Losing the edge with ChinaChinese President Xi Jinping has become a very powerful leader with authority over the Communist Party, state and the military. Xi reiterated the “absolute leadership of the Communist Party” and the upholding of Marxism regardless of capitalistic applications. The two five-year presidential term limit was removed, giving Xi power for life if he desires it.
Expectations that China would become less authoritarian as it got wealthier have been dashed. Xi’s declaration that the people will be his only guidance reminds us of the cult of Mao Zedong. At the 19th Communist Party Congress, which was largely devoted to the elevation of Xi to an emperor-like status, Xi justified his new might by listing his feats over what he called an “extraordinary” five years. Dictators often tout achievements to justify their power.
What does China seek through a strongman leadership? Its eyes are set on the restoration of a greater China against a challenging and unpredictable future. By 2049 — the centennial of the founding of the modern Chinese government — the country hopes to rise from the middle-income trap and join the ranks of advanced nations as the first modernized socialist state.
China has already begun to employ its newfound power to assert its influence across the world. It proposes the internationalization of Chinese values by contrasting them to the anti-globalism tide in the United States. Wang Huning, the mastermind of Xi’s strategy, was included in the Politburo Standing Committee, in a show of his will to put his vision into practice. The broader 13th National Congress of the Communist Party rewrote the rules of state governance and its direction and realigned its organization for those goals.
Xi’s extended power poses a new challenge to the world. China’s struggle for power and influence with America has become very concrete. Xi reassured that China will never seek hegemony or expansion regardless of its advances and stressed cooperation with the United States. Washington was not convinced. President Donald Trump signed an executive order to put tariffs on $50 billion of China’s exports. Beijing threatened a counterattack with some new tariffs on U.S. goods and warned of a stronger move against Washington with an ancient Chinese saying: “Pick up a sesame seed only to lose a watermelon.”
As long as it can fight back with some real bruising power, China won’t easily yield to U.S. pressure. The escalated tensions between the United States and China can draw a dark cloud over the Korean Peninsula. Washington will likely keep China as a target, and as long as China reacts, their relationship — whether it of a cooperative or hostile nature — will likely affect the peninsula. The surprise summit between leaders of North Korea and China — which was mostly aimed at finding common leverage against Washington — has added complexity to Korea’s fate, underscoring its vulnerability to global powers.
Seoul aimed to improve ties with Beijing through a summit meeting between Presidents Moon Jae-in and Xi. Beijing’s policy on the two Koreas has become more predictable due to its extended influence and the power of Xi. Seoul and Beijing have more room to cooperate as they share common views on Pyongyang and its nuclear threat. But Beijing will want a more assertive role in the transformation of the armistice that ended the Korean War into a lasting peace treaty for the Korean Peninsula. It could make specific demands when necessary.
At the current pace, the South Korean economy could become a subcontracting base for China within the next decade. Korean mainstay industries are struggling in China. China promotes future industries with a long-term perspective and has been pushing that drive with strong state leadership. Chinese enterprises already are at the forefront of their industries in 5G, drones and strategic assets connected to the so-called fourth industrial revolution. Korea Inc. may not be able to catch up merely with its innovative edge.
We must not waste the historic momentum if we want to keep independence from the U.S.-China relationship. Koreans never earned independence, democracy or peace easily. If we lose our strategic leverage in Korean affairs and the inter-Korean relationship, nobody will care.
The Moon Jae-in administration is striving to remain in the driver’s seat on Korean affairs in order to get recognition from the international society. To achieve that goal, we must strengthen our identity in democracy and the market economy through farsighted planning, leadership, competent statesmanship, innovative marketing and public energy. If we cannot avoid China, we must find a way to beat it in innovation and survive the competition. We cannot get ahead by keeping a safe distance from the car in the front. We must come up with creative ways to overtake it.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, April 2, Page 29
*The author is a professor of political science at Sungkyunkwan University and director of the Sungkyun Institute of China Studies.