The Next Dilemma for U.S.-China Ties: A Communications Breakdown?

In the Xi era, the greatest divide is no longer between disparate ministries, but instead the growing distance between the president and China’s bureaucracy. America will need to adapt to this new reality.

Confronted with some of the most complex geopolitical challenges of the twenty-first century, the Asia-Pacific region has entered a state of heightening tensions, threatening to undermine this key driver for the global economy and vital strategic region for the United States. A central element of how the United States (and the international community) takes steps to manage instability in the Asia-Pacific region requires a comprehensive set of efforts to not only enhance cooperation with U.S. allies and partners and invest in multilateral institutions, but to adapt mechanisms and advance creative diplomatic means to engage the new Chinese leadership. Against this backdrop, U.S. and Chinese officials convened last week in Beijing for the sixth round of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED), among the most comprehensive bilateral engagements in U.S. foreign policy.

Yet despite measured progress through the dialogue, particularly on steps to reduce carbon emissions, it is increasingly clear that the United States is facing a profoundly different China from President Obama’s first term. President Xi Jinping has rapidly consolidated power internally and advanced a more assertive regional policy, raising serious concerns about the ability of the United States to channel messages to China’s top decision makers. As a result, Washington will have to expand and adapt the way it does business with Beijing.

President Xi, who only assumed office in March 2013, has embarked on a remarkable consolidation of power early in his tenure. In order to press his priorities through China’s byzantine bureaucratic system, he has created new institutional structures to cut through the red tape. On security issues, he instituted China’s first ever national-security council with him as its head to press a “unified” approach to both domestic and external security challenges. In order to drive his substantial economic agenda through China’s sclerotic system, Xi launched a leading group to act as an overall coordinating body to manage the entire reform process from policy formulation to design and implementation, again choosing to chair the body himself. Additionally, as tensions continue to rise over cyberespionage, Xi has created and taken charge of a new body overseeing cybersecurity, pledging to turn China into a “cyber power.”

These bureaucratic steps notwithstanding, Xi’s greatest power play has been his wide-ranging anticorruption campaign, which netted its largest target last month in General Xu Caihou, who previously served as the military’s second-in-command and critically had direct oversight of personnel appointments in China’s People’s Liberation Army. His purge from the Communist Party and deliverance to the prosecutors’ office on charges of selling military promotions was a clear signal that President Xi would crack down on corruption even in near-sacrosanct institutions, including the military. Behind the scenes, it also demonstrates Xi’s hands-on approach to the military, underscoring his willingness to dismantle former President Jiang Zemin’s network within the PLA (unlike his predecessor Hu who never commanded a strong relationship with the military).

The move against Xu is just the latest in a series of high-level anticorruption investigations under Xi’s watch. Major Chinese state-owned enterprises and their government regulators are in a near state of paralysis, looking over their shoulders to see if they may be the next target of the wide-ranging probes. Taken together, Xi has made clear that he intends to press his will through the government and there are real costs to those standing in the way.

In 2009, the S&ED was launched in part as a U.S. attempt to break down bureaucratic stovepipes in the Chinese system. The assumption was that if the United States brought together high-level officials from across its interagency to meet with their Chinese counterparts, the ensuing constellation of Chinese officials would not only speak with the Americans, but also each other – in time building habits of greater interagency transparency essential to enhancing U.S.-China cooperation.