In preparation for the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) founding in July, Chinese President Xi Jinping used this month’s National People’s Congress (NPC) to cement his place in Chinese history, in effect elevating himself alongside Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping as one of China’s great leaders. He also utilized the annual gathering to better contextualize his vision for the country as it braces for a period of prolonged tension with the United States. While Xi outlined a number of significant policies aimed at both strengthening China’s hand abroad and neutralizing perceived domestic threats, the subtext of Xi’s message was loud and clear: From here on out, there can be no going back.
In most any other year, the NPC would serve as a high-level forum for the Party’s veteran heavyweights to pass the proverbial torch to the country’s next generation. However, owing to Xi’s successful efforts to eliminate the constitutional two-term limit for the presidency, his reign will almost certainly continue past the end of his 10-year term in 2023. Thus, this year’s NPC was noteworthy not only for what its participants said, but also for what they mostly left unsaid – namely, that Xi Jinping’s successor is, in fact, Xi Jinping. Approaching the apex of his power and facing few institutional constraints, Xi appears unlikely to moderate his behavior or embrace a more accommodating approach toward the United States, at least in the near term. In fact, if Xi is to be taken at his word, he is intent on framing major facets of China’s 14th Five-Year Plan around Beijing’s intensifying strategic competition with the West.
On the policy front, Xi formally unveiled a number of significant pronouncements, several of which he previously foreshadowed in a series of carefully crafted speeches and white papers. These included changes to Hong Kong’s electoral system, paving the way for the biggest political shake-up in the city since 1997. Under the veil of a prescribed policy aimed at establishing a “democratic electoral system with Hong Kong characteristics,” the sweeping changes included the creation of vetting committees to review candidates for elected office to determine if they are sufficiently “patriotic.”
In effect, these moves eliminate the likelihood that Hong Kong’s opposition will be allowed to participate meaningfully in the political process. Beijing’s decision to proceed with these draconian measures, in direct defiance of U.S. pressure, also suggests that Washington may need to modernize its suite of policy tools, including sanctions, to account for a China that is increasingly willing and able to absorb the costs associated with flouting traditional levers of American power.
In a sign, however, that the United States retains some ability to alter the behavior of Chinese decision-makers, both domestically as well as overseas, Xi and his lieutenants pledged to upgrade the country’s legal toolkit to meet the challenge of “foreign, long-arm interference” in China’s affairs. Xi also signaled additional government support to boost innovation, primarily through strategic research and development investments, and to encourage domestic consumption while maintaining a gross domestic product target above 6 percent. Xi also emphasized the promotion of polices aimed at protecting the environment, thus satisfying domestic sustainability demands and public concerns about China’s poor air quality.
Lastly, Xi announced that China’s 2021 defense budget would increase by 7 percent, to roughly $229 billion dollars. This figure does not, however, account for all of Beijing’s defense-related spending, including expenditures for major aspects of its space program or Coast Guard, which is expected to play an outsized role in policing China’s near abroad. This figure also does not include the costs associated with China’s defense mobilization or with maintaining China’s vast internal security apparatus. While hardly surprising, these planned investments presage continued prioritization of the People’s Liberation Army’s ongoing modernization, as well as significant equipment purchases that could further erode U.S. military dominance in the Indo-Pacific.
Of course, the timing of China’s NPC coincides with robust efforts by U.S. policymakers to re-evaluate America’s counter-China strategy, which could include multibillion-dollar investments in expanded long-range strike capabilities and a sophisticated missile defense system in Guam. The Biden administration has also launched a top-to-bottom review of American supply chains involving key components in computers, electric cars, pharmaceuticals, and military hardware, with the goal of reducing U.S. dependence on unreliable foreign sources that were exposed at COVID-19’s outset.
Regardless of potential U.S. military re-alignments in the Pacific, what is unlikely to change, at least in the short term, is the sharp rhetoric coming from senior U.S. officials about the nature of America’s great power rivalry with Beijing. While an upcoming meeting in Alaska between U.S. and Chinese officials may help identify a small number of areas where the two governments can collaborate, namely on climate change and Burma, the meeting itself is unlikely to dramatically alter the current bilateral dynamic or lead to any major shifts in U.S. policy. In the meantime, all eyes will turn to Beijing’s upcoming celebration of the CCP’s anniversary and Xi’s all-but-certain elevation into the annals of Chinese history.
Craig Singleton, a national security expert and former U.S. diplomat, is an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP) and China Program. For more analysis from Craig, CPP, and the China Program, please subscribe HERE. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.