The change in leaders in China is perhaps less significant than a new administration taking power in the United States, especially if the new US administration is from the party previously out of power. Xi Jinping has been part of the ruling administration for years. There will be new faces taking Politburo and Standing Committee jobs, but they will also have been part of the same “administration.” So there are not likely to be any sweeping changes in Chinese strategy or major foreign and domestic policies as a result simply of leadership change.
Xi’s personality and background may lead him to gently move policy, when possible, toward greater reform and openness and a more cooperative foreign policy-at least that is the hope of many Chinese intellectuals. If Xi and the Fifth Generation do move policy in this direction—and if the US understands and responds to reinforce such moves—then presumably this will be positive for US-China relations. Some Chinese fear Xi and his cohorts may rely more on the military and hardline nationalists in foreign policy and further strengthen state capitalism and protections, which would presumably lead to more tension in China’s relations with the US and its neighbors.
In my view, however, the future of the US-China relationship is likely to be less determined by leadership changes and more by the larger context of the relationship and the response of Chinese and American leaders to that context in their global, domestic and bilateral policies. Over the next ten years that Xi may be in power, the changing global context will include many great challenges and threats that require global and bilateral cooperation, including the impact of climate change; food, water and other resource scarcities; continued upheaval in weak and failing states; the great disruptive challenges posed by demographic changes, including population growth, aging societies and youth bulges, and rapid urbanization; and the usual list of terrorism, proliferation, international crime, and potential pandemics.
Affected by and affecting all of the above will be the future of the global economy and the need for the US and China to cooperate to maintain and rebalance economic growth, as well as to prevent or minimize future destabilizing events like the 2008 financial crisis.
Top Chinese and American leaders recognize that they are in the same “strategic boat” and that if they do not cooperate on these issues, both countries and the rest of the world will suffer severe economic, political, environmental and security consequences. The question is whether leaders of the two countries can overcome domestic politics, special interests, and the pressure of near-term decision making focused on “tactical” differences and disputes rather than on common strategic challenges.
That is an open question on both sides of the Pacific. There is no reason to believe that Xi Jinping will be less capable of meeting this challenge than his predecessors. Will the U.S. leadership, hobbled by a dysfunctional political system, be able to rise to the challenge even if the Chinese “get it”?
Dr. Banning Garrett is director of both the Asia Program and the Strategic Foresight Initiative at the Atlantic Council. This essay was part of a debate on The Morningside Post.