Compared to the abundant analyses of strategic thinking of the United States and of US allies toward China, coverage of Chinese thinking is scant, particularly toward US allies. Leaders are scrutinized for their policy choices toward China much more than China is scrutinized for how it drives those choices and sets forth its own policy options. Below, we review Xi Jinping’s words in search of his strategic thought, compare the latest Chinese policies toward three key US allies—Australia, Japan, and South Korea—and look ahead to post-Xi strategic vision. As the Biden administration proceeds with its review of the Indo-Pacific strategy, a critical question concerns how it assesses China’s ongoing strategic thinking, perceives how it is applied at the moment, and anticipates how it may shift in the future.

Despite the propensity to obsess about strategic thinking (or the lack thereof) in Washington, a case can be made that the strategic thinking of greater import is that in Beijing. Responding to China’s moves, the United States reconceptualizes its challenges in the Indo-Pacific, reinforces its alliances and partnerships, and alters bilateral relations with China itself. Xi Jinping drives developments in the region, particularly regarding the South China Sea, the BRI initiative, the Sino-Indian border, nuclear issues in North Korea, and diplomacy with Russia, Japan, and South Korea. Just in the past year or two there has been talk of a warmer embrace of Kim Jong-un, “wolf warrior” diplomacy toward Australia and Taiwan, and new confidence as a result of successfully managing the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Xi’s management of Donald Trump drew some scrutiny, and we can already discern signs of how he will address the Biden administration, whose line-up of officials in charge of the Indo-Pacific is now known.

Three questions are at the core of this set of Special Forum articles. First. through a careful reading of Xi’s statements, what insights can we draw about his strategic outlook? Second, what accounts for the reversal under Xi of the order of vilification and pressure on Japan, South Korea, and Australia? Finally, looking at both the Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping eras and considering alternative assumptions about the circumstances facing a new leader, how should we anticipate future strategic thinking? As policymakers prepare for jockeying between the Biden and Xi administrations, attempts to answer these questions may prove useful for their choices.

Steve Tsang and Olivia Cheung, “Uninterrupted Rise: China’s Global Strategy According to Xi Jinping Thought”

Prior to Xi Jinping coming to power in late 2012 the Chinese leadership had no consensus on how to move forward beyond Deng, argue Tsang and Cheung. Under Xi China has developed a new global strategy, one of securing the uninterrupted rise of China, in contrast to the strategy of peaceful rise adopted by Hu Jintao. In October 2017, Xi declared that China had entered a “new era” that would make the “great leap” from “standing up” (with the establishment of the PRC), through “getting rich” to “becoming strong.” Xi promised to make China strong, rich, and, generally speaking, second to none by 2050. By staking the CCP’s legitimacy and that of his own power on China’s rise, Xi ensured that making it uninterrupted becomes the Party’s mission. This article sketches Xi’s uninterrupted rise strategy by a contextualized examination of his conceptualization of national rejuvenation and his intentions, as contained in his speeches and writings, which make up “Xi Jinping Thought on Chinese socialism for a new era.”

There are four measures Xi uses to secure China’s uninterrupted rise: building up the core of China’s “comprehensive national strength” by reinvigorating the CCP as an effective and efficient Leninist instrument; making the Chinese economy innovative via national champions and investments; making the Chinese people proud of their heritage and history, of which the CCP is portrayed as the standard bearer; and using economic leverages to persuade most countries to befriend or at least refrain from being “hostile” to China. To build “comprehensive national strength” Xi also reinvigorates Marxism-Leninism as the Party’s ideology. “Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate? Why did the Soviet Communist Party collapse? An important reason was that beliefs and ideals were shaken,” said Xi soon after he took power. By emphasizing ideological indoctrination within the Party, Xi works to preempt the infiltration of liberal democratic ideas that may cause a “color revolution.” Indeed, Xi directs Chinese foreign policy “to make the world safe for authoritarian states,” which strikes a chord in many developing countries that are autocracies, argue Tsang and Cheung in the first article of the series.

Xi believes that developing China’s indigenous innovative capacity is basic to national security. His government does not hesitate to seize first-mover advantage in cyber governance, in which liberal democracies are hesitant to regulate—due not only to corporate opposition, but also to controversies from a human rights perspective. Xi is determined to transform China from a rule-taker to a rule-maker. He strives to make the Chinese economy innovative via state industrial policies, including, famously, the “Made in China 2025” (MIC) strategy. Overall, Xi Jinping sees making the Chinese economy innovative as a matter of state security no less than a pathway to national rejuvenation. Xi’s relentless pressure on corporations, especially SOEs, to achieve a high level of “indigenous innovative ability” quickly, strongly signals that he seeks to minimize, if not eliminate, China’s vulnerability to external pressures. This interpretation is supported by China’s ongoing economic restructuring from export-oriented to consumption-driven growth, which Xi advocates in his “dual circulation strategy.”

Xi seeks to rally the people around the Party by reinforcing party-centric nationalism, which asserts that the CCP is the sole legitimate heir and defender of Chinese heritage and history—it is such that any person of Chinese descent should support the CCP’s leadership. Xi’s obsession with party-centric nationalism forecloses irreversibly liberal democratic reforms. Xi’s promotion of Chinese history serves not only to legitimize the CCP’s power monopoly, but also to inspire the nation to believe that China is predestined to restore its historic place as the world champion. This provides a kind of ideological underpinning for “wolf-warrior” diplomacy. anyone who is critical of the CCP’s leadership must be won over or “harmonized.” This policy of targeted repression applies not only to activists, dissidents, religious and ethnic minorities, but also to business leaders whose business empire is at the forefront of China’s technological advancement.

Xi repeatedly underscores that China is committed to a “peaceful development path,” but this commitment is conditional on whether other countries respect China’s “core interests” or “legitimate rights and interests.” For these, Xi refers to “issues involving state sovereignty, territorial integrity, security, and stability,” global strategy consists of an expansive, and even open-ended, interpretation of what constitutes China’s “core interests” and “legitimate rights and interests.” China turned assertive in the late Hu Jintao decade following the global financial crisis, but it was Xi who decisively ended the Dengist guideline, insist the two authors. Key to Xi’s approach is to make routine use of China’s economic leverage to persuade others to support or refrain from being “hostile” to China. Intimidation is used whenever enticement is rejected or deemed inappropriate. Since Xi took power, China has punished a long list of democratic trading partners, including the Philippines, Japan, Taiwan, Mongolia, South Korea, Norway, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States. It did so by abruptly blocking their exports to China, cutting supply of strategic imports from China, and/or suspending loan agreements, to force them to toe Beijing’s line. Xi is as prepared to use economic leverage to gain support as he is to intimidate those countries which resist enticement, as is seen in the article that follows.

The primary focus on party-building and regime security implies both defensive and offensive dimensions. The relentless focus on consolidating the CCP’s power reflects an inherent sense of insecurity and deep-seated mistrust of the West—though the objective of these obsessions is to enable China to build up its “comprehensive national strength” as a self-confident and well-respected global leader. The strong emphasis laid on party-centric nationalism and on Xi’s exaltations that Chinese officials must not hesitate to “unsheathe the sword” underpins the “wolf-warrior” approach to diplomacy. But this contradicts Xi’s other requirement, namely that cadres should practice the United Front, not only at home but also abroad. This methodology calls for a delicate application of divide and rule—not the bluntness of the “wolf-warriors.” China is not a status quo power. While China is already posing as the US’s peer competitor, it is not trying to replace the US as the top-dog now and will refrain from doing so until it is ready—by 2050 at the latest. This is likely to happen rather sooner. When Xi decides China has the capabilities to take Taiwan and deter the US from interfering, he will use force though his preference is to intimidate Taipei into submission without an actual invasion. Taking Taiwan will mark the fulfilment of Xi’s “China Dream,” as it can only be achieved by deterring or defeating the US. Anything that tarnishes the image of China generally or its leader in particular will receive a robust response from the Chinese government. Such responses have become unavoidable, rendering the prospects of priority for pragmatism and positive engagement increasingly doubtful. Thus, international backlashes to Chinese assertiveness are unlikely to deter China.

Gilbert Rozman, “China’s Strategies toward South Korea, Japan, and Australia in the Biden Era”

China is weighing methods to drive a wedge between the US and its principal allies in the Indo-Pacific region—Japan, South Korea, and Australia. Its recent rhetoric toward them varies: harsh warnings toward Australia, a welcoming tone toward South Korea with underlying warnings, and the most positive narrative directed at Japan. Curiously, this pattern is the direct reverse of its approaches in the mid-2010s.  A stunning shift since 2017 has reversed the order: Japan under Abe became the preferred partner, South Korea remained in the middle spot but better off under Moon Jae-in, and Australia dropped to the bottom, now accused of standing in the vanguard of “Cold War” mentality. Missing in the usual obsession with policies directed at China is attention to how China has been the driving force in shaping each bilateral relationship.

Why has Beijing turned more against Australia than Japan, while still pressuring the ROK? A possible explanation for the latest shift in 2020 is China’s response to COVID-19 reactions in these countries. China is upset over South Korean ingratitude and criticisms, and it is angered over Australian calls for an investigation into the origins of the global pandemic, whereas the Japanese reaction to China, perhaps due to hopes for a state visit by Xi, drew less concern. Yet public opinion in all three countries has been among the most critical toward China’s role.

Another possible explanation is priorities of Sinocentrism. In 2015 historical memory appeared to be a driver: Japan, the main villain, as expected; South Korea, newly reminded of the Korean War; and Australia, spared historical reminders of humiliating China. In 2016-17 South Korea jumped to the top as a target with THAAD. But this should spare distant Australia from concern.

A third explanation is a response to the most recent perceived security booster for the US. It was Japan in the early 2010s, South Korea with THAAD deployment but less so after Moon Jae-in promised the “three noes” at the end of 2017, and Australia as the focus shifted to US strategic pursuit of the Quad at the end of the decade of the 2010s. Each country is urged to withstand US pressure that could lead to a new Cold War. The burden is on Seoul to prevent a new Cold War by boosting security ties to Beijing, and, so far, it has used restraint. Japan is given a longer leash, since pressure would backfire. Australia of late draws the most wrath after Chinese expectations proved too optimistic.

Many Japanese write that China’s policy toward their country is inversely related to the state of its relationship with the United States. Rather hopeful about US bilateral relations in the second Obama term, China applied more pressure on Japan. Increasingly pessimistic about Sino-US ties in the Trump period, Xi Jinping elected to boost ties with Japan. The situation in 2021 continues to favor a soft line toward Japan, but moves by Suga to coordinate with Biden’s new strategy could lead to a swift turnabout. China appears to have chosen “strategic patience” toward Japan, expecting to make use of the time or to drive a wedge. Yet it has no reservations about behavior in the East China and South China seas and toward Hong Kong and Taiwan that makes Japanese wary. The pressure on Japan, thus, keeps mounting even as Xi is dangling a summit.

Having succeeded in winning major concessions from Moon in December 2017 and well aware that in 2022 a conservative could be elected and reinforce the alliance with the US, China is careful to hold out hope that Xi Jinping will visit Seoul and bilateral relations may improve. Chinese see Seoul as on the front line in pressure faced from Washington and attempted resistance, as the alliance weakens, whether in the throes of THAAD or in demands to join in the US moves in the South China Sea. They seek to keep the pressure on Seoul to remind it of the price to pay if it yields to Washington but not to overdo the pressure and drive it in that direction. Neither Biden’s win in the presidential election nor Xi’s attempts to capitalize on the narrowing US-South Korea alliance is propitious for Moon’s strategy of double allegiance, Eun A Jo has argued.

China responds to perceived grievances by disrupting exports worth more than AU$20 billion per year. Beijing’s retaliatory duties on Australian exports represent the latest round of coercive measures against Canberra for its policy position on a range of issues from denying Huawei a role in building Australia’s 5G telecommunications network to introducing foreign interference laws which strengthen the nation’s democratic infrastructure, calling for an independent inquiry into the origins of COVID-19, and condemning human rights violations in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Tibet. The renewal of the Quad of the United States, Australia, India, and Japan is further seen by Beijing as a NATO-style attempt to contain China. A January 2021 article warned Australia about its distorted view of China, ideological bias, and erroneous separation of economics and politics. It must choose between viewing China as a threat or a partner. To see China as a threat has nothing to do with China’s behavior but is solely a result of a cold war mentality and the failure to make an independent choice from the US, it asserted. This shows that the real problem, as seen in China, is not the words of Morrison but the strategic role Australia is playing in the Quad and in coordination with the US, as Biden aims to bolster ties.

Former ROK ambassador to Russia Wi Sunglac compared the positions between Beijing at 9:00 and Washington at 3:00 of Seoul, Canberra, and Tokyo. He argued that Canberra is choosing 2:30, Tokyo 2:00, and Seoul is misjudging the situation by not choosing 1:30, befitting its own circumstances, and instead leaning closer to India’s choice of 12:30. Similarly, a speaker saw Seoul’s position as close to accommodation of China, with some appeasement. The explanation is that progressive governments lean more toward China, causing China to exercise restraint despite continue application of some of the sanctions imposed after the THAAD decision. Some in Japan also see their policy toward China as too soft because of the influence of a key LDP faction or even some hedging by Abe during the Trump era. In contrast, some in Australia blame Scott Morrison for unduly antagonizing China. Thus, the different balances found between the US and China can reflect leaders’ decisions. The main goal for Japan is to keep its Taiwan policy under check, which is made easier by keeping it focused on economic benefits.

Australia is the least under control and considered a key to the Quad and of tilting India away from China, Rozman surmised. Australia is caught in China’s crosshairs because it was identified in 2020 as the embodiment of FOIP and the lynchpin of the Quad not only for recent strategic choices but for boosting the ideological challenge to China. None of the three allies is ready to fully back the United States at 3:00, but finding an enduring balance between 1:00 and 3:00 will depend on national circumstances and leadership as well as on US and Chinese policies and pressure. For now, Seoul has an unstable balance prone to change, but Tokyo and Canberra also face difficult choices not only because the US is poised to launch a grand strategy but also because China is ready to intensify its pressure. A change in leadership in any of the three allied countries could somewhat shift the balance within the span of 1:00 to 3:00. The effectiveness of Biden’s diplomacy could lead to a tilt closer to the latter point, but more may depend on Xi Jinping’s willingness to restrain “wolf warrior” actions and cautiously move states toward 1:00.

Jude Blanchette, “What’s Past is Prologue: China After Xi”

Thinking past the Xi administration is an important exercise, for it remains unclear precisely when the “Xi era” will end. Utilizing the “principal lens of Xi” to conceptualize China’s future is an overly limiting framework, for important as he is in guiding the country’s current grand strategy, the forces shaping the country transcend the admittedly outsized role Xi has played.  First, China’s current approach to foreign and domestic policy is broadly a continuation and amplification of an important step-change in the country’s grand strategy that occurred in the middle of the Hu Jintao era (roughly 2006-07). Beijing formulated a number of new assessments about threats to its rule, its own status as a rising power and a broader shift towards global multipolarity, and the intentions of the United States towards China, all of which altered its development trajectory and international posture in profound—and enduring—ways. Xi’s approach is more coterminous with that of the Hu Jintao administration than is widely acknowledged, largely because his worldview appears largely consistent with the post-2006/7 Beijing consensus. Second, the next decade is arguably the most challenging the CCP leadership will face since the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. Unfavorable demographic realities and declining levels of productivity are beginning to bite, and will not abate without politically painful reforms that cut against Beijing’s broader strategic assessments. Compounding this, access to secure and stable supply chains for Chinese firms is becoming more difficult as developed economies, especially the United States, take steps to choke off China’s access to key technologies. In the face of these challenges, Beijing may well conclude that it needs yet another shift in its development model and approach to international affairs.

The idea that Hu Jintao’s ten years in power represented a “lost decade” for China fails to capture just how much changed between 2002 and 2012. This includes: (1) the Rise of China Inc.; (2) indigenous innovation, an all-hands-on-deck call to action for the Chinese nation to roll up its sleeves and complete the mission of catching up and even surpassing the West in science and technology; (3) a new formulation of “actively achieving something”;(4) anincreasingly assertive foreign policy; (5) a downturnin US-China relations; (6) instrumentalist integration, which meant Beijing should “be like the Money King” and insert itself into the existing international rules and then “act as circumstances dictate” until such time that the country had the requisite influence to more proactively shape the global order; and finally (7) domestic ideological and political tightening. Xi has proven to be a leader who has defied the expectations of most in terms of his ambition, his sense of impatience, and his scorn for collective governance. He has shaped the system profoundly, while also clearly being shaped by the system that he inherited.

A future leader of a still-rising China will continue to pursue the long-standing ambition of “national rejuvenation.” Thus, with great inherited power comes great ambition. The pursuit of great power status by future leaders will also likely entail “core interest” inflation, expanding outward the boundaries of issues, geographies, and institutions Beijing believes it must exert control over to protect its continued rise. If China does manage to power through the next decade of demographic, geopolitical, economic, financial, and social challenges, this will inevitably act as proof for Beijing that the more top-down, statist approach to development that it adopted starting in the mid-2000s is largely correct. There is the possibility that Xi’s successor comes to power amidst a deep economic slump, or in the aftermath of a humiliating military defeat, and so the realm of actual and conceivable room for assertive action will have diminished considerably. The result could be a prolonged period of “muddling along,” and proof that the previous statist approach to economic and innovation policy has led to a “Soviet-style outcome.” If the next decade sees a much sharper slump for China, something more akin to the situation just after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, this may well open up more room for a change in the political-economic model. For a post-Xi leader, failure would need to be next to complete to overcome Beijing’s long-standing assumptions about the maintenance of power and the increasing hostility of the external environment for it to consider reworking the system.

In sum, the series paints a complex picture of Chinese strategic thinking. Blanchette looks ahead to an uncertain future dependent on the environment China will face at home and abroad. He does not suggest that Xi will change course, but that a new leader, at a time unspecified, might. Tsang and Cheung demonstrated the consistency in Xi’s rhetoric as it has evolved without finding reason to expect any major change of direction. Rozman observed that even with overall strategic consistency, Xi Jinping makes tactical shifts to US allies, seeking different openings to drive a wedge or to exert pressure, most recently with the Quad in mind.