January 16, 2014 12:00 am JST

Solo act

GAKU SHIMADA, Nikkei staff writer

BEIJING -- One year after taking the helm of the Communist Party, Xi Jinping made a speech that left little doubt about the scope of his ambitions. Addressing senior officials at the Third Plenary Session of the party's Central Committee last November, the Chinese president said: "We must push forward our development toward the next level by blending Mao Zedong's thoughts and Deng Xiaoping's theory."

     His speech at the plenum, as reported by party sources, clearly indicates his desire to establish himself as a powerful leader whose role in history will outshine even those of Mao and Deng.

     After the plenum, the Chinese leadership's decision-making mechanisms changed dramatically. The session decided to set up two new organizations -- a committee to improve national security and a so-called leading group tasked with the planning and implementation of reforms. Xi will most likely head both panels. In the era of Hu Jintao, Xi's predecessor, policies were decided collectively by the party's nine-member leadership. But under the current system, Xi is poised to dominate the decision-making process as the sole leader.

     On the domestic political front, 2014 marks the 25th anniversary of China's Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.

 

   There has been a growing sense of frustration among Chinese citizens over the party's tight political grip. Xi has been cracking down on the Internet and freedom of speech out of concern that violent incidents intended to undermine the party's authority, such as the fatal car crash in Tiananmen Square last October, may happen with greater frequency. Authorities have not only suppressed pro-democracy activists but also increased pressure on foreign correspondents by refusing to renew their visas.

     Xi's aspirations for domestic power also have implications for the nation's foreign policy. Concerns over diplomatic consequences are spreading among Beijing-based diplomats from Japan, which is mired in a territorial dispute with China over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, and from the Philippines, which is at odds with it over islands in the South China Sea.

    Observers largely agree that China's sudden declaration in November of an air defense identification zone extending over the East China Sea and encompassing the Senkaku Islands, as well as its dispatch of its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, to the area may be merely precursors to a more ambitious and expansionary foreign policy.

Moment of truth

One of China's key diplomatic events in 2014 will be the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Beijing in October. It will be the first time for China under Xi to play host to a high-profile international conference, and Beijing is expected to try to prevent friction from heightening among the member countries.

     Beijing's foreign policy priority is to maintain stable relations with the U.S. Xi repeatedly told visiting U.S. Vice President Joe Biden that he wished to build a "new type of great power relationship" with the U.S. Beijing will seek a moderate, productive relationship with Washington for some time to come, at least until the end of the APEC forum this year. But once it is relieved of responsibility as chair, China could be emboldened to do whatever it pleases in the region.

     Then there is the longstanding, deep-seated tension between mainland China and Taiwan. Xi once served as governor of Fujian Province, which lies directly opposite Taiwan across the Taiwan Strait, and he retains a strong interest in Taiwan-related matters.
Xi is apparently seeking to broaden China's existing economic ties with the island and eventually open political dialogue with Taipei to lay the foundations for a peaceful unification. He might already intend to take advantage of this year's APEC forum to formally invite Ma Ying-jeou, the president of Taiwan, to Beijing as an APEC member to help prompt a dialogue. If the Chinese president can set the stage for resolving cross-strait issues, he will surely win a place in history as a truly great Chinese leader, along with Mao and Deng.