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Opinion

The four albatrosses weighing down Xi Jinping

Political miscalculation and strategic overreach have united West against Beijing

| China
The first container train as part of the Belt and Road Initiative is seen at the port of Mukran, Germany: BRI turned into strategic liabilities instead of assets.   © AP

Minxin Pei is professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a nonresident senior fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Xi Jinping may be in denial, but it has become increasingly clear that his risky bets have plunged the country into a deepening geopolitical hole.

Since he became the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in late 2012, Xi has launched several major initiatives abroad and escalated political repression at home.

As a result, Xi now finds himself weighed down by four cumbersome albatrosses; the South China Sea dispute; the Belt and Road Initiative; Xinjiang; and Hong Kong. Unless he reverses course, Xi will face an increasingly unified Western coalition threatening the survival of his regime.

To be sure, there are different reasons behind each of these liabilities. Both BRI and the South China Sea are classic examples of strategic overreach that can be traced back to when Xi assumed the top CCP leadership post in late 2012, when the prevailing view in Beijing was that China should seize the opportunity to assert its growing power and influence while the West was still reeling from the 2008 global financial crisis.

Even though China was growing more assertive before Xi's rise, under his leadership Beijing has not only adopted more confrontational tactics -- such as its militarization of a chain of artificial islands in the South China Sea -- it has sought to construct a Sino-centric order as a credible competitor to the existing U.S.-led order. To quote Xi, the world should have a "China option."

In retrospect, militarized artificial islands in the South China Sea and BRI quickly turned into strategic liabilities instead of assets. Beijing's claims to more than 80% of the South China Sea has elicited a vigorous pushback from Washington., which sees it as a test of U.S. credibility.

It has helped the U.S. rally key allies and friends such as Australia, the U.K., Japan, and India, behind the common cause of checking Beijing's South China Sea expansionism. Today the once tranquil waterway is a flash point where China faces off against the might of the U.S. Navy. Xi and his advisers likely discounted the probability of such a reaction from the U.S. when they authorized the construction of these artificial islands in 2014. They have clearly miscalculated.

BRI is both a product of strategic miscalculation and imperial overreach. Conceived in 2013 when the Chinese economy was still growing in the high single digits and Beijing's coffers were bulging with more than $4 trillion in hard currency reserves, BRI was supposed to be a transformative infrastructural program through which China could project its economic and geopolitical influence.

While the concept might seem ingenious, its feasibility was questionable from the very beginning since the amount of investment required to make BRI a reality would vastly exceed China's initial commitment of $1 trillion in financing. What Xi did not expect was the negative reaction from the West, which saw BRI as a ploy to subvert the existing international order.

While Xi could not have foresees that the Chinese economy would be quickly losing steam, or that a hostile U.S. would resort to economic decoupling to contain China's power, BRI now competes with his other strategic priorities for a share of the country's dwindling resources.

If BRI and the South China Sea are examples of overreach, Xinjiang and Hong Kong are clear cases of overkill. To be sure, the challenge to Beijing is real and difficult in both regions. But China's response has turned two manageable problems into public relations disasters that will remain as immovable obstacles to improving ties with the West until there is a policy change.

In the case of Xinjiang, simmering ethnic unrest could be mitigated with accommodations such as greater protection of the cultural rights of the Uighurs, the region's largest Muslim ethnic group, and preferential economic policies. Improvement in security measures should also be sufficient to deal with occasional violent attacks by radicalized local residents. As for the protests in Hong Kong over a controversial extradition bill, Beijing could easily have waited patiently for the protests to wear themselves out, allowing Hong Kong's police to contain the violence, as it did during the 2014 Umbrella Movement.

Riot police officers detain people on Oct. 1: Beijing could have waited for the protests to wear themselves out.   © Reuters

Yet Xi opted for excess in both cases. By incarcerating more than a million innocent Muslims in "re-education camps" in Xinjiang, and imposing a unilateral national security law on Hong Kong that violated its pledge to maintain the city's autonomy, China's actions have made engagement with the west untenable.

Xi's only solace is the meltdown of U.S. democracy during the current presidential election campaign. Engulfed in political dysfunction, Beijing believes the U.S. is unlikely to take advantage of China's blunders.

But gloating over America's woes will not help Xi rid himself of the four burdens undermining his leadership. Democrats and Republicans may be implacable foes at home, but they are unified on confronting China -- and determined to make it pay dearly for its overreach and overkill.

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