Why the U.S. Is Listening Carefully to China This Weekend

Major capitals will be tuning in on Sunday as the Chinese Communist Party‘s (CCP) twice-a-decade national congress begins. In the week that follows, policymakers in Washington will listen for hints of President Xi Jinping‘s foreign policy vision for the next five years.

After a tumultuous end to dealings with Donald Trump, Beijing has spent 20 months watching a new consensus cement in the United States under President Joe Biden, one in which both major parties now view China as the principle threat to America’s long-term interests.

In Beijing, the American view of China is mirrored in its own way. There, hawkish political elites believe their long-held skepticism of Washington has been validated—the U.S. was never going to accept an equally powerful China, and it’s now doing everything in its power to contain its rise.

It has resulted in the biggest hurdle for U.S.-China ties since formal diplomatic relations were established in 1979. The two capitals are locked in an all-out competition over ideologies and political systems, a rivalry spanning trade and economics, domestic and international governance, high technology as well as military hard power.

If the most extreme views in both capitals prevail, the inescapable consequence is confrontation, if not conflict. But few think this dynamic is sustainable, especially given the need to cooperate on perhaps greater, existential priorities such as climate change and nuclear non-proliferation.

Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, told an audience at Georgetown University on Wednesday that the world was “at an inflection point” as China was advancing “an illiberal vision” of a future international order.

“We are in the early years of a decisive decade,” he said. “The terms of our competition with the People’s Republic of China [PRC] will be set.”

The Biden administration’s new national security strategy tries to reconcile China’s role as both “America’s most consequential geopolitical challenge” and its largest trading partner. Sullivan said the U.S. seeks neither conflict nor a new Cold War and recognized the necessity of cooperating with Beijing and others on transnational issues.

Sullivan also sought to justify the administration’s recent decision to impose what he called “significant, carefully tailored restrictions on semiconductor technology exports” to China.

“These restrictions are premised on straightforward national security concerns. These technologies are used to develop and field advanced military systems including weapons of mass destruction, hypersonic missiles, autonomous systems and mass surveillance,” he said.

President Joe Biden of the United States meets with President Xi Jinping of China during a virtual summit from the Roosevelt Room of the White House on November 15, 2021, in Washington, D.C. Unveiling the Biden administration’s national security strategy on October 12, 2022, national security adviser Jake Sullivan said the terms of U.S.-China competition would be set in the current decade.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

The move toward high-tech decoupling was announced on a Friday evening, just over a week before the CCP’s 20th National Congress, where an extension of Xi’s rule for an unprecedented third term is all but certain.

Beijing is yet to give a comprehensive response to Washington’s measures, but Chinese leaders could use the party congress or its immediate aftermath to send important signals about its intentions in the next five years.

On Wednesday, for instance, the CCP’s 19th Central Committee held its seventh and final plenum, after which a communiqué declared that the party had successfully deterred Taiwan’s move toward independence, and that it would prioritize domestic issues while maintaining the “strategic determination” to safeguard China’s “national dignity and core interests.”

To some, it was a sign that Beijing was in no rush to settle longstanding disputes across the Taiwan Strait.

How Chinese leaders plan to manage their end of the tense U.S.-China relationship remains unclear. China watchers aren’t optimistic about any major changes to Beijing’s assessment of the equally systemic nature of the U.S. containment threat.

“Xi Jinping will use the party congres to cement his control of the Chinese Communist Party and of the direction of China. He will seek to surround himself with loyal cadre who will carry out his vision,” Ryan Hass, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, told Newsweek.

“Xi and others will share their views of the international environment, but I do not expect them to articulate any adjustments in approach toward the United States. After 10 years in power, Xi has clear convictions on America and its intentions toward China,” said Hass, who was director for China on the National Security Council from 2013 to 2017.

Bryce Barros, a China affairs analyst with the Alliance for Securing Democracy think tank at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, agreed that noteworthy developments would include the “political loyalties” of those installed by Xi on the CCP’s powerful Politburo Standing Committee, the country’s top decision-making body.

When Xi became CCP general secretary in 2012, he reduced the committee’s membership from nine to seven.

“Similarly, for the 20th National Congress, if Xi reduces the Politburo Standing Committee further or surrounds himself with members squarely loyal to him personally, I think that is a good signal that Xi not only feels comfortable with his standing in the party, but that he could push even more muscular policies on ethnic minorities in the PRC (like the Uyghurs and others) as well as on Hong Kong and Taiwan,” Barros told Newsweek.

Additionally, Xi could create an authoritarian feedback loop by surrounding himself with “yes men,” he said. “This is dangerous because it could show that Xi is seeking individuals who would validate taking more risks vis-à-vis Taiwan and China’s neighbors.”

Guides stand near images showing President Xi Jinping of China at an exhibition highlighting Xi’s years as leader on October 12, 2022, in Beijing. The exhibition is part of the upcoming 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, which begins on October 16, and where Xi is widely expected to secure a third term in power.
Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Tensions across the Taiwan Strait are an unwelcome distraction for Washington as it focuses its immediate attention on supporting Ukraine’s resistance against Russia.

Taipei and others in the region also will be watching for meaningful signs from the CCP, but none should expect Xi to soften his hard line on Taiwan, said Christina Chen, an assistant research fellow at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research, Taiwan’s top military think tank.

“Securing a third term implies Xi has succeeded in consolidating his influence within the party. As a ruler with fewer constraints on his power, he will then have more confidence in ‘settling the Taiwan question,’ which has become a legacy issue for him,” Chen told Newsweek.

“The way the party has been handling challenges (Xinjiang, Hong Kong, zero COVID) show that Xi is willing to risk socio-economic and even political costs to push his preferred policy through,” she said.

Three possible avenues could lead to an easing of cross-strait tensions, but two appear to be shut, according to Chen. For one, China could prioritize domestic problems but is more likely to divert them toward Taiwan by channeling nationalistic sentiment.

Second, Beijing could seek to reassure Taipei in the hope of receiving a reciprocal response; instead, it’s the Taiwanese leadership’s reassurances about dialogue that are being rejected by Chinese counterparts, Chen said.

The third, perhaps least unlikely option involves effective deterrence: “China has been ‘persuaded’ that it is costly to take over Taiwan if the [People’s Liberation Army] invades, and that the U.S. will intervene should an invasion occur.”

“It remains to be seen whether the U.S. will show stronger signals—stronger support of Taiwan through U.S. military presence in the region, high-level official visits, economic cooperation, etc.,” Chen said.

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John Feng