There are many things that geopolitics teaches us. One of the more important lessons is that personalities rarely matter. The fate of peoples and nations are largely determined by a mix of geographic features that they cannot amend, and technological trends that are damnably impersonal.
The operative word there is rarely.
There are instances where the cultural zeitgeist and the singular attributes of certain individuals intersect so elegantly that the political or cultural changes that follow emblazon themselves on history.
But we’re reaching a point within two of East Asia’s powers where it seems like the impact of personality is tipping the scales. There were two noteworthy events that took place during the past few days. The one that is getting the most attention is the ongoing National Congress of the Communist Party of China. It’s wrapped up in a story that media and policy experts love to tell: Chinese President Xi Jinping has burst onto the scene, quickly and deftly amassing authority and shaking up the Chinese Communist Party apparatus, and elevating China to global prominence. Demolishing various factions and pursuing an almost-legitimate anti-corruption plan, Xi is the very popular and surprisingly astute leader to guide China through its unavoidable economic slowdown. Part of which is true, I suppose, and part of which is just really glossy PR bullshit.
There are a few key fundamentals that are absolutely necessary to keep in mind when looking at China:
China as a culture and a historical concept are ancient, but the “Chinese people” and their amalgamated histories are not the same as the “People’s Republic of China,” which is also distinct from the “Communist Party of China.” Part of the Xi myth is attempting to make those three labels synonymous in everyone’s minds. That flies in the face of millennia of Chinese history, but hey, PR has to start somewhere.
The current iteration of China is predicated on many things, but chief among them are employment and a national safety net overseen by the party. In turn that employment and safety net are predicated upon Chinese access to international markets, both for resource imports and the income that comes from merchandise exports.
China’s geography is atrocious. Less than one-fifth of its land is habitable. Its flood- and drought-prone north is a flat security free-for-all that has suffered nearly three millennia of incessant internal warfare. Its south is a tropical disease belt. All but one of its rivers are too moody to help with commerce. Its interior is alternatively desert, mountain, tundra, jungle – or some brutal combination thereof. A line of archipelagos parallel its coast, all but preventing military or economic interaction with the wider world.
With that in mind, it doesn’t really matter so much if Xi is an anti-corruption reformer, a savvy consolidator of power, or re-establishing a cult of personality to rival that of Mao Zedong himself (my money is on the latter for those of you keeping score). If he can’t sell his schtick to the masses, well… in a country of nearly 1.4 billion, everybody’s expendable. And so we can’t lose sight of the fact that Chinese media, international outlets – everybody – focuses on Xi’s popularity, especially among China’s urban youth. And it is this popularity (or the belief that its constant repetition confirms its veracity) that provides the political currency for Xi to act like almost every other leader in Chinese history and create a political leadership and patronage structure that entrenches his own power.
That he has certainly achieved. China’s Communist Party holds a big meeting every five years, ostensibly to cement the country’s development plans and party leadership changes. In reality the meeting serves more as a clearing house, disseminating information and decisions made well in advance. Despite all the speeches about China now being “the” world power, the real reveal was supposed to be Xi’s nomination of his successor. Tradition tells us that a Chinese premier serves for five years, nominates his successor, and China then has a five-year leadership transition period.
Xi didn’t simply nominate himself to succeed himself, he enshrined himself into the Chinese constitution so there’d be no doubt just who was in charge. The Party Congress was a Trumpian celebration of Xi. A bit much, n’est pas?
The problem Xi sees is that China’s economic success has very little to do with China… or the Communist Party… or even Xi. China as it exists today is only possible because of the global Bretton Woods economic order Washington has upheld since the end of World War II. Simply put, a land-based power with some of the longest supply chains in the world cannot exist as a manufacturing and export powerhouse unless someone with a global navy enables it. That someone has been the United States, who has guaranteed the safety and security of the goods flowing to, from, in and out of Chinese ports, and who has offered largely unfettered market access for decades. With that in place, the specifics of China’s rather horrid geography haven’t mattered. That’s enabled Beijing to employ millions and millions of people in factories to make widgets and gadgets, and employ even more to feed China’s urban factory populations and to build roads and houses, etc. etc. etc.
But the Americans are going away, and they are taking the Bretton Woods system with them. China’s current economic slowdown is nothing compared the dawning tragedy it will experience during the emerging global disorder for which Beijing is terrifyingly ill-suited. When viewed in context, I don’t see Xi’s surpassing Mao to become the most powerful leader in Chinese history as an event driven by an excess of confidence, but instead an increasingly desperate effort to completely lock down the Chinese political space before the covfefe hits the fan. China is running out of time, and Xi knows it.
So I don’t get excited or worried about China taking over the world, or even its neighborhood, as I do about Japan. While most of the world had eyes on Xi’s celebrations, Japanese voters braved a hurricane over the weekend to participate in parliamentary elections, granting incumbent Japanese Prime Minster Shinzo Abe a commanding majority. Sure, Xi Jinping is disrupting and reshaping Chinese political corruption to better suit him, but why don’t we talk about how Shinzo Abe was able to get his anti-war, Buddhist coalition partners to support his efforts to expand the role of Japan’s military forces? It is Japan, not China, that boasts the world’s second most capable navy. It is that navy that is second only to the United States in the number of aircraft carriers floated (Japan claims those carriers are only for helicopters but that is, if you’ll forgive the repeat, just some more PR bullshit).
Nor do I understand the lack of excitement over how the Japanese, (in)famously fickle when it comes to sacking Prime Ministers, have stuck with Mr. Abe through three concurrent rounds of parliamentary elections. It’s also worth noting that Abe is the first Prime Minister since the American Occupation ended to serve non-concurrent terms, even as he seems likely to coast toward becoming the longest-serving leader in modern times. The Japanese government under Abe has attempted several painful economic reform initiatives – and the fact that Abe has remained in power to oversee more than one strategy is a testament to not only his singular staying power but the trust the Japanese people have in his vision. But perhaps most important is the shift in Japanese society toward a more nationalistic, assertive position both regionally and globally.
That will make the region decidedly sparky. Unlike the Chinese system which is based on backroom-manipulation, globe-spanning economic links, suppression of minorities and carefully-sculpted public relations, Japan is a vibrant democracy with no minorities to speak of that has relocated most of its industrial base to the territories of its foreign customers and a boasts a leader who is genuinely popular despite (because of?) his increasingly militant stances.
This shift isn’t happening in a vacuum. As North Korea increases its provocations, as China is an ever more belligerent actor in its various littoral waterways in order to stoke nationalism at home, and as the United States seeks to diminish its global presence, it’s Japan that has the correct mix of geopolitical underpinnings, unique leadership personality, and national character to pounce on the opportunities ahead.
China is still the world’s second largest economy, the biggest by population, and its domestic (d)evolutions will certainly cause international ripples. But Beijing will remain constrained by its domestic concerns as its economy remains tied to a disappearing global order it cannot hope to replicate, not even – especially not even – in its own neighborhood. But while the world has eyes on China, mine (and I imagine many of those who attended the Chinese Communist Party’s Congress) will be fixed squarely on Japan.