On October 18, the Chinese Communist Party will begin its 19th Party Congress to install the country’s next generation of leaders. This twice-a-decade leadership transition is particularly noteworthy given China’s expanding economic ambitions and increasingly active role in global governance. It also comes ahead of U.S. President Donald Trump’s highly anticipated first visit to the region, at a time when tensions are reaching a climax on the Korean Peninsula. More than usual, the international community is watching to see how China, under President Xi Jinping’s leadership, will chart its future course.The personnel appointments to China’s top political body will provide indications of Xi’s consolidation of power and the popularity of his policy agenda.

In this Q&A, initiated by the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center, scholars explore how China’s policies and role in the world could change after the 19th Party Congress.

What will the congress mean for China’s North Korea policy?

Paul Haenle: The Chinese leadership remains unconvinced that North Korea is its problem to solve, and the 19th Party Congress will not change this calculus. Certainly, Beijing strongly opposes North Korea’s provocations and hopes that Kim Jong-un will put an end to the country’s nuclear weapons and missile programs. But until North Korea’s behavior threatens the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party in the eyes of the Chinese people, it is highly unlikely that Beijing will make a fundamental shift in its approach to North Korea. The growing views among young Chinese that North Korea is a burden and an embarrassment, and Pyongyang’s persistent disruptions of Xi’s most important occasions in the international limelight, are not deal breakers for Beijing.

What is of real concern, however, is the possibility that Pyongyang’s nuclear tests could release significant radioactive material into China or that the North may follow through on its threat to mate a nuclear warhead to a missile and detonate it over the Pacific Ocean. Such actions could bring chaos and thereby undermine the party’s longevity and directly challenge China’s national interests—Beijing’s only true redline. Whether North Korea becomes a problem for China will not depend on the results of the congress or Trump’s tweets, but rather on the actions (or accidents) of Kim Jong-un as he sprints to obtain a nuclear strike capability.

Is economic reform likely to accelerate after the congress?

Yukon Huang: There are expectations that once the new leadership team is in place, reforms will accelerate. But the likelihood of this actually happening depends on whether the new leadership resolves the major contradiction outlined in the 2013 Third Plenum decision paper. The paper asserts that the market should play the “decisive” role in resource allocation, but it also reaffirms that the state should continue to play the “leading role” in guiding the economy. This ambiguity has clouded the formulation and implementation of important reforms—for example, those targeting state-owned enterprises, urbanization, and corruption.

China’s debt problems are largely due to the poor performance of a subset of SOEs. But because many of the largest SOEs are seen as China’s national champions, the needed reforms have been delayed.

Urbanization is the major growth driver, but rather than allow personal choices to determine where workers relocate, residency restrictions are used to channel workers to the smaller cities and bar them from the larger ones, resulting in lower productivity.

China’s corruption campaign is addressing a major social concern, but it has also made officials reluctant to make decisions and has thus slowed down economic activity. Solving the problem may require altering the role of the state in commercial activities.

China’s impressive economic achievements have come from relying more on market forces to shape economic outcomes. The question now is whether the new leadership can find the right balance in allowing the market to play the “decisive” role, while the state still plays a leading but redefined role.

What can China’s new leadership do to help deescalate the North Korean crisis?

James M. Acton: As desirable as denuclearizing North Korea would be, it is not a viable short-term goal. Instead, the priority should be deescalating the current crisis and reducing the very real risk of a war between North Korea and the United States. Given that Washington and Pyongyang are unlikely to engage each other directly, a third party is urgently needed to broker a deal and reduce tensions. China can and should play that role.

Specifically, China could approach both North Korea and the United States with a proposal along the following lines: North Korea agrees not to conduct any atmospheric nuclear tests or missile tests over Japan or South Korea, and, in return, the United States agrees not to conduct training flights of strategic bombers within a specified distance of North Korean airspace. This arrangement would provide North Korea a face-saving way to back down from its threats to explode a nuclear warhead over the Pacific or to fire missiles in the vicinity of Guam. As an added inducement for North Korea, China could offer some economic relief, while emphasizing that it would reimpose sanctions if Pyongyang reneged on its side of the bargain.

Is China’s approach to the South China Sea expected to change after the congress?

Michael D. Swaine: There are unlikely to be any basic changes to China’s overall official policy stance following the congress. Beijing will continue to voice support for a peaceful, negotiated resolution of the territorial disputes and, in the meantime, the conclusion of a code of conduct among the claimants.

However, this stance will not necessarily preclude a return to more energetic efforts to strengthen China’s military and diplomatic position in the area. Such moves could include a strengthening of China’s military presence on the artificial islands in the Spratlys, efforts to place instruments or facilities on disputed but unoccupied reefs, increased harassment of other claimants’ fishing or paramilitary vessels, greater diplomatic pressure on countries to eschew drilling or other activities, and even more muscular pushback against U.S. military activities in the area, including freedom of navigation operations.

Less likely but not impossible moves include the announcement of an air defense identification zone and the drawing of straight baselines around the Spratly Islands. But much will depend on Beijing’s perception of the pace, extent, and intensity of activities by other actors, including the United States, and on the general state of China’s political-diplomatic relations with the U.S. and other claimants. Overall, absent a binding code of conduct, some level of increased tension is likely to occur.

What should Trump be watching for at the congress, and why?

Douglas H. Paal: Trump should seek to create strategic opportunities after the 19th Party Congress. For China, the past few years have been about moderating controversies and avoiding missteps, rather than getting to the heart of matters. After the congress and well into the National People’s Congress next March, there will be personnel shuffles and new opportunities to bring fresh perspectives to simmering problems. For example, on the Korean Peninsula, China’s interests have been damaged by trying unsuccessfully to maintain stability and coax better behavior out of Pyongyang while intimidating Seoul over the deployment of THAAD. Trump should use his upcoming trip to Beijing to tell Xi that the two sides need to think strategically and start talking about how to wind down tensions concretely by accommodating each other’s concerns.

Is Xi following in Putin’s footsteps?

Gabuev is a senior fellow and the chair of the Russia in the Asia-Pacific Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
Alexander Gabuev

Senior Fellow and Chair
Russia in the Asia-Pacific Program
Moscow Center

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Alexander Gabuev: As the congress approaches, the Chinese political universe will become increasingly Xi-centered. Historically, there are few precedents for Xi’s role in the political system, but one can be found just next door to China in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. With high popular approval ratings, control over most state institutions, loyal protégés and allies in powerful positions, and modern communication tools, Putin enjoys a grip over Russia that the czars could only dream of. It is unclear whether Xi is studying Putin, with whom he has warm personal ties, as a role model, but their leadership styles bear an increasing number of similarities. From management of the economy to foreign policy, there is a growing push for state control and assertiveness, which are tools to make the country great again. Despite Russia’s flaws, the consolidation of power under Putin has brought ordinary Russians a combination of wealth and personal freedoms unprecedented in the country’s history. This is why Putin’s governance model may be appealing for Xi to emulate, particularly the undisputed primacy of the core leader, which is deeply rooted in the Russian (and Chinese) monarchist past.

However, over the next five years, Xi must avoid the flaws of Putinism, which have set Russia on a trajectory for long-term stagnation. While a prolonged stay in power may be good for the consolidation of resources, overstaying may create a wholly fragile system that cannot survive without its core. Further, an obsession with stability—another negative feature of Putinism— may prevent many needed reforms.

What does Xi’s consolidation of power mean for Europe?

François Godement: Xi’s hold on power was really visible from the first half of 2013 onward, and it could be inferred that the notion of a collective leadership would fade away. How true this has proven to be is still a surprise. Counterhypotheses—based on the notion that strong personal rule also creates strong opposition—have not materialized.

A clear line of command is a plus for relations with outside partners. Xi is the first high-level Chinese leader to visit the EU’s institutions. And he has personally pushed two projects in Europe: the Belt and Road Initiative, whose endpoint is Europe, and a free trade agreement with the European Union, which would leapfrog over obstacles in economic relations. Xi’s advocacy of multilateralism at the Davos World Economic Forum and of the rule of law has likely been music to European ears.

Yet there is a growing gap between these words and the course that Chinese policies are taking. Signs of a compromise on trade issues were dropped on the cusp of the last EU-China summit. And, so far, the Belt and Road Initiative’s Eurasian reach mostly affects the 16+1 subregional grouping driven by China and not really the EU as a whole.

As China increasingly pushes its own understanding of the international order, the EU will have to resign itself to dealing with China as a rising and realist big power, while hoping for favorable policy changes.