Conventional narrative within China depicts Xi Jinping as a statesman, a strongman and a philosopher who has emerged tall since assuming leadership in March 2013. He has absolute power and holds the reins that have catapulted the success of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Building a staunchly nationalistic platform driven by his unique doctrine recognized as “Xi Jinping Thought” (officially, the “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”), President Xi has sought to bring back China’s medieval glory — thus inviting comparison to the legendary Mao Zedong.
Now, with the fifth plenary session of the 19th Central Committee of the CCP — the Party’s mandated annual convention to map the government’s agenda moving forward — set to be held later in October 2020, Xi faces a test of his policies, ideologies and strategies. Many are keeping a tight vigil on Xi Jinping’s promise that he made to the Chinese people, about building a “Community with a Shared Future for Humankind” (CSF), a cornerstone of his foreign policy in the Asian neighborhood. Observers are also following how it is faring in the post-pandemic period, and whether it can continue to achieve all that it set out to even as Beijing is quickly losing diplomatic ground in an emerging (and hostile) security environment.
Envisioning to take an Asia-centric leadership in world politics, Xi introduced the CSF initiative in 2015 in his keynote address at the 70th Session of the U.N. General Assembly wherein he encouraged building bilateral partnerships that “engage in extensive consultation and enhance mutual understanding” so that nations “treat each other as equals.” Hailed as an attempt to promote liberal institutionalism, the CSF reflected a vision that protected multilateralism, encouraging the same over any pretence of unilateralism, and promoted a win-win mindset as opposed to zero-sum game ideas. Today, Xi’s vision and Beijing’s commitment to the same ring hollow. In fact, even as the world continues to combat the COVID-19 pandemic while dreadingly preparing for its aftermath, a Xi-led China seems to have abandoned any pretence of its commitment to the ideals embedded in the CSF.
At the 2017 CCP National Congress meeting, Xi stated that in order to actualize the CSF vision, China must pursue “peaceful development,” “safeguard world peace,” and “uphold international order.” However, 2020 has shown China in a stark contrast, with its aggressive military maneuvering both on land and at sea, its eagerness to assert dominance within its neighborhood and a disregard for a rules-based international order. Furthermore, China’s revisionist tendencies have led to a degradation of bilateral or multilateral ties, reflecting an apparent abandonment of win-win cooperation for harmonious relations.
Instead of being a responsible global leader — a role Beijing was uniquely positioned to assume had it wielded its soft diplomatic power effectively — China’s initiatives (such as its mask diplomacy and Health Silk Road) unraveled the country’s underlying motives of self-interest behind humanitarian aid and assistance. Moreover, Beijing’s so-called “good neighborly” outlook and politics of generosity was replaced by blatant aggressiveness. When China’s long-time trade partner Australia called for an independent investigation into the origins and early handling of the pandemic, China lashed out with severe retaliatory sanctions (even asking students to boycott Australian universities) — their bilateral ties have only worsened since. At the same time, its military adventurism in the East and South China Seas has increased in leaps and bounds leading to deteriorating ties with both Japan and the Southeast Asian Nations.
The exodus of Japanese manufacturers from China, aided by a $2.2 billion stimulus package for moving to other Southeast Asian countries or back home, highlights the rising distrust in Tokyo towards Beijing. Japan has also shown stringent disapproval of China’s national security law imposed on Hong Kong, offering the city’s citizens asylum. In its strongest statement yet, ASEAN has condemned Beijing’s unilateral attempts to change the status quo while urging adherence to the U.N. Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
With India in particular, China’s ties have reached the brink of war, with both countries facing off along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Since the Galwan valley clash in June, tensions have only continued to rise with largely unsuccessful peace talks as both prepare for a long-drawn, high-stakes and high-altitude stand-off for the foreseeable future. Taiwan has been subject to Beijing’s revisionist tendencies as well. China has ramped up its military build-up around the self-run island, intruding into Taiwanese airspace on multiple occasions and causing it to call for the formation of a global coalition in case of a (very real) possibility of war. Even Asian and Indo-Pacific countries like Mongolia, South Korea and New Zealand have borne witness to the rise of China as a revisionist power that has little consideration for international laws and norms — despite the ideology it publicly endorses.
In this sense, China’s overt commitment to the CSF has only become more ironic, if not hypocritical. Its dedication to promote a pluralistic world order has been reduced to a mere narrative aimed at propelling its own rise. Beyond principles of parity and mutual regard, what drives Chinese outlook is the underlying subtext of an otherwise benign conceptualization: the belief that China must play a global leadership role commensurate with its vast and ever-rising capabilities and that its deeper integration must necessarily mean a reorientation of the existing order under Chinese socialist values.
Interestingly, Beijing had swiftly employed the CSF, also called Community of Common Destiny, as a foreign policy tool to solidify ties with its neighbors even as its relations with other states, especially the United States, deteriorated. Xi attempted to use the outbreak of the pandemic — which originated in China’s Wuhan province — to highlight challenges that face the human race as a whole. A popular narrative emerging in Chinese media is that Xi’s CSF conception has gained a new, “vivid interpretation” in the post-pandemic era in which China can “converge global synergy” and helm an international response to the virus. In this vein, Xi advocated for the urgent need to build a community with a shared future for mankind and sought to heighten cooperation with select states in each Asian zone, notably Kazakhstan, Cambodia and Afghanistan.
Beijing’s political goodwill has been invariably met with strong resistance from across the world, with even Europe realizing the perils of China’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy. Devastated by the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic, the EU found Chinese aid unreliable (with poor quality test kits from China being sent back) and an aggressive attempt to weave a web of influence within the continent. In other words, it was interpreted as China’s attempts to advance its self-interests through what many believed was a crisis of its own making.
CSF’s overall notion is inherently good, so much so that it has been previously lauded by U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres and is invariably embedded in many of the already existing principles as well as initiatives under the U.N.’s multilateral umbrella. However, Xi’s vision remains far removed from his actual actions, policies and intentions. If Beijing truly wants to embrace multilateralism, sovereign equality and mutually respectful partnerships to create a bright, shared future for mankind, it must situate its rise within the existing international order, by taking first Asia into confidence more than any other region of the globe.
Jagannath Panda is a Research Fellow and Centre Coordinator for East Asia at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. He is the series editor for “Routledge Studies on Think Asia.”