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Does Xi’s Rise Mean a More Aggressive China? Not Necessarily

As Xi Jinping prepares to assume his new leadership role in China, there’s a lot of speculation about where he’ll take US-China relations.

A lot of this speculaton is overdone; China’s collective leadership system and the careful balancing among factions, not to mention the continuing influence of ‘retired’ officials, mean that changes in personnel don’t necessarily foreshadow changes in policy.

However, there is one aspect of Xi’s personal profile that foreign observers are looking at with some interest and even apprehension: his close links to the PLA.

The son of a revolutionary general, Mr. Xi, 59, boasts far closer ties to China’s fast-growing military than the departing leader, Hu Jintao, had when he took office. As Mr. Xi rose through the ranks of the Communist Party, he made the most of parallel posts in the People’s Liberation Army, deeply familiarizing himself with the inner workings of the armed forces.

Even if Mr. Xi does not immediately become head of the crucial Central Military Commission as well as party leader, he will almost certainly do so within two years, giving him at least eight years as the direct overseer of the military.

This combination of political power as head of the Communist Party and good relations with a more robust military could make Mr. Xi a formidable leader for Washington to contend with, analysts and diplomats in China and the United States say.

“The basic question is whether Xi will suspend the drift in the U.S.-China relationship and take concrete steps to put it on a more positive footing — or will he put it on a different, more confrontational track?” said Christopher K. Johnson, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, and until recently a China analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency.

On the whole, VM is glad that China’s leader is someone who understands military thinking and has the confidence of the military leaders. One of the biggest concerns westerners have about China’s foreign policy is the fragmented nature of decision making. It’s not always clear that the foreign ministry, the PLA and other agencies are working from the same playbook or coordinating their policies. Whether foreigners like or dislike a particular Chinese policy, they need to be able to talk to the people actually responsible for decisions that are taken.

Too often, diplomats and others who deal with the Chinese leadership feel that they are talking to the wrong people—and that they can’t speak directly with the military leaders who take some of the steps, for example by dispatching Chinese ships to disputed waters, that create the biggest foreign policy headaches.

For China’s sake as well as the sake of its partners and neighbors, it’s important to develop an integrated, interagency foreign policy process that ensures that the relevant stakeholders and institutions have seats at the table where major initiatives are taken. Let’s hope that Xi, with his grounding in military perspectives, will work to make the Chinese policy process more coordinated.

It’s certainly going to be true in the short term that a greater sensitivity to military views could lead to a more hawkish Chinese stance on some of the key issues in the region. That is going to make for turbulence in East Asia and indeed we are already seeing this at work. But the reality is that hawkish posturing makes it harder, not easier for China to achieve its regional goals. This is the kind of lesson in international relations that one only learns from experience; the more the military is part of the discussion and coordination of Chinese strategy, the more military officers can achieve the understanding of international realities that can lead to more effective and less disruptive policy choices.

Generals can make good diplomats (think of George Marshall in American history) and a military that deeply understands international politics is usually a force for peace and moderation in national policy making. (The US military has consistently been a voice for caution in US foreign policy since the end of the Cold War.) Danger comes when you have a military leadership that has imbibed simplistic ideas about the international system and the nature of power and hasn’t tested those ideas in the real world.

The new president of China seems well positioned to promote the integration of China’s military into its foreign policy process. However tense and difficult this may be at moments, we should remember that in the long run it is in everyone’s interest for China’s military leadership to be seasoned and experienced.

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