Not sure whether China will be nice to self-ruled Taiwan? Wait until after the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party. What’s in store for the hotly disputed, resource-rich South China Sea, where Beijing has taken a military and technological lead since 2010? Wait until after the Congress. Coffee maker wouldn’t start today? Wait until after the Congress. Wait. But you get the idea: This event, due to start Oct. 18, is monumental enough to put a lot of Asia on hold — and make it worry.
Here’s why, and what to expect.
Worth the wait
Chinese foreign and economic policies shape much of Asia. China’s ever-growing efforts to build and fund infrastructure around the subcontinent through initiatives such as One Belt, One Road have obvious impact on smaller countries that might otherwise struggle to finance their own projects. Neighbors from Japan to India are watching China for foreign policy cues that affect their iffy diplomatic relations with the region’s major power.
The twice-per-decade Congress determines leadership of the one and only ruling party. Today’s general secretary, Xi Jinping, also the Chinese president, is expected to score another five-year term and try packing the party’s leadership with more people who like him. Party delegates can also chart national policies that would unwind over the following months into recognizable ambitions and actions. So it makes sense that older policies or initiatives may hibernate ahead of the Congress, to be rejigged and reawaken afterwards.
What we’re waiting for
As Asia holds its collective breath for Oct. 18, it’s most likely to be awaiting outcomes on the following hot topics:
China claims sovereignty over democratically self-ruled Taiwan, which is just off its southeast coast. It intends to unite with the island someday, problematic because most Taiwanese like their autonomy. A new term for Xi may either make him grittier toward Taiwan, meaning China would ramp up corrosive economic and diplomatic pressure on the Taipei government — yet still softly enough to leave a door open in case the two sides find a way to talk. Xi could also use his new five-year window of time to be nicer to Taiwan while looking for new ways to work with it politically, one scholar in Taipei believes.
Sino-foreign sovereignty disputes
China’s president has plentiful support in the party for pushing national interests in sovereignty disputes with other countries as a “narrative that China is reclaiming its past glory on the world stage,” The Brookings Institution writes in a piece. Whatever emerges from the Congress, Beijing will probably continue to pressure on four Southeast Asian countries with rival South China Sea claims, on Japan because of an East China Sea sovereignty dispute and on India due to unsettled border issues.
Expect more coordination by Beijing on the South China Sea, says Jinghan Zeng, senior politics and international relations lecturer at Royal Holloway, University of London. Since 2010 China has angered other claimants with military buildup, construction of artificial islands and passing coast guard vessels near other countries. It also has “sent mixed and sometimes self-conflicting messages,” Zeng says. That’s due to competition within China among state oil drillers, a provincial government and the navy, he says. “A stronger Xi in charge will lead to more coordination of those organizations and point to a more coherent foreign policy of China,” the lecturer says.
Support, or not, for North Korea
Delegates will have a chance to develop a more consistent response to North Korea. The rogue country that worries Japan, South Korea and the United States because of its rapid military development is an old Communist pal of China. China gives it fuel and food aid to head off a collapse that could flood Chinese territory with refugees.
North Korea’s detractors want China to use its cozy relations to talk North Korea down from the military expansion. China might try adding pressure on Pyongyang as long as those other counties stay quiet, Zeng said. Xi could also use newfound “political capital” to “take more decisive measures against his troublesome neighbor,” this piece by the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham says.
China’s far-reaching economic ambitions
Results of this year’s Congress are expected to give a new push to the One Belt, One Road program, a 4-year-old effort to form a trade and investment network for Chinese companies in dozens of emerging markets around the continent. We might see “new initiatives” under a newly emboldened party leader, Zeng says.
The country’s own economy, worth more than $11.2 trillion, influences the rest of the world even without belts and roads. Delegates to the Congress are tipped to advocate a stronger market economy (despite a large measure of state control) and smarter operations by state-run companies that may still not run on a for-profit model. To that end, some “zombies” may be “put out of their misery” and others consolidated in part so they can compete globally, says Scott Kennedy, deputy director of the Freeman Chair in China Studies with the think tank Center for Strategic & International Studies.
By Ralph Jennings