in the party, any removal of this phrase from descriptions of his predecessors may suggest that Xi occupies a truly unique position.  The elimination of the phrase “collective leadership” from his speech also underscores today’s political reality of strongman rule at the apex of party leadership today.

Substantive Differences

Xi’s speech also differs from those by Jiang and Hu on key ideological and policy issues. 

1. Interpreting the past and setting the direction for the future

In the second half of the anniversary speech, each leader lists the most important policies pursued by the party and credit these policies with bringing about the achievements of the prior decades.  A quick examination shows how Xi differs from his predecessors in this regard.  Jiang and Hu credit the same principle—Marxism-Leninism—as the most important factor contributing to the party’s accomplishments.  In contrast, Xi singles out the supremacy of the party and “centralized unified leadership of the party” (党的集中统一领导) as the most important factors, relegating Marxism-Leninism to third place.7 Whereas Jiang and Hu focus on the application of Marxism-Leninism to China’s reality, in a full paragraph Xi amplifies the supremacy of the party.  In this paragraph, which sets the direction “for the road ahead” (前进道路上), Xi emphasizes “we must strengthen the “four consciousness” and “four self-confidence” and “resolutely safeguard the authority and centralized leadership” firm adherence to the party center’s authority and centralized unified leadership”—code words demanding loyalty to his leadership (two of the four types of “consciousness” are “consciousness of the rules and consciousness of compliance.8 Since “firm adherence to the authority of the party center and to centralized unified leadership” clearly implies loyalty to Xi, the elevation of centralized personal leadership to the top political principles is a significant departure from the collective leadership under Jiang and Hu.  Notably, Xi appears to justify centralized personal leadership by invoking the dangers lurking in the future.  In the same paragraph, he warns that there “will certainly be various risks and challenges, even an encounter with perilous storms” (惊涛骇浪)—a phrase that has led many analysts to wonder about his meaning.9 

We can also gain a better understanding of Xi’s emphasis on the supremacy of the party by comparing how his speech treats the sensitive topic of political reform limits. In the speeches by Jiang and Hu marking the anniversary of reform and opening, the two Chinese leaders pay only lip service to reform of the political system (政治体制改革), a task initially introduced by Deng in the early 1980s.  Jiang devotes a full paragraph to political reform and declares that the party will “actively, gradually, and appropriately promote” such a reform.  One key lesson or successful policy listed in Hu’s speech is the “combination of promotion of economic foundations and reform of the super-structure and the continuous promotion of reform of the political system.”

Remarkably, in Xi’s speech, the key phrase, “political system reform,” appears only once—in the section summarizing the achievements of the past four decades.  In the most important section listing the key policies contributing to the party’s success and the guiding principles for the future, not only does the phrase “political system reform” completely disappear but there is also no equivalent section dealing with any future reform of key political institutions.

Equally remarkable is Xi’s emphatic statement on the boundaries of reform.  To be sure, both Jiang and Hu set such boundaries in their speeches.  Comparatively, however, Jiang uses the least harsh language to spell out what kinds of reforms the party will tolerate.  He insists that the party will not “shaken, weaken, or discard” (动摇,削弱和丢掉) these reforms at any time; we must adhere to “socialist democratic politics with Chinese characteristics,” and not copy “the mode of the West’s political system should not be copied” (照搬西方的政治制度模式).  In Hu’s speech, the language setting the boundaries of reform seems harsher as he describes a reform path that will result in a fundamental change in the party’s status and as an” evil path toward replacing flags” (改旗易帜的邪路), even though he balances this language with a declaration that the party will not return to a path of self-imposed isolation and ossification (封闭僵化的老路).10 

In the first section of Xi’s speech summarizing the party’s past successes, he repeats Hu’s language about not returning to a path of isolation and ossification or embarking on an evil path leading to a loss of power.  More notably, in spelling out the future direction in the same section, he presents the clearest marker about what can and what cannot be reformed .  In answering his own question of “what changed, how to change” must be based on “how to reform the socialist system with Chinese characteristics.” Xi declares: “We will resolutely reform what should and can be reformed, but we will resolutely not reform what should not be and cannot be reformed” (该改的、能改的我们坚决改,不该改的、不能改的坚决不改).11 

2. Definition of Chinese socialism today

Since the CCP’s 13th Congress in 1987, arguably the most liberal congress in CCP history, the party has defined Chinese socialism as the “initial stage of socialism.”  Jiang Zemin’s 1998 speech emphasizes that “China today is and will for a long time continue to be at the initial stage of socialism” (当今中国还处在并将长期处在社会主义初级阶段). Hu Jintao’s speech ten years later reiterates this line and elaborates on its meaning—as long as China remains at the initial stage of socialism, it will prioritize economic development, maintain reform and opening, and focus on domestic priorities.12 Significantly, in Xi Jinping’s speech the “initial stage of socialism” is formally replaced by “socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era” (新时代中国特色社会主义).13  This semantic change, easy to miss, has profound ideological and policy implications.  Ideologically, it authorizes Xi’s political vision and ideas, now collectively known as “the thought on socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era” (新时代中国特色社会主义思想), with the status of the party’s new guiding principles.  Substantively, this new formulation also justifies Xi’ vision of China as a great world power and his ambitious foreign-policy agenda.  Although his anniversary speech does not elaborate on this vision, it is fully developed in his political report to the CCP’s 19th Congress in late 2017.  The overall task of this “new era,” as Xi declares in his political report, is to “realize socialist modernization and the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation and . . . build a . . . great modern socialist country.”14  The most important policy implication in the difference between the “initial stage” and the “new era” is that China will have a new objective—seeking to be a global superpower.

3. Foreign policy and relations with the outside world

Probably the most notable policy difference between Xi’s speech and those of his predecessors is his foreign-policy vision.  In both tone and substance, Jiang’s speech reiterates the well-known foreign-policy guidelines established by Deng.  A subtle but significant deviation from Deng’s foreign policy can already be detected in Hu’s speech, which contains code language indicating a more defiant stance toward the United States, but by and large Hu remains defensive and cautious in nature.  In comparison, Xi’s speech unambiguously demonstrates a far more ambitious and proactive foreign policy, representing a fundamental departure from the foreign policy enunciated by Jiang some twenty years earlier.

For example, Jiang emphasizes that “The primary task of our external work is for peace and to serve socialist modernization” (我们对外工作的首要任务,就是争取和平,为社会主义现代化建设服务).  Jiang then practically repeats Deng’s foreign policy dicta— when “handling international affairs, it is essential to adhere to the principle of observing things soberly, dealing with problems calmly, doing what ought to be done, and never meeting them head-on so that we can seize opportunities to develop ourselves, accomplish the work at home” (坚持按照冷静观察、沉着应付、有所作为、决不当头的方针处理国际事务,以利抓住时机发展自己,把国内的事情办好). Hu attempts to strike a balance between adhering to the Dengist principle of subordinating foreign policy to domestic development and extending Chinese external influence as Chinese power and interests had greatly expanded since 1998.15 Hu calls to “make all-round plans for the overall domestic and international situations” (统筹好国内国际两个大局) and he adds a coded language suggesting a more assertive foreign policy aimed at challenging American unipolarity.  Hu’s foreign-policy objectives include to ”actively promote world multipolarization, promote democratization in international relations, respect variety in the world, and oppose hegemonism and power politics” (积极促进世界多极化、推进国际关系民主化,尊重世界多样性,反对霸权主义和强权政治). Compared with Jiang’s speech, which contains only the code phrase “opposition to hegemonism,” Hu’s speech presents a substantive departure from the Dengist foreign policy.  Nevertheless, the tone and content of Hu’s foreign-policy principles and objectives are defensive and do not indicate an expansive vision for future Chinese foreign policy.

The second half of Xi Jinping’s speech includes a section dealing with foreign policy.  This section indicates how much has changed in the Chinese foreign-policy vision and objectives during the two decades since Jiang’s speech.  It is difficult to detect traces of Deng’s foreign-policy principles.  In setting China’s foreign-policy course, Xi reiterates some of Hu’s coded language, but he is much more emphatic.  He declares that: “We must respect the right to choose the path of development of peoples, the maintenance of international fairness and justice, promote the democratization of international relations, against his own will on others, oppose interference in other countries’ internal affairs, against bullying” (我们要尊重各国人民自主选择发展道路的权利,维护国际公平正义,倡导国际关系民主化,反对把自己的意志强加于人,反对干涉别国内政,反对以强凌弱). The most striking part in this section is Xi’s unequivocal endorsement of a bold vision of China’s international role in general and of a long-term objective to reshape international relations.  As a “responsible great power,” China will “play the role of a responsible big country, support of the majority of developing countries, and actively participate in the global governance system reform and construction” (支持广大发展中国家发展,积极参与全球治理体系改革和建设).   He further stresses the long-term strategic importance of his signature program, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).  According to Xi, China … “will use the BRI as a major foundation of its new foreign policy to create, with others, a new platform of international cooperation” (我们要以共建 “一带一路” 为重点,同各方一道打造国际合作新平台).16

So What?

What do these observed and, in most cases, significant differences tell us about Xi’s ideological and policy preferences and agenda? 

For starters, this comparative exercise illustrates the nature and pace of changes in political vision and policy during the last two decades.  If there are subtle but real differences in Hu’s speech as compared to Jiang’s, the differences are largely evolutionary in nature.  But the same cannot be said of Xi’s speech, which represents a radical departure from the speeches by his predecessors in terms of both tone and substance.  For those familiar with the speaking styles of the three leaders, it is not difficult to notice that whereas the speeches by Jiang and Hu appear to be mainly the work of writing teams, Xi’s speech bears his own rhetorical identifiers and personal touches, in particular the use of direct quotes and classical idioms as well as the choice of poetic and lofty language.

What this may imply is that, taken as a whole, Xi’s speech should leave no doubt that the radical transformation of the Chinese political system from collective leadership to strongman rule and the resultant policy changes are here to stay.  We can further note that Jiang and Hu presented their respective speeches under far more favorable domestic and international circumstances, whereas Xi delivered his speech amid mounting domestic challenges and a fundamentally different external environment—the raging trade war and a possible cold war with the United States.  The firmness of Xi’s tone and the reiteration of his signature policies indicate a low probability of a fundamental policy shift in Beijing despite growing doubts about the sustainability of the current path.

Minxin Pei, editor of China Leadership Monitor, is Tom and Margot Pritzker ’72 Professor of Government and director of the Keck Center for International and Strategic Studies at Claremont McKenna College. He is also non-resident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Pei has published in Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, The New York Times, the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, Project Syndicate, Fortune.com, Nikkei Asian Review, and many scholarly journals and edited volumes. He is the author of China’s Crony Capitalism: The Dynamics of Regime Decay (Harvard, 2016); China’s Trapped Transition: The Limits of Developmental Autocracy (Harvard, 2006), and From Reform to Revolution: The Demise of Communism in China and the Soviet Union (Harvard, 1994). Pei formerly was senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (1999–2009) and assistant professor of politics at Princeton University (1992–1998). He currently holds the Library of Congress Chair in U.S.-China Relations.​


[1]习近平:在庆祝改革开放40周年大会上的讲话, December 18, 2018, at


[2] Jiang and Hu’s speeches can be accessed at the following links: Jiang Zemin, November 7, 2008, at http://theory.people.com.cn/GB/40557/138172/138173/8302188.html;  Hu Jintao, December 18, 2008, at


[3] The four cardinal principles established by Deng are “uphold the socialist path, uphold the people’s democratic dictatorship, uphold the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, and uphold Mao Zedong Thought and Marxism-Leninism.”

[4] The official translation is “In the exploration process, although experienced serious twists and turns, but the original party theoretical results achieved in socialist revolution and construction and great achievements, and creating socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new historical period has provided valuable experience, theoretical preparation, substance basis.”  Because official translation is often awkward and even inaccurate or incomplete, I use my own translation in the main text where I believe the official translation is wrong or inaccurate,  but I will note  the official translation in the endnote.  This will apply to all the translations in this essay.

[5] 中国共产党新闻网, 习近平“两个不能否定”是实现“中国梦”的科学论断, May 10, 201e, at


[6] Jiang also said: “We deeply miss Comrade Deng Xiaoping, the chief architect of our country’s reform, opening, and modernization” (我们深切怀念我国改革开放和现代化建设的总设计师邓小平同志). But this sentence is missing from the official translation.

 Hu said: “We must extend a lofty salute to the party’s third-generation central leadership collective with Comrade Jiang Zemin as the core” (我们要向以江泽民同志为核心的党的第三代中央领导集体致以崇高的敬意). 

[7] The official translation of (党的集中统一领导) is “the Party’s centralized leadership.”

[8] The original Chinese phrases describing the four types of “consciousness” are政治意识、大局意识、核心意识、看齐意识 (consciousness of social responsibility, consciousness of rules, consciousness of dedication, and consciousness of integrity; the four types of self-confidence (中国特色社会主义道路自信、理论自信、制度自信、文化自信) can be translated as self-confidence in the socialist path with Chinese characteristics, self-confidence in the theoretical systemic regime, and self-confidence in the culture.

[9] The official translation of this section is “the future will certainly face the challenges of this kind of risk, even unimaginable encounter stormy sea”

[10] The official translation is :rigid and doctrinaire” for 改旗易帜的邪路 and “the old path of developing a closed country” for 封闭僵化的老路.

[11] The official translation appears to make no sense since it reads “We can change the resolute reform, reform should not be reform determined not to change.”

[12] Hu’s language is: “我们党作出我国仍处于并将长期处于社会主义初级阶段的科学论断,形成了党在社会主义初级阶段的基本路线,这就是:领导和团结全国各族人民,以经济建设为中心,坚持四项基本原则,坚持改革开放,自力更生,艰苦创业,为把我国建设成为富强民主文明和谐的社会主义现代化国家而奋斗.”

[13] It should be noted that in his political report to the 19th CCP Congress in October 2017, Xi Jinping appeared to be advancing his concept of a “new era” without completely jettisoning the established party line on “the initial stage.” After describing what the “new era” means, Xi mentions the “initial stage” by noting that “the basic dimension of the Chinese context—that our country is still and will long remain in the primary stage of socialism—has not changed” (我国仍处于并将长期处于社会主义初级阶段的基本国情没有变).  However, in his speech on December 18, 2018, Xi does not repeat the latter language. 习近平在中国共产党第十九次全国代表大会上的报告, October 27, 2017, at


[14] “总任务是实现社会主义现代化和中华民族伟大复兴,在全面建成小康社会的基础上,分两步走在本世纪中叶建成富强民主文明和谐美丽的社会主义现代化强国,” ibid.

[15] Chinese GDP, which was less than 12 percent of U.S. GDP in dollar terms in 1998, was approaching 40 percent of U.S. GDP in 2008.  More importantly, the global financial crisis of 2008 appeared to offer Beijing a golden opportunity to play a more activist role in international affairs.

[16] Intriguingly, the official translation omits this section about BRI “We will use the BRI as a major foundation of its new foreign policy to create, with others, a new platform of international cooperation” (我们要以共建 “一带一路” 为重点,同各方一道打造国际合作新平台).

Featured Image: China Vice-President Xi Jinping stands during a trade agreement ceremony between the two countries at Dublin Castle in Dublin, Ireland February 19, 2012. (Reuters/David Moir)

Is the Belt and Road Initiative Too Big to Fail? Pt. 1

What could and should the United States do if the Belt and Road Initiative collapses? 

By Tuan Pham and Grant Newsham

More and more China Watchers, to include these two observers in Japan, are having increasing doubts about the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Beijing’s trillion-dollar wide-ranging infrastructure enterprise that spans across Asia, Africa, Europe, Oceania, and the Americas to elevate Chinese global economic and political standing. The grandiose national plan seeks to make a lot of money, acquire more resources, gain additional power, and expand influence to advance Beijing’s strategic ambitions of national rejuvenation (the Chinese Dream) and ultimately global preeminence – or even better, dominance. So what if these pundits are correct and the possibly over-leveraged BRI continues to underperform and not deliver the promised returns, receive increasing political backlash (buyer’s remorse over crushing debt burdens), and eventually collapses? What are then the ensuing opportunities and challenges for America?

This two-part series is a thought exercise to engender strategic thought, dialogue, and planning on this possibility. Part one starts with making a case for a BRI bubble that may burst. In part two, each author individually offers his perspective on what America could and should do (and conversely not do) as the result thereof.      

A BRI Bubble

There are growing concerns of a BRI bubble that may burst, and that China’s hurried and reckless BRI investments through the years are beginning to drag down its already slowing domestic economy. Beijing reportedly is applying the brakes. Chinese officials are now expressing qualms that Chinese corporations need to be cautious on how much they lend under the flagship project, but interestingly are not mentioning how much state funding is being expended on the BRI.

Nonetheless, Beijing reportedly has begun a comprehensive accounting of how many deals have already been done, on what financial terms, and with which countries. Beijing has also tightened capital and exchange controls to better manage BRI investments out of concerns over China’s domestic financial conditions. Altogether, the moves are intended to rein in the “wild west” investing environment, hedge against an uncertain Chinese economic outlook, and curtail the worrying capital flows outside the country. Since last year, Beijing appears to be trying to bolster an apparent lagging enthusiasm for the BRI.

However, to fully understand the nature, scope, and extent of the problem, it is best to start at the beginning. In the early 2000s, Beijing implemented the “Go Out” policy, which incentivized Chinese corporations to seek business ventures abroad by providing easy credit, cheap loans, and attractive financial guarantees from China’s national banks. Ten years later, stimulated by the government-sponsored BRI and fueled by relaxed financing, Chinese firms undertook even more speculative investments based on the flawed assumptions that the BRI was too big to fail and the central government will simply bail them out if they do fail. Not surprisingly, many of these risky BRI projects have underperformed and incurred massive debts and the impacts for the Chinese banks, and through them the Chinese economy, are now becoming evident. That is why Beijing has been assertively (and some might say desperately) cajoling (pressing) other countries and international organizations to invest in the BRI – and take on some, or most, of the risk.

China’s Economic Stagnation

Many observers have long worried that the BRI (with its hidden nationalist agenda and geo-political implications) represents an economic and political power play by Beijing, buttressed by its vast monetary reserves and driven by the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) preoccupation with realizing its long-term goal of achieving global influence and ultimately global preeminence. But even with its immense economic power (second only to the United States), China still has its limits. Its economy is showing signs of slowing, and it is in a nascent trade war with the United States. At the same time, Beijing is struggling to tame its own mounting debt problems – problems that international lending and domestic spending sprees haven’t helped – and may even be letting up on its campaign to arrest debt growth as it faces a weakening economy at home and escalating trade tensions abroad.

Weeks before the onset of the trade war, a government-affiliated Chinese think tank, the National Institute for Finance Development, warned of impending financial panic potentially leading to financial crisis. It pointed to this year’s cascade of bond defaults, tightened liquidity, declining stock markets, and weakening Yuan. The report added that U.S. interest rate hikes and a looming trade war suggest that “the Chinese people are very likely to experience a financial panic very soon,” and that Beijing had best come up with a crisis management plan to deal with the panic.

The Chinese stock market lost two trillion dollars in value in the last six months, a worrisome economic indicator for Beijing, particularly in the midst of a destabilizing trade war that is beginning to increasingly impact the Chinese economy. The CCP’s claim to unopposed rule explicitly and implicitly depends on economic performance (prosperity), and an underperforming market is a poor reflection of its governing competence and by extension its political legitimacy. A bearish Chinese stock market is also a psychological reflection of how the Chinese people think of their current and future economic prospects. If so, once public doubt builds and takes hold, the wave of pessimism could intensify and spread, and if left unchecked become pervasive fear and panic.

Trade War Wildcard

The ongoing Sino-U.S. trade war is proving to be a propaganda quagmire for Chinese President Xi Jinping and the CCP, both on the domestic and international fronts. Regarding the former, they lose “face” if they say nothing or too little and they face public anger and political risk if they say too much and cannot deliver on their promises. As for the latter, Xi may have realized that jingoistic rhetoric may not be helpful and may even be counterproductive to ending the trade war on favorable terms and instead undermines Beijing’s carefully crafted international image as a defender of global trade.

The official CCP response to the trade war has aimed at depicting China and the Chinese economy as being strong enough to cope with a trade war. Yet, Beijing’s statistics bureau has reportedly published inaccurate economic data to bolster the arguably false impression that the Chinese economy is handling U.S. trade pressures well. Indeed, the CCP might be in more distress at this point if the world realizes that it has been exaggerating (bluffing) about its economic strengths and capacities to withstand a trade war, as evident by its continued “optimistic and suspect” gross domestic product (GDP) outlook despite lack of corroborating economic data and growing skepticism of Beijing’s statistical methodology.

All in all, the trade war has cornered Xi and the CCP as is evident by the changing and inconsistent public messaging and media censorship to control domestic narratives. If they cannot cope with the trade war and lose control of the aforesaid narratives, then their control over Chinese society might diminish while undermining Xi and the Party’s power and authority. If so, expect even fewer civil liberties, greater censorship, and more draconian crackdowns in the coming months to restore the CCP’s grip on public order and confidence in Xi’s leadership. The latter apparently showing some political vulnerabilities in the form of a surprising rebuke at home and telling personal affirmation of the need for resolute leadership. In recent weeks, Beijing’s government, intellectual, and media have been rife with “rumors” over leadership discontent with Xi – particularly over his bold power consolidation and brazen rollback of collective leadership norms, mismanagement of the all-important bilateral relations with Washington, and poor handling of the ongoing trade conflict with the United States.         

Beijing has also embarked on an aggressive media campaign to influence foreign audiences (sharp power). The latest being a short satirical video by the China Global Television Network (international offshoot of state-owned broadcaster China’s Central Television), mocking President Trump and highlighting many of China’s concerns (grievances) in the ongoing trade dispute; and an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times, pushing the narrative that “the American people need to hear the truth about U.S.-China trade, instead of Trump’s charges of bad faith…despite what the president says, trade is free and fair, and these 10 points explain why.” They are:

(1) Although China, as a developing country, has higher tariffs on U.S. goods than the United States does on Chinese goods, its tariffs are still lower than those of many other developing countries.

(2) As for goods coming into the United States, inexpensive Chinese imports have helped the U.S. middle class.

(3) It isn’t Chinese barriers but U.S. export controls that limit our economic exchange.

(4) Trade deficit numbers can be deceiving.

(5) When American protectionists talk about the trade deficit with China, they deliberately ignore the U.S. surplus in “service trade.”

(6) Another thing protectionists deliberately ignore is that the sales of U.S. companies in China have surpassed $500 billion.

(7) In 2017, China’s external payment of intellectual property fees reached $28.6 billion, 15 times more than when it joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001. U.S. intellectual property owners are the biggest beneficiaries.   

(8) No laws or regulations compel technology transfers; joint ventures are based on deal-by-deal negotiations and some U.S. companies are willing to transfer technology for Chinese market access.

(9) President Trump wants to stop “Made in China 2025,” the state-subsidized plan to modernize Chinese industries, and he charges China with “state capitalism.” However, Chinese subsidies are not out of line with WTO regulations, and they are available to foreign-funded enterprises too.

(10) China’s trade practices are generally in compliance with WTO rules. 

This is of course better characterized as Chinese “advocacy” rife with half-truths and questionable assertions rather than a fair-minded assessment. Hopefully it is not taken at face value.


This concludes a short discourse on why the BRI bubble may burst. The dialogue sets the conditions for further discussion in part two on what America could and should do (and conversely not do) as the result thereof.     

Tuan Pham is widely published in national security affairs and international relations. Grant Newsham is a retired U.S. Marine Officer and a Senior Research Fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies. The personal views expressed therein are their own.

Featured Image: A Chinese flag flies over Tashkurgan, a small town at the front line of the $62bn China-Pakistan economic corridor (Cpec). (Tom Phillips for the Guardian)

Flashpoint China, Chinese Air Power and Regional Security

Rupprecht, Andreas. Flashpoint China, Chinese Air Power and Regional Security. Houston: Harpia Publishing, 2016. 80pp. $23.45

By Lieutenant Commander David Barr, USN


Since his rise to power six years ago, thousands of analysts and policymakers across the globe have attempted to understand the intentions of, and the mechanisms employed toward, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China Xi Jinping’s seemingly expansionist vision for China. That vision, dubbed “The Chinese Dream” by Xi in 2012, solidified his plan for “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Although arguably vaguely defined, “The Chinese Dream” has been viewed by some as Xi’s call for rising Chinese influence on the international stage – economically, politically, diplomatically, scientifically, and militarily, i.e., China’s “grand strategy.”

In support of this vision, Xi has embarked on a multitude of political and military reforms and now, backed by one of the world’s most technologically-advanced militaries, Xi is ready to thrust his revitalized China further onto the world stage. During his opening speech to nearly 2,300 party delegates and dignitaries at the October 2017 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, Xi publicly described the extraordinary complexity of China’s domestic and foreign policy challenges and opportunities: “Currently, conditions domestically and abroad are undergoing deep and complicated changes. Our country is in an important period of strategic opportunity in its development. The outlook is extremely bright; the challenges are also extremely grim.”1

In his new book, Flashpoint China, Chinese Air Power and Regional Security, Andreas Rupprecht, author of Modern Chinese Warplanes: Combat Aircraft and Units of the Chinese Air Force and Naval Aviation, attempts to break out of his comfort zone and succinctly capture the complexities of Chinese foreign policy and the geopolitical environment of the Asia-Pacific Region. The content of Flashpoint China is predominantly focused on Chinese regional security issues; however, in his introductory paragraph, Rupprecht states the goal of Flashpoint China is to “draw upon” Modern Chinese Warplanes and “offer an overview of potential military conflicts along the borders of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).”2 This is a laudable goal, for even attempting to synopsize the complexity of Chinese military history and foreign relations in a mere eighty pages would challenge the most knowledgeable defense and foreign relations expert. Yet for the most part, Rupprecht succeeds. There are some content areas however that could benefit from further research and development.

Following the introduction, Rupprecht utilizes Chapters Two through Five to succinctly introduce the various foreign policy concerns for China in each of its five Theater Commands. Each chapter opens with a succinct description of the nuanced histories behind each foreign policy concern, provides an overview of PLAAF and PLANAF capabilities available to each Theater Command, and closes with well-structured charts of each Theater Command’s PLAAF and PLANAF order of battle. It is through this structured approach that Rupprecht meets his goal of drawing upon Modern Chinese Warplanes and answering the following question: If conflict were to occur at any of the flashpoints, what People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and PLA Naval Air Force (PLANAF) units and platforms are likely to be involved?

Over the last two to three decades China’s entire military force has undergone a rapid and unprecedented military modernization campaign designed to transform it into a regionally-dominant and globally-significant force. To further tie his two books together however, Rupprecht would be remiss to not include an update of what has transpired within and across the PLA between the books’ publication dates (2012 and 2016, respectively) in the introductory section of Flashpoint China, specifically how PLA reforms and the subsequent establishment of the five Theater Commands have affected the PLAAF and PLANAF. Additionally, Rupprecht briefly describes concepts such as China’s “active defense strategy” and “anti-access /aerial denial (A2/AD)” (what the Chinese refer to as “counter-intervention”) capabilities. Counter-intervention represents how China plans to “deny the U.S. [or other foreign] military the ability to operate in China’s littoral waters in case of a crisis.”3 Collectively, these organizational, doctrinal, and operational changes should weigh heavily in a book of this nature yet Rupprecht does not fully incorporate their significance in his work. To do this, the author would need to answer the following question: How would PLAAF and PLANAF platforms and capabilities likely be employed to prevent U.S. or other regional forces from intervening in a conflict at any of the flashpoints?

Some of these geographical areas and issues carry a higher military priority for China. According to the U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) in its 2017 Annual Report to Congress, “Taiwan remains the PLA’s main “strategic direction,” one of the geographic areas the leadership identifies as endowed with strategic importance [and represents a “core interest” of China]. Other focus areas include the East China Sea [ECS], the South China Sea [SCS], and China’s borders with India and North Korea.”4 And as the strategic importance of a geographical area increases for China so does its allocation of PLA assets.

For example, the richness and variety of the geopolitical concerns involving the countries presented in Chapter Two of Flashpoint China (Japan, Russia, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), and South Korea), provide significant examples of historical, current, and potential military conflict for China; however, in Chapter Two Rupprecht doesn’t reflect on the order of  strategic priority and therefore the military significance of the Northern and Central Theater Commands. Instead, Chapter Two opens with a very brief paragraph regarding Mongolia, thereby dampening the impact of the chapter’s “flashpoint” narrative.

Additionally, the sovereignty dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the ECS dominates the military significance of China’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Japan; however, Rupprecht merely allocates a single sentence to the situation: “The dispute over the Senkaku Islands – known as the Diaoyu Islands in China – is meanwhile a matter of heated rhetoric and near-open hostility.”5 Since the historical dispute took a dramatic leap forward in April 2012 following the Japanese purchase of three of the eight islets from their private owner, the PLA’s Eastern Theater Command has assumed primary responsibility for this flashpoint area. Unfortunately, Chapter Two mistakenly assigns PLA responsibility for China’s ongoing dilemma with Japan in the ECS to the Northern and Central Theater Commands: “The PLA subordinates responsibility for Japan and the Korean peninsula to the Northern Theater Command and to the Central Theater Command.”6 When the purchase was made public, the PLA immediately began regularly deploying maritime and airborne patrols from Eastern Theater Command bases into the ECS to assert jurisdiction and sovereignty over the islands. Additionally, as Rupprecht alludes to on page 25, in November 2013, China declared the establishment of its first air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the ECS which included the area over the disputed islands. Subsequently, both the PLAAF and PLANAF established routine airborne patrol patterns and the use of ECS airspace and the straits of the Ryukyu Islands to conduct long-range, integrated strike training with PLA Navy (PLAN) assets in the western Philippine Sea.

A map of the Southern Theater Command’s Area of Responsibility (from Flashpoint China, Chinese Air Power and Regional Security, Click to Expand)

Additionally in Chapter Two, Rupprecht aptly describes the history of Sino-Russian relations: “For years, relations between China and Russia have been described as a ‘tightrope walk’, and have frequently oscillated between close friendship and war.”7 However, the author fails to capture the significance of the military connection between Russia and China, especially as it relates to Rupprecht’s stated theme for this book, for China’s military modernization arguably started with mass acquisitions of Russian military technologies in the early 1990s. Over the ensuing decades, China embarked on a widespread effort to acquire Russian military technologies, reverse-engineer that technology, and then indigenously mass-produce similar technologies adapted to Chinese specifications. That period however may be rapidly coming to a close as many China analysts assess that China has now transitioned from a Russian technology-dependent force to a truly indigenous production force. In fact, China’s most recent procurement of Russia’s technologically-advanced Su-35 FLANKER S fighter aircraft and S-400 strategic-level surface-to-air missile (SAM) system, touched on by Rupprecht on page 18, may be the last significant items on China’s military hardware shopping list.

Another example is found in Chapter Three which Rupprecht opens by stating, “The issue of Taiwan is a very special one for the PRC, and certainly the top priority in regard to the PLA’s modernization drive. This is clearly indicated by the official order of protocol, which lists the responsible Eastern Theater Command first.”8 Although the Eastern Theater may have primary responsibility for the Taiwan issue, the extraordinary political, strategic, and economic significance of the Taiwan dispute represents a “core interest” of China. This fact cannot be overstated. The entire essence of Chinese military modernization efforts over the recent decades have been in direct support of the possible requirement to take back Taiwan by force should alternative means of reunification prove fruitless. As Chinese Communist Party legitimacy would ride on the success or failure of a PLA campaign to “liberate” Taiwan, an effort of this magnitude would involve PLAAF and PLANAF assets from multiple Theater Commands, something Rupprecht’s narrative and order-of-battle charts do not capture.

The geography, the respective sovereignty claims, and the strategic and operational scope of each Theater Command’s responsibilities matter greatly with respect to China and its ambitions. Each chapter ends with a wonderful map that provides a highly informative, geographical illustration of each respective theater. The geographical impact of each chapter’s flashpoints may be better served however by moving each chapter’s map to the beginning of the chapters rather than the end.

Rupprecht’s best work is reflected in Chapter Four. China’s sovereignty claims and the controversial Chinese land reclamation and infrastructure construction activity in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea (SCS) presented in Chapter Four are definitely the most contentious issues facing the Southern Theater Command. And here Rupprecht does not disappoint. The author allocates numerous pages to both describe and illustrate the significance of the SCS dispute to China, its regional neighbors, and the U.S. Just as in Modern Chinese Warplanes, Rupprecht has included spectacular, colored photographs of various Chinese aircraft into Flashpoint China. Various PLAAF and PLANAF fighters, reconnaissance and transport aircraft, along with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) are presented in wonderful detail throughout the book. Chapter Four however is especially unique for its inclusion of vivid photographs of China’s land reclamation and infrastructure construction activity in the Spratly Islands.

A UAV is showcased in a Chinese military parade (Flashpoint China, Chinese Air Power and Regional Security)

How Chinese, U.S., and regional neighbors approach this issue politically, diplomatically, and militarily carries significant strategic, operational, and tactical implications. History has proven how a single tactical event in the region can carry immediate and substantial strategic implications. For example, the infamous EP-3 incident of 2001 provides just one example of how tactical miscommunication and miscalculation can have significant strategic implications.9 These type of airborne interactions continue on a regular basis as U.S. reconnaissance aircraft operate in international airspace over the SCS. Chinese fighter aircraft routinely intercept the U.S. aircraft, sometimes operating outside the assessed bounds of safe airmanship. Japanese fighters also come into regular contact with Chinese aircraft, regularly scrambling to check Chinese airspace incursions over the ECS and through the Ryukyu Straits. These tactical events often receive attention from the government and military leaders of the respective countries and occasionally result in public demarches.

In a book of this nature, each SCS claimant country deserves its own dedicated section as China’s rise has forced each country’s government to reassess their national security and military means with some countries making substantial increases in their military expenditures. For example, Vietnam is “in the process of addressing its limitations with respect to combating modern threat scenarios with its existing obsolete equipment, and has embarked on military modernization plans over the last few years.”10 Additionally, the 02 May – 15 August 2014 Hai Yeng Shi You 981 oil rig standoff (also referred to as the “CNOOC-981 incident”) provides a real-world event which not only illustrated the contentiousness of the SCS claims between China and Vietnam, but also revealed an operational reaction from the PLA, with specific operational responses from both the PLAAF and PLANAF.11

Finally, the most impactful flashpoint for China in the Western Theater, presented in Chapter Five, regards India. Typically the issue between the two countries revolves around unresolved border disputes; however, much to India’s chagrin, China also continues to advance its military-to-military relationship with India’s rival, Pakistan. This is especially relevant for Rupprecht’s efforts within Flashpoint China as Pakistan’s Air Force and China’s PLAAF conducted the sixth consecutive iteration of the annual “Shaheen” series of joint exercises in 2017. Since its inception in 2011, the Shaheen exercise series has consistently grown in complexity and scope, incorporating a wider variety of PLAAF aircraft and platforms such as multi-role fighters, fighter-bombers, airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft, and surface-to-air missile crews and radar operators.


In Flashpoint China Andreas Rupprecht ambitiously attempts to couple the highly complex geopolitical environment surrounding modern day China with the PLAAF and PLANAF’s ever-evolving order of battle and force projection capabilities – an assignment with which even the most renowned scholars would struggle, especially within the allotment of so few pages. Via the well-structured narrative and fabulous photographs, Flashpoint China goes a long way in tackling the question of what PLAAF and PLANAF assets could China bring to the fight should a military conflict occur at any of the presented flashpoints. Readers however would have certainly enjoyed reading the author’s assessment of how might the PLA use its air power in support of Chinese military intervention into these contentious hotbeds. But this may have to wait for another day. Still, if brevity of space and time were the only options available to the author, then Flashpoint China can certainly prove useful as is. However, with even some minor content and structural improvements, the book could prove irreplaceable.

LCDR David Barr is a career intelligence officer and currently serves as instructor with the National Intelligence University’s College of Strategic Intelligence. All statements of facts, analysis, or opinion are the author’s and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Intelligence University, the Department of Defense or any of its components, or the U.S. government.


1. Buckley, Chris. “Xi Jinping Opens China’s Party Congress, His Hold Tighter Than Ever”; The New York Times; 17 October 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/17/world/asia/xi-jinping-communist-party-china.html

2. Rupprecht, Andreas. Flashpoint China, Chinese Air Power and Regional Security. Houston: Harpia Publishing, 2016. p. 9.

3. Ibid. p. 15.

4. OSD. Annual Report to Congress: “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2017,” OSD, (Annual Report, OSD 2017)

5. Rupprecht, Andreas. Flashpoint China, Chinese Air Power and Regional Security. Houston: Harpia Publishing, 2016. p. 21.

6. Ibid. p. 21.

7. Ibid. P. 17.

8. Ibid. p. 31.

9. Rosenthal, Elisabeth. “U.S. Plane in China After It Collides with Chinese Jet”; The New York Times; 02 April 2001. http://www.nytimes.com/2001/04/02/world/us-plane-in-china-after-it-collides-with-chinese-jet.html

10. Wood, Laura. “Future of the Vietnam Defense Industry to 2022 – Market Attractiveness, Competitive Landscape and Forecasts – Research and Markets”. Business Wire; 04 October 2017. https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20171004006043/en/Future-Vietnam-Defense-Industry-2022—Market

11. Thayer, Carl. “4 Reasons China Removed Oil Rig HYSY-981 Sooner Than Planned”. The Diplomat; 22 July 2014. https://thediplomat.com/2014/07/4-reasons-china-removed-oil-rig-hysy-981-sooner-than-planned/

Featured Image: Two JH-7 fighter bombers attached to an aviation brigade of the air force under the PLA Western Theater Command taxi abreast on the runway before takeoff for a sortie near the Tianshan Mountains in late March, 2018. (eng.chinamil.com.cn/Photo by Wang Xiaofei)

A Sign of the Times: China’s Recent Actions and the Undermining of Global Rules, Pt. 2

By Tuan N. Pham

Last month, CIMSEC published an article titled “A Sign of the Times: China’s Recent Actions and the Undermining of Global Rules, Part 1” highlighting three troubling developments that oblige the United States to further encourage and also challenge China to become a more responsible global stakeholder that contributes positively to the international system. The article noted Beijing trying to convince others to accept the self-aggrandizing and self-serving term of “near-arctic state”; to fulfill its nationalistic promise to the Chinese people and reclaim the disputed and contested South China Sea (SCS) from ancient times; and to expand its “sharp power” activities across the globe.

A month later, these undertakings continue to mature and advance apace. China considers legislation seemingly to protect the environment in Antarctica, but really to safeguard its growing interests in the southernmost continent. Beijing takes more active measures to reassert its sovereignty and preserve its territorial integrity in the SCS. China restructures its public diplomacy (and influence operations) apparatus to better convey Beijing’s strategic message and to better shape public opinion abroad.     

Left unchallenged and unhindered, Beijing may become even more emboldened and determined to expand its global power and influence and accelerate the pace of its deliberate march toward regional preeminence and ultimately global preeminence. If so, Washington would be prudent to consider that it is much easier to slow or stop a large boulder rolling down a steep hill near the top than wait until it gains speed and momentum near the bottom.

Antarctic Legislation

A leading Chinese international maritime law expert recently called for exigent legislation to promote and safeguard China’s increasing activities and growing interests in Antarctica, particularly as they relate to scientific research, tourism, and environmental protection. China spends more than any other Antarctic state on infrastructure such as bases and icebreakers. Beijing maintains three bases (Great Wall, Zhongshan, and Kunlun) on the southernmost continent. Chinese polar research icebreakers make annual scientific research expeditions and periodic re-supply trips to those bases. And last year, the number of Chinese tourists to Antarctica grew to 5,300 from just 100 13 years ago. Altogether, the expanding presence, operations, and activities are embraced by Beijing as ways and means to build the necessary physical fundamentals for China’s evolving Antarctic resource and governance rights.

The legislative clarion call is not new. Beijing has been deliberately and incrementally paving the way for Antarctic legislation with government-sponsored studies dating back to the 1990s. A draft law has been listed on the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress’ (NPC) legislative agenda since last year, while the State Oceanic Administration (SOA) – the principal governmental body overseeing Antarctic issues – has drafted departmental rules to regulate Chinese activities on the continent since 2007. The latest of these rules – Environmental Protection Regulation on Activities in Antarctica – was issued last February. Contained therein, Beijing benevolently asserts that “with these rules, the SOA has been organizing activities in the southernmost continent in strict accordance with the Antarctic Treaty and the Protocol on Environmental Protection of the Antarctic Treaty, which provides comprehensive protection for the Antarctic environment.” In other words, a law with specific criminal and civil liabilities is urgently needed to keep visitors from unlawful actions, which may damage the fragile Antarctic eco-system.

Beijing’s actions in Antarctica should be linked and taken in context with other actions in the Arctic. For years, China has pushed to be designated a member of the Arctic Council, whose membership is restricted to nations bordering the Arctic. In 2013, Beijing finally gained observer status, and continues to seek membership to the very exclusive and potentially lucrative club.

On January 26, Beijing followed up last year’s policy paper “Vision for Maritime Cooperation Under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)” that outlined its ambitious plan to advance its developing global sea corridors (blue economic passages connected to the greater Belt and Road network) – with its first white paper on the Arctic. The white paper boldly proclaimed China’s strategic intent to actively partake in Arctic activities as a “near-Arctic state.”Activities include but are not limited to the development of Arctic shipping routes (Polar Silk Road); exploration for and exploitation of oil, gas, mineral, and other natural resources; utilization and conservation of fisheries; and promotion of Arctic tourism. Of note, there is no legal or international definition of “near-Arctic state.” China is the sole originator of the term. Beijing is clearly attempting to inject itself into the substance of Arctic dialogue and convince others to accept the self-aggrandizing and self-serving term.      

On March 17, Beijing announced the building of its first polar expedition cruise ship, as China looks to extend the BRI into the Arctic through shipping lanes opened up by global warming. Beijing and Helsinki have agreed to build a double-acting polar research vessel equipped with icebreaking capabilities, usable while the vessel is moving forward and backward. The new vessel is expected to be built in the Shanghai Shipyard later this year.

Greenland is actively courting Chinese investors to help expand three extant airports, raising concerns in Copenhagen. Chinese interest in Greenland comes after Beijing in late January laid out its strategic plan to establish the Polar Silk Road by developing shipping lanes and promoting infrastructure in the Arctic.

Working with Moscow, Beijing is now exporting liquefied natural gas using the Northern Sea Route through Arctic waters and has stepped up monitoring of oceanographic conditions in the Far North from Svalbard, a Norwegian island that is open to international scientific research.

Reasserting Sovereignty in the South “China” Sea

On March 23, USS Mustin (DDG-89) purportedly conducted a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) during which it reportedly passed within 12nm of Mischief Reef – one of seven occupied geographic features in the Spratly archipelago that China has transformed into a large military outpost in a bid to dominate the contested surrounding waters. If so, this may have been the second U.S. FONOP of the year and the sixth U.S. naval operation in the last 10 months to challenge Beijing’s excessive maritime claims in the SCS.

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) responded the next day with mostly the same recycled talking points from past U.S. FONOPs, but with some noteworthy additions (bolded below) and in a noticeably more assertive and harsher tone:

“The United States has violated the Chinese law and relevant international law, infringed upon China’s sovereignty, undermined peace, security, and order of the relevant waters, and put in jeopardy the facilities and personnel on the Chinese islands, and thus constitutes a serious political and military provocation. China has indisputable sovereignty over Nansha Qundao (Spratly Islands) and its adjacent waters. China always respects and safeguards the freedom of navigation and overflight in the SCS all countries are entitled to under international law, but firmly opposes any country or person undermining the sovereignty and security of littoral countries under the pretext of ‘freedom of navigation and overflight. At present, the situation in the SCS has been improving thanks to the concerted efforts of China and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states. Under such circumstance, the United States, who deliberately stirs up troubles and creates tension in the SCS to disrupt peace and stability there, is running against the will of regional countries who aspire for stability, cooperation, and development, and thus unpopular at all. The Chinese side strongly urges the U.S. side to immediately stop provocative operations that violate China’s sovereignty and threaten China’s security and faithfully respect the regional countries’ concerted efforts to uphold peace and stability in the SCS. The Chinese side will continue to take all necessary measures to defend its national sovereignty and security and safeguard peace and stability in the SCS.

The notable extras were remarks characterizing the United States as an uninvited and destabilizing interloper to the region and ASEAN interests; and statements warning Washington that FONOPs and the increased naval presence in the SCS may no longer be tolerated as evidenced by assertive language more forceful than in the past – “take all necessary measures to defend its national sovereignty and security” vice the previous softer language of take necessary measures to firmly safeguard its sovereignty.” The new language and tone is in step with President Xi Jinping’s recent policy remarks on sovereignty and territorial integrity at the 13th NPC – “The Chinese people and the Chinese nation have a shared conviction: not one single inch of our land will be or can be seceded from China.”    

The first add-on was intended for the other ASEAN members, shaping and influencing the ongoing negotiations of the Code of Conduct (CoC) for the management of contested claims in the strategic waterway. Beijing will undoubtedly try to insert favorable language into the CoC, like excluding non-ASEAN states from the SCS and regulating military activities in the SCS. The latter is consistent with Chinese comments made at the 54th Munich Security Conference – “the problem now is that some countries unilaterally and wrongly interpreted the freedom of navigation of UNCLOS as the freedom of military operations, which is not the principle set by the UNCLOS.” The second add-on was meant for Washington, signaling Beijing’s intent to increasingly challenge greater American naval presence and operations in their perceived home waters.

Chinese media largely echoed the MFA’s rhetoric, and further asserted that Washington had deliberately timed the FONOP to challenge Beijing on the same day China decided to hit back at America’s punitive tariffs. The destabilizing FONOP was a calculated gesture and part of a U.S. combined economic and military pressure campaign against China.

In a press conference “five days after” the MFA press conference, the Chinese Ministry of National Defense (MND) curiously did not adopt the MFA’s more assertive rhetoric and instead kept to its previous talking points on U.S. FONOPs. The relatively subdued narrative and tone suggest a possible change of tack from Beijing’s initial public diplomacy approach, but the coming months will tell if that is truly the case:

“The spokesperson of the MND has released a statement lately to emphasize China’s principles and positions in response to the U.S. Navy ship’s entering the neighboring waters of relevant islands and reefs of China’s Nansha Qundao (Spratly Islands). China has indisputable sovereignty over relevant islands and their adjacent waters in the SCS. China always respects and safeguards the freedom of navigation and overflight in the SCS all countries are entitled to under International Law, but firmly opposes any act of showing-off forces, aggravating regional tensions, threatening and undermining other countries’ sovereignty and security interests. The Chinese military will strengthen its defense capability according to the degree of the threat to its sovereignty and security, firmly safeguard national sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, and firmly safeguard regional peace and stability.” (Chinese Defense Ministry Press Conference, March 29)

Following the FONOP, China announced and carried out combat exercises in the disputed waters to include a large-scale show-of-force demonstration; and then stated that it may conduct similar monthly combat drills in the future. Beijing characterized these combat drills as routine, part of the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) annual training plan to hone combat capability, and not aimed at any specific country or target (interestingly mimicking U.S. talking points):

“The live-force naval exercise conducted by the PLAN in the SCS is the measure to implement the important instruction of President Xi at the opening ceremony of the new year training session of the PLA and encourage the combat-oriented training of the PLA naval troops. It is a routine arrangement in accordance with the annual training program of the PLAN. The purpose of the training is to test and enhance the training level of the PLAN, and promote the capabilities of the troops to win wars. It is not targeted at any specific country or target.” (Chinese Defense Ministry Press Conference, March 29)

Chinese naval warships fire missiles during a live-fire military drill on August 7, 2017. (China Stringer Network/Reuters)

On April 2, the Global Times (subsidiary of the People’s Liberation Army’s Daily) published an article expounding various motives for the naval maneuvers. The cited reasons were more expansive and somewhat inconsistent with those provided at the Chinese Defense Ministry’s press conference three days before:

“First, China needs to safeguard its national interests in the region and the routine exercises are in line with China’s defensive military policy. Second, they are related to the changing international situation as some countries have made moves that strategically target China. The guided missile destroyer USS Mustin recently entered the waters around China’s islands and reefs in the SCS. The United States, Japan, Australia, and India are promoting cooperation through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue; and the United Kingdom was reportedly considering sending a warship to conduct FONOPs in the SCS in 2018. And it is also partly because of the changing Taiwan situation as the U.S. President Trump has recently signed the Taiwan Travel Act into law, allowing senior-level official exchanges between the United States and Taiwan. This goes against the one-China policy. These shifts are vital and relevant to China’s security. Beijing needs to make some practical preparations to confront the changes in the international situation. Third, with China’s military strength growing, we need more large drills to test and improve military combat ability. This is the normal action of any country that wants to develop its military power.” 

On April 12, Xi personally attended a naval review in the SCS, one of the largest of its kind in China since its founding in 1949. He viewed 48 vessels, 76 aircraft, and more than 10,000 service personnel to include the aircraft carrier Liaoning. Xi made a speech after the review, reaffirming Beijing’s aspiration to have a strong navy and pledging to speed up PLAN modernization…“A mighty navy is an important pillar of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” On April 17, the PLA Daily elaborated on Xi’s statements five days before. Xi has resolutely set Beijing on an unyielding course for achieving the Chinese Dream, thus making it imperative for China to have a strong and modern navy. This is because having a capable navy doesn’t simply protect one’s shores, but also to protect one’s interests beyond those shores. 90 percent of the world’s trade is still carried through the maritime domain, and it is, by far, the most cost-effective way to transport goods and raw materials around the globe. This is why Xi reviewed the PLAN in the SCS on April 12.

It will be interesting to see how Beijing further responds in the next few months, a period with the most favorable weather conditions for reclamation and infrastructure building operations in the SCS. Besides the naval maneuvers, China claims to have deploy additional troops and set up territorial defense equipment; and justifies the opportunistic deployment as Beijing having every right to deploy necessary military equipment on its military outposts in the Spratly archipelago:

“The Nansha Islands are China’s territory. It is the natural right of a sovereign state for China to station troops and deploy necessary territory defense facilities on the relevant islands and reefs of the Nansha Islands. It is conducive to safeguarding the state’s sovereignty and security, ensuring the freedom and security of navigation channels in the SCS, and maintaining regional peace and stability. It is not directed against any country. China will unswervingly follow the path of peaceful development, pursue a national defense policy that is defensive in nature and a military strategy of active defense.”

It will also be telling to see how Beijing reacts to other related regional developments – French Navy frigate Vendémiaire “allegedly” conducted a FONOP in the SCS (some would say that it was not a FONOP, but just a transit); Hanoi welcomed a U.S. nuclear aircraft carrier for a port visit; Jakarta lobbies other Southeast Asian countries to carry out maritime patrols in the disputed waters; Canberra increases its maritime presence and considers conducting FONOPs in the strategic waterway; Manila plans to include again Japan and Australia into its annual bilateral exercise with the United States (Balikatan); SCS claimant states continue to buy more naval arms (Kuala Lumpur will equip its new littoral combat ships with advanced naval strike missiles from Norway and Jakarta will buy three modern submarines from South Korea); and Tokyo tries to link the Mekong and ASEAN into a broader Indo-Pacific Strategy, allied with India, United States, and Australia. When China does decide to react, it will do so bilaterally and quietly like it dealt with Vietnam (intimidated Hanoi to halt its oil drilling project off its southeast coast and called Hanoi to settle maritime disputes through talks and to jointly exploit the contested waters), Philippines (encouraged Manila to jointly explore for oil and gas in the disputed waters), and Brunei (brokered an unspoken arrangement whereby Bandar Seri Begawan remains silent on the SCS issue in order to secure Chinese investment); and surreptitiously like when Chinese cyberspace hackers supposedly attacked corporate firms linked to the SCS.

The wildcard will be Singapore, who assumed the ASEAN chairmanship last January. Singapore’s fair and balanced approach and predisposition toward global rules and norms may moderate (and possibly even check) Beijing within ASEAN in 2018. Chinese leaders may have anticipated this unwelcome prospect and are taking proactive steps to mitigate. On March 8, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang told visiting Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong that China will work with ASEAN: “China is willing to bring benefits to surrounding countries through its own development and build a community of both shared interest and shared destiny with countries in the ASEAN countries.” On April 12, Beijing launched a joint laboratory program with ASEAN to promote and enhance technological innovation, as part of the greater BRI’s efforts to build a community with a shared future for China and ASEAN. The joint program was organized by China’s Ministry of Science and Technology, Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the ASEAN Secretariat.                      

Coming Sharp Power Offensive

China recently restructured its state media to better control domestic content and create a bigger public diplomacy (propaganda) machine to better convey Beijing’s strategic message and to better shape public opinion abroad. Both objectives align with Xi’s goals of ensuring that the domestic and international audiences hear the messages that he wants them to hear, see the images that he wants them to see, and believe the narratives that he wants them to believe. In his eyes, all messages are political and thus subject to state and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) control.

In mid-March, Beijing announced the Beijing announced the merger of three national radio and television entities – China Central Television, China Radio International, and China National Radio – to create a single Voice of China (VoC) to “guide hot social issues, strengthen and improve public opinion, push multimedia integration, strengthen international communication, and tell good China stories.” The VoC will employ 15,000 employees across dozens of bureaus around the globe, producing media programs in more than 60 languages to provide a reassuring and benevolent image of China, one that blunts any concern about Beijing’s growing power and influence in the world. 

The VoC will complement similar “sharp power” activities by the Confucian Institutes and United Front (UF). The former is a network of more than 1500 teaching centers established in over 140 countries that provides Chinese language and culture lessons to more than 1.5 million students from around the world. The latter is a CCP organization designed to build broad-based domestic and international political coalitions to achieve party’s objectives, advance the party’s political agenda, counter political foes, and help realize broader geo-economic ambitions such as the BRI. The UF will reportedly take over the functions of the State Council Overseas Office, National Ethnic Affairs Commission, and State Administration for Religious Affairs to exercise tighter control over religion and ethnic issues and to further carry out its efforts on exercising influence overseas. Altogether, these influence organs are intended to promote the Chinese political agenda and explain Chinese ideas and values, and in a way that wins the country supporters abroad.

On February 17, Xi issued a directive to cultivate greater support amongst the estimated 60 million-strong Chinese diaspora. He called for “closely uniting” with overseas Chinese in support of the Chinese Dream, and underscored that “to realize the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, we must work together with our sons and daughters at home and abroad…it is an important task for the party and the state to unite the vast number of overseas Chinese and returned overseas Chinese and their families in the country and play their positive role in the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”

The new influence campaign has apparently begun in earnest with a March 22 Xinhua article titled “Overseas Chinese Confident China’s new Leadership Will Lead to National Rejuvenation.” The following is a sampling of endorsements of newly re-elected Xi (President and Chairman of the Central Military Commission) from the worldwide Chinese diaspora:

  • “The new leadership will lead China to greater prosperity and called on Chinese in Canada to work as a bridge in bilateral non-governmental exchanges.” (Wang Dianqi, Head of the Joint Committee of Chinese Associations in Canada)
  • “Chinese in France will help boost China-France exchanges, contributing to the implementation of the BRI proposed by Xi and the notion of building a community with a shared future for mankind.” (Wu Wuhua, Honorary Chair of the Chaozhou Guild Hall in France)
  • “Urge the Chinese in Peru to help boost exchanges and mutual trust between their host country and China.” (Liang Shun, Head of the Central Association of Chinese in Peru).
  • “Xi would be able to lead the Chinese to national rejuvenation, and bring overseas Chinese more benefits and pride.” (Zhou Ying, Head of the Federation of Chinese Associations in Cyprus)
  • “For overseas Chinese, the development of China, most importantly, makes them more respected, and second, brings them new business opportunities.” (Fang Tianxing, Head of the Federation of Chinese Associations in Malaysia)


The United States made progress last year calling out wayward and untoward Chinese behavior, pushing back on Chinese unilateralism and assertiveness, strengthening regional alliances and partnerships, increasing regional presence, reasserting regional influence, and most importantly, incrementally reversing years of ill-advised accommodation. But there is much more Washington can and should do. If not, passivity and acquiescence undermine the new U.S. National Security Strategy, reinforce Beijing’s growing belief that Washington is a declining power, and may further embolden China – a self-perceived rising power – to execute unchallenged and unhindered its strategic roadmap (grand strategy) for national rejuvenation (Chinese Dream). Hence, the new strategy, calling for America to embrace the strategic great power competition with China and plan and act accordingly, is a step in the right direction, for decline is a deliberate choice, not an imposed reality. 

Tuan Pham serves on the executive committee of the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies and is widely published in national security affairs and international relations. The views expressed therein are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Government.

Featured Image: Nine Dragon Wall in the Forbidden City in Beijing, China. (Wikimedia Commons)