Since 1971, and Henry A. Kissinger’s secret trip to Beijing, U.S. relations with China have been predicated on the belief that China’s economic rise, as well as its increasing integration into the global economy, would contribute to its political liberalization at home and its international cooperation abroad. America’s ruling elites believed that trade, rising personal incomes, and the ascendency of an entrepreneurial class within China would weaken the hold of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) over the levers of power, enabling a more democratic polity to eventually emerge in the Middle Kingdom. A liberalizing China, linked economically and culturally to the world, would help keep the peace in East Asia and Southeast Asia.
China’s President Xi Jinping has proven America’s long-held faith in the liberalizing effects of economic development to have been wrong. Since becoming Chairman of the CCP in 2012, Xi has cracked down on political dissidents, strengthened the totalitarian state security apparatus, put greater restrictions on the ability of multinationals to operate in the country, ratcheted up his government’s anti-American rhetoric, and militarily intimidated China’s neighbors in the South China Sea. Xi’s China is neither liberal nor peaceful.
Only last week, Xi gave himself a new job title – Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. He assumed this new role for a couple of reasons. First, he wanted to reinforce his domestic political legitimacy by projecting a public image of strength, decisiveness, and militancy. Russia’s Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un have utilized a similar public relations approach to great political effect. And secondly, Xi hoped his appearance in uniform with his military commanders would send the message to Washington that Bejing is ready for war. Putin and Jong-Un have repeatedly tried to intimidate the U.S. with similar displays of militancy.
As for abiding by an international rules-based system to solve the territorial disputes roiling the South China Sea, Xi’s government has repeatedly made it clear that it will not accept international arbitration. Xi’s stance on this issue indicates he is determined to use coercion, rather than recognized legal channels, to get his way in the South China Sea.
Xi is behaving not as a democratically-inclined, Western-influenced leader, but as an authoritarian despot cut from the same cloth as Mao Zedong and the dictators who have long ruled Russia and North Korea. This is exactly the type of leader U.S. policymakers had hoped China’s economic rise and integration would keep from coming to power.