Xi Jinping: China's "Game Changer"?

China's new leader is certainly making waves. Could he calm waters in the South China Sea? 

The ascent of Xi Jinping, beginning in late-2012, to the helm of China’s political system has coincided with growing tensions across the South China Sea. Far from calming the boiling waters on China’s peripheries, the new Chinese leader has upped the ante by expanding the country’s paramilitary patrols, as well as construction and energy-exploration activities across disputed features, from the Paracels to the Spratly chain of islands. Beijing has also flatly rebuffed recent attempts by the Philippines and the U.S. to de-escalate tensions in the South China Sea, particularly the widely-supported Triple Action Plan (TAP), which calls for a freeze on construction activities and other forms of provocative actions in the disputed areas, the development of a legally binding Code of Conduct (CoC), and the resolution of the disputes in accordance with international law. Recently, Filipino authorities have also warned about the presence of Chinese surveillance ships close to the hydrocarbon-rich Reed Bank, which lies well within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

China’s maritime jostling, under the Xi administration, has come as a huge disappointment to neighboring countries such as the Philippines, which back in 2012, fervently hoped that the departure of the Hu Jintao administration would pave the way for the emergence of a more confident and stable leadership in Beijing. In the view of some neighboring governments, the Hu administration lacked the wherewithal and political capital to rein in hardline elements within the Chinese state apparatus, both civilian and military, who advocated for a more forceful Chinese posturing in the Western Pacific. After all, the Hu administration was overwhelmed by brewing socioeconomic troubles at home, as Beijing struggled to maintain robust growth rates and contain spiraling inflation, corruption and protests in the heady aftermath of the 2007-08 Great Recession. Historically, autocratic regimes, lacking democratic legitimacy, tend to compensate for domestic vulnerability by projecting a tough image abroad. As perceptive scholars such as Robert Ross observed: “Beijing’s tough [territorial] diplomacy stemmed…from a deep sense of insecurity born of several nerve-racking years of financial crisis and social unrest.”

Unlike China’s paramount leaders, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, President Hu lacked the necessary charisma and bureaucratic prowess to inject discipline into the country’s floundering territorial diplomacy, which encouraged many neighboring states to welcome a greater American strategic footprint in East Asia—undermining a decades-long Chinese strategy aimed at establishing a “sphere of deference” in the region.

Widely seen as a consensus candidate among China’s outgoing leaders, in the Central Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party of China (PSC), Xi represented a potential game changer—not only for the country’s domestic politics, but also for its foreign policy. So far, he has overseen an uptick in China’s territorial assertiveness, accompanied by the growing consolidation of bureaucratic power under his control. As Xi gradually emerges as China’s next paramount leader, however, he will also increasingly be in a position to introduce major changes to the country’s foreign policy, which would potentially open up the space for a diplomatic compromise—or at least a much-needed de-escalation—in the maritime disputes in the Western Pacific, especially in the South China Sea.

The New Paramount Leader

In many ways, Xi Jinping has the potential to become one the most consequential Chinese leaders in recent history. His late father, Xi Zhongxun, was among the founding members of China’s Communist regime, later emerging as a major proponent of economic reforms and a respected reformist leader within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). As a pragmatic and highly respected leader, Xi Jinping himself oversaw an economic boom in Fujian and Zhejiang, blending market reforms with an effective brand of hands-on governance, including a high-profile anticorruption crackdown during his tenure in Zhejiang. He also enjoyed cordial ties with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), partly thanks to a previous stint as an aide to Geng Biao, a former secretary general of the Central Military Commission (CMC) and minister of national defense.