China, for the first time ever, is hosting the G20, the grouping of the world’s largest economies.
Beijing has a lot riding on the summit, which starts Sunday in Hangzhou. China’s economy, although stabilized, is still fragile, and the country’s officials hope the world’s heavyweights will implement stimulus plans so they can buy more Chinese products.
China’s two-way trade fell a stunning 8.0 percent in 2015, and since then the country’s performance has deteriorated. In the first seven months of this year, exports were down 7.4 percent and imports off 10.5 percent.
So China, whose economy in reality is barely growing, could use help from its 19 powerful visitors. Yet Beijing is not acting like it needs favors. Especially since June, it has engaged in extraordinarily provocative behavior in an arc stretching from India to South Korea.
One might have thought Beijing would cool it in the run-up to the G20 to ensure a successful meeting.
In recent months, China’s diplomats have been fanning out across the globe to lay groundwork for the event. For instance, Foreign Minister Wang Yi flew down to New Delhi in the middle of last month to persuade Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who will go to Hangzhou, not to raise contentious issues like the South China Sea.
Moreover, senior officials, seeking to keep geopolitical matters off the agenda, have been putting their points across to the media in a clearly orchestrated campaign. “The Hangzhou summit must focus on economic issues,” Li Baodong, a foreign vice-minister, told the South China Morning Post. “This is what people want to talk about most at the summit.”
Actually, it’s not. G20 members don’t seem to be overly concerned about the global economy at the moment. On the contrary, everyone wants to talk about China.
Beijing has been roiling the international system in many ways, but none more troubling than trying to expand its territory, often by force.
In India, for instance, there has been an uptick in incursions of the Chinese army into Indian-controlled territory in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh. In July, China’s troops intruded into Uttarakhand, a state close to New Delhi. Up until then, that region had been mostly free of such dangerous incidents.
In the East China Sea, Beijing last month surrounded the Senkaku Islands with 324 fishing trawlers and 16 patrol boats. China claims the uninhabited features that Japan in fact administers, and Beijing has been trying to unnerve Tokyo with continual incursions, near-incursions, and assorted other provocations.
To show its defiance of the decision, which legally binds China, Beijing sent out hundreds of trawlers, protected by its maritime surveillance craft, to surround Scarborough Shoal. The feature is far from China and just 124 nautical miles to the main Philippine island of Luzon. Moreover, the Chinese military flew a nuclear-capable H-6K bomber over Scarborough and started regular combat air patrols over the South China Sea.
As a result of all this provocative conduct, several nations are beginning to coalesce against Beijing.
Modi, for example, will stop over in Hanoi before going to Hangzhou, and there he is expected to stitch up agreements to help the Vietnamese defend themselves against Chinese expansionism.
President Obama, after the G20, will visit Laos. That will be the first time a sitting American president has gone there, a signal Beijing is about to lose its hold on one of its few reliable friends in the region.
Moreover, the U.S. and India on Monday signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement, which allows for unprecedented military cooperation, including the sharing of base facilities.
So why is Beijing pursuing a clearly counterproductive foreign policy?
There are many explanations for what The Wall Street Journal in June of last year called China’s “impulsive style.” The primary reason, I believe, is turmoil in Beijing due to the incomplete leadership transition from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping.
Xi, since becoming Communist Party general secretary in November 2012, has taken extraordinary steps to grab power, breaking decades-old norms designed to ensure stability. For a time, it appeared he had succeeding in firming up his grip, but in March infighting broke out into the open, indicating there had been disunity all along.
That month, there were striking displays of defiance of China’s ruler. The Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, Xi’s main instrument in his political purge, posted an essay indirectly criticizing the Chinese supremo. There was also a public call for him to step down, which ended up on a semi-official website.
The maneuvering among civilians now appears to be intensifying as they prepare for the 19th Party Congress next year. To make matters even more complicated, as senior officers of the People’s Liberation Army become increasingly influential power brokers, the military has become an increasingly troubled institution.
There are two main reasons for discord. First, Xi Jinping, as he sought to get rid of the military allies of his civilian adversaries, has roiled the officer corps with unprecedented purges. Second, Xi’s reorganization of the PLA, perhaps the most sweeping in the history of the People’s Republic, has created tensions among generals and admirals, many of whom have lost—or will lose—important postings.
The symptoms of turmoil are obvious.
Last month, three senior officers—one a general—committed suicide. Moreover, at the end of the month, for the first time in Xi’s rule, an active-duty general was detained for corruption. From all outside appearances, Gen. Wang Jianping was sidelined because he had links to a Xi adversary and his departure allowed China’s ruler to pick an ally to take Wang’s place. The situation in the armed forces obviously remains fluid.
In this chaotic situation, it is not surprising that Chinese foreign policy has begun to lose coherence, largely because hawkish elements, both civilian and military, now have latitude to do what they want.
And as provocative as China is now, it could become even more so. The South China Morning Post last month reported that China might start turning Scarborough into a military fortification after the Hangzhou G20, but before the American presidential election.
Reclaiming this feature, which it seized from the Philippines in early 2012, could be the incident triggering the conflict that many see coming because Beijing would be making permanent its act of aggression.
The Chinese know this is one of the worst times to commit provocations. Yet at a moment when their country needs calm, its leaders just can’t help themselves. That means things are terribly wrong in in the Chinese capital.