Daniel W. Drezner

Can only Xi go to America?

Can only Xi go to America?

Bruce Gilley argues in The National Interest that the next leader of China is going to be trouble for the United States:

It may be time to concede that China’s leader-in-waiting, Xi Jinping, is not the moderate that many have assumed. Indeed, evidence from his past suggests that Xi is going to steer China in a more aggressive direction, both domestically and internationally….

Foreign policy is where new Chinese leaders tend to make their mark quickly, given the small number of people involved compared to domestic policy. Thus it’s also the area where the question of who’s in charge in Beijing really matters, and the fine art of Pekingology remains important. Vice president Joe Biden came away from an August visit praising Xi as “strong” and “pragmatic.” Biden is probably right. But Xi’s strength and pragmatism do not necessarily augur well for those fearful of a rising China.

The first time that Xi’s “strong” dark side emerged publicly was in 2009 when on a visit to Mexico, he told local Chinese, “Well-fed foreigners have nothing better to do but point fingers at China. But China does not export revolution, we do not export poverty and hunger, and we do not interfere in the affairs of others. So what is there to complain about?”

Xi’s “three did nots,” as they have become known, have won plaudits from the country’s nationalists, including the authors of the vitriolic 1996 book The China That Can Say No. These nationalists express hope that Xi will be the first leader since Mao who is willing to stand up to the West. In early September, Xi told students at the Central Party School, the party’s elite training academy in Beijing, that “two overriding objectives—the struggle for both national independence and popular liberation, which is to say the realization of both state power and popular wealth—have always been closely related. The former has always been the basis of the latter.”

Gilley’s hypothesis is certainly plausible, but can I suggest an alternative?  China is in the middle of a leadership transition — and when politicians are trying to move on up but ain’t there yet, they often have the freedom to make all kinds of crazy, out-there, irresponsible foreign policy statements secure in the knowledge that foreign policy statements are not all that binding once politicians assume power

Indeed, one could go even further.  The phrase "only Nixon could go to China" refers to the idea that only someone who sounded as rabidly anti-communist as Richard Nixon in the past would be able to have the dometic political clout to meet with Mao Zedong and cut a deal with the People’s Republic of China.  Could it be that Xi is simply buttering up his base before taking power in order to make it easier to do business with the United States? 

I don’t know the answer, but I suspect even hardcore China-watchers don’t know either.  China is already experiencing some serious foreign policy blowback that has nothing to do with the United States, however.  I’m not sure that Xi will really need the headache of ratcheting up tensions with Washingtgon, unless the global economic downturn is sooooooo bad that scapegoating foreigners is the best option for political survival. 

What do you think?