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Xi Jinping navigating treacherous waters, nasty currents

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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, left, shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping before their meeting on Sept. 5 in Hangzhou.   © Kyodo

TOKYO -- Although he has amassed overwhelming political power, Chinese President Xi Jinping is probably feeling vulnerable. Numerous challenges, both at home and abroad, are tumbling toward him simultaneously.

They could crush him.

Internationally, Xi is at loggerheads with the U.S. and Japan over territorial disputes in the South and East China seas as well as other sensitive diplomatic and security issues. And North Korea is creating an additional headache for the Xi administration.

Domestically, Xi's rivals are trying to find a chink in his armor as they anticipate the massive leadership reshuffle that will take place during the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party, slated for autumn next year.

One scene from this year's Group of 20 summit, held in early September in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, seemed to encapsulate the delicate nature of the many diplomatic challenges Xi is dealing with.

During the night of Sept. 5, immediately after the summit ended, Xi met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for their first face-to-face since April 2015.

The meeting of the two leaders violated protocol after protocol.

Posing for photographs, Xi refused to crack a smile. The flags of the two countries were conspicuously missing from the room, which was clearly smaller than those in which Xi met other leaders. The Chinese officials who attended the meeting were lower in rank than those at Xi's other one-on-ones.

No spotlight for Abe

Beijing stage-managed the meeting to humiliate Abe.

Xi saw pulling off a successful G-20 summit as vital in his efforts to keep his domestic enemies from finding those chinks.

As the host of the event, he had no choice but to shake hands and talk with all of his G-20 peers. But Xi also had to ensure that Abe could only be his foil.

In fact, Xi needed to use his one-on-one summits -- including that with U.S. President Barack Obama -- to put himself in a good light.

Yet the president offered special treatment to Obama despite friction between their two countries over the South China Sea and other issues.

Xi met and dined with Obama on the night of Sept. 3, before the G-20 summit. He even took a walk with Obama along the shore of the famous West Lake and drank tea with him. The Chinese president spent as many as three hours in total with Obama.

Chinese diplomats prepared Xi's meeting with Abe in line with orders not to allow the Japanese leader to capture the spotlight.

Tokyo wanted the meeting to be held on Sept. 4, the first day of the G-20 summit, so that the two leaders would have enough time to talk.

Reminiscent of the grimace

But Beijing rejected the request in a snub to Abe, who arrived at Hangzhou in the morning of Sept. 4, two hours ahead of his original schedule.

Abe was not the only leader of a major country to meet with Xi after the G-20 conference. German Chancellor Angela Merkel did, too, but because she wished to have some in-depth discussions about hosting the conference. Germany will play that role at next year's G-20 summit.

British Prime Minister Theresa May also sat down with Xi after the gathering. This was Xi's doing; he wanted to express his displeasure at May's decision to delay the approval of a nuclear power plant project in Britain involving Chinese companies.

Still, a British flag was placed in the room where Xi and May shook hands.

The extraordinarily spartan setting for the Xi-Abe meeting prompted some Western journalists to ask whether something had happened.

The two party Politburo members who attended Xi's other meetings were not present during his talks with Abe.

The way Xi treated Abe in Hangzhou was reminiscent of the grimace the Chinese leader wore during his first summit with the Japanese leader, in November 2014.

In almost two years, there has been no significant improvement in the relationship between the two countries.

Controlling friction

During their 32-minute meeting, Xi told Abe to stop speaking about the South China Sea, saying the matter does not concern Japan, according to a briefing by the Chinese government.

The meeting kept open a channel for direct dialogue, but that is about all it achieved.

Before the Xi-Abe talks, Chinese policymakers and experts held a detailed and heated debate on how China should deal with Japan.

A broad range of experts, including researchers specializing in Japanese studies, were summoned to take part. The discussion boiled down to three main views on bilateral ties.

One view is that Japan, an ally of the U.S., only acts according to instructions from Washington. In other words, China has only to think about its relations with the U.S. and doesn't need to pay serious attention to Japan.

Another view is of a Japan craving "true independence" and already barreling down a path of militarism. The Abe administration intends to revise the constitution to make the Self-Defense Forces Japan's formal armed forces. Supporters of this view said Japan poses danger and called on the government to prepare for war with the country.

A third view sees the strong economic ties between the two countries and rules out the possibility of war. Proponents of this view called for efforts to control friction and voiced optimism about the two countries' future together.

The first two views represent extreme arguments; the third is the most realistic. It is not clear which path Beijing will take, but word is it has decided to watch how the Abe government acts for the time being.

Smoke signals

On Sept. 11, the fourth anniversary of Japan nationalizing the disputed Senkaku Islands, an act that infuriated Beijing, four Chinese government ships entered Japanese waters around the islands. Tokyo should expect further pressure tactics from China.

The question, though, is how does Xi see China's relations with Japan.

Chinese diplomats have told their Japanese counterparts "inside stories" about how Xi decided to go ahead and meet with Abe in the face of strong opposition from within the party. Xi determined that China should have dialogue with its neighbors, according to the stories.

But this is clearly part of China's diplomatic maneuvering, and these stories cannot be taken as a sign of a flexible Xi.

Going forward, Xi will determine how to respond to Japan by taking into account the Chinese and global political landscapes.

Next year marks the 45th anniversary of the establishment of formal diplomatic ties between Tokyo and Beijing.

China moved to normalize its ties with the U.S. and Japan in the 1970s after its relations with the Soviet Union soured. It was Beijing's way of sending a warning to Russia.

Now, China is trying to expand its ties with Russia. This time, the smoke signal is being directed at Washington.

Victory in Laos

Meanwhile, Abe is exploring the possibility of reinventing Japan's relations with Russia for its own strategic benefit.

Part of the reinvention would entail some sort of conclusion to a long-standing territorial dispute over a group of islands off Hokkaido. Reaching any conclusion will be a colossal diplomatic challenge. But by cozying up to Moscow, Tokyo could pressure Beijing.

Xi paid nervous attention to Abe's meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, held immediately before the G-20 summit, according to informed sources.

Abe flew to Hangzhou after holding talks with Putin in Vladivostok, in Russia's Far East.

In that meeting, Putin agreed to travel to Yamaguchi, Abe's home prefecture, during a visit to Japan at the end of this year.

Xi, on the other hand, has not visited Japan since assuming China's top post. He has also not wavered in his resolve to lay claim to most of the South China Sea by manufacturing islands out of atolls.

He recently scored a major diplomatic victory in Laos, where leaders of Southeast Asia's political and trade bloc were holding a summit. Xi dissuaded his Southeast Asian peers from including in their joint communique any direct reference to the rejection of Beijing's South China Sea claims that an international tribunal handed down in July.

More recently, on Monday, while Obama was stressing Washington's strategic pivot to Asia, China and Russia began a joint military exercise in the South China Sea.

Failure to rein in

As you might surmise, East Asia's security situation and geopolitics are in a state of flux. So don't hold it against Xi if he was ready to pat himself on the back for maneuvering through the instability.

But North Korea kept Xi from savoring the moment.

On Sept. 5, the final day of the G-20 summit, Pyongyang fired three ballistic missiles. Four days later it conducted its fifth nuclear test.

Pyongyang apparently notified Beijing of its plan to detonate a nuclear weapon a week in advance, when North Korean officials visited Beijing. This explains why Chinese media were able to quickly publish commentaries on the test.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is blatantly opposed to China's policy goal of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.

Kim's attitude is a blow to China, which has been providing aid to its impoverished neighbor for many years.

The Obama administration responded to Pyongyang's latest chest-thumping by dispatching two B-1B bombers to the Korean Peninsula. China criticized the move, saying it escalated tensions.

China's failure to rein in Kim undermines its argument against the deployment of a U.S. anti-missile defense system in South Korea.

Enhanced prestige

In addition, China is finding it hard to veto new U.N. Security Council sanctions against North Korea.

This must weigh on Xi, who is assuming a much more aggressive foreign policy posture than his predecessors. When he does have to make a concession, Xi carefully considers the situation, then tactically backs down in a way that allows him to save face.

He also has his hands full on the domestic front. At home, Xi has made numerous enemies within the party and government.

On Sept. 6, the day after the G-20 summit ended, the company issuing the People's Daily, the official party newspaper, published a magazine featuring an article about Xi being a ling xiu of a major power. "Ling xiu" means "leader."

In China, the title wei da ling xiu, or great leader, is only used to refer to Mao Zedong. No Chinese leader since Mao -- not even former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, or presidents Jiang Zemin or Hu Jintao -- has ever dared to label himself with the term.

In a way, Xi has broken the taboo, although he did not allow for the use of the adective "wei da," meaning "great."

The publisher, apparently trying to toady up to Xi, instead stirred up a situation that invited criticism, a Beijing political insider said.

Some observers say the G-20 summit has enhanced Xi's prestige. But they may have got it wrong.

Immediate target

On Sept. 10, the Communist Party was rocked by the announcement that Huang Xingguo, the mayor of Tianjin and believed to be a Xi confidant, was being investigated on suspicion of corruption. The announcement is an effective declaration of the politician's ouster.

Huang, who hails from Zhejiang Province, where Xi once served as party chief, is credited with launching a political campaign in which Xi is referred to as the he xin, or core, which has connotations that a leader has gained special status.

Xi has promoted many party members linked to Zhejiang Province, and Huang was expected to be appointed as a Politburo member sooner or later.

Huang's replacement, Li Hongzhong, the party secretary of Hubei Province, took part in the he xin campaign early on, though he is close to former President Jiang Zemin, Xi's main political foe.

Li's appointment was a surprise engineered by Xi's rivals to strike back at the increasingly powerful leader, party insiders say. It was probably Xi's first major political setback, they note.

There were also subtle signs of a change in the political tide last month at the annual closed-door meetings of party leaders and elders at the Beidaihe resort.

Local party chiefs are now jockeying for greater political clout as a prelude to the political battle over top party positions at next year's party congress.

Xi's immediate target in this battle is Liaoning Province, where the economy is contracting. Premier Li Keqiang once served as the province's party chief.

Political warfare

While Xi is one of the so-called hong er dai, literally "second-generation reds," children of yesterday's top party leaders, Li is affiliated with the Communist Youth League.

Xi's move to reform the Youth League is a signal that he is preparing to attack people around Li, a Liaoning official said.

Xi lost some political clout in the first half of this year when his anti-corruption campaign began to show the ugly side of his power struggle. And bureaucrats bent on protecting their posts have started stonewalling, causing serious damage to the economy.

If Xi takes his anti-corruption campaign too far, he could destroy his own credibility as party chief, and China would fall into a serious leadership crisis. If, however, he were to let up, the party could also teeter on the brink of collapse.

At next year's party congress, five of the so-called China Seven, the seven most powerful party members, will retire. Their replacements will be the leading candidates to succeed Xi.

Potential replacements include Hu Chunhua, the party secretary of Guangdong Province and a former Youth League star, and Sun Zhengcai, party head of the city of Chongqing.

For now, Xi is plotting ways to revitalize his leadership next month at the sixth plenary session of the party's Central Committee.

The next year will see the political warfare in China intensify. The outcome will have huge implications for the entire world.

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