Two significant political events with far-reaching consequences occurred in Asia during the last fortnight. Chinese president Xi Jinping ensured his continuation and consolidated his authority in running his country for the next five years. Within a few days in the not-too-distant Tokyo, Japanese president Shinzo Abe won with comfortable majority a Parliamentary election that ensured he would remain at the helm of affairs in Japan for another term. Both Xi and Abe are seasoned political actors and major leaders of Asia. Their prolongation as top leaders of China and Japan reflect continuity of their visions, thoughts and objectives in the way their countries would approach global and regional issues. The 19th Party Congress of the People’s Republic of China saw Xi Jinping being embedded in Chinese history with as much importance as Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Xi’s grip over the Communist Party of China (CPC) and his ability to spread his influence far and wide into the future was evident from the CPC incorporating the by-now famous Xi thought—more elaborately described as the ‘Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in a New Era’—into its constitution. This guaranteed Xi’s acceptance by the CPC as a thought leader for modern China and for the future generations; indeed, probably with as much attention and reverence that Mao and Deng have enjoyed for decades. Socialism with Chinese characteristics is not a new description. Chinese leaderships over the last four decades have variously applied the concept to describe transitions in Chinese economy and society. Where, however, the Xi thought differs is in the prominent ‘external’ angle that it brings in. This is evident from the inclusion of the ‘Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)’ in the constitution.
The BRI is widely acclaimed as Xi’s signature initiative for expanding China’s economic and geostrategic influence. While incorporation of the Xi thought in the Constitution brings for him the hallowed equivalence to Mao and Deng, the BRI’s entry marks him as the Chinese leader who has been most decisive and emphatic in pursuing the quest for a China-centric world order through economic projects. This ‘external’ dimension makes the constitutional enshrining of Xi different from Mao and Deng, both of whose visions were focused far more on Chinese society, polity and domestic economy, rather than its external engagement. The strong and clear message from the 19th Party Congress is that the BRI is not going to fade away despite the controversies surrounding it. On the contrary, Xi has ensured his pet project has the full backing of the CPC and the military given that the CPC is now recognised to have ‘absolute leadership’ over the military. Taken together, it is likely that over time China might become more candid about the BRI serving both its economic and security needs, as opposed to the emphasis on the former now.
Strengthening of Xi’s hold over his party, military and economy will ensure continuation of China’s quest to entrench itself as the leader of a world order different from that promoted by the US and its allies. In this respect, however, he will have competition from Abe and Japan. While Abe’s victory was expected, what was probably not expected was the comfortable margin with which he won, leading to the majority he and his party now enjoy in both Houses of the Parliament. Japan under Abe, has been gradually but surely, trying to make a comeback to the top club of global and regional leadership. Economics—the tried and tested virtue of Japan—has been the key to such efforts. While ‘Abenomics’ might not have worked as well as it could have, electoral results vindicate the faith in its effectiveness. But more importantly, the results also vindicate Abe’s notion that a pacifist Japan does not necessarily imply a passive Japan. He attaches as much importance to connectivity and regional infrastructure initiatives as China in expanding national economic and strategic influence. The difference though is in the approach to striking partnerships on these initiatives.
By trying to work with India, Australia, Indonesia, Taiwan, Singapore, Canada and a host of other emerging market and middle-power countries, Japan has signalled its intent to galvanise middle powers. While as an initiative this might be a late-starter given that middle powers, particularly in Asia, need to think through complexities in various bilateral ties before plunging to alliances, Japan has been careful in not breathing down the necks of those it is courting. At the same time, it has been attentive to marking up numbers by expanding the scope of development assistance to the projects it is funding under its own ‘Silk Road’ initiative. With dust beginning to gather on both the 19th Party Congress in China and the Japanese elections, the circumstances in Asia are poised to experience a new competition between China and Japan, or more specifically, Xi and Abe. Both would employ economics and enhanced supply of public goods as the main planks of their efforts to engage and expand. The rest of Asia, and even countries in continental Europe and Africa, would need to make choices. Whether they like it or not, playing along with both China and Japan might be a tougher choice than what many of them might have anticipated. Time will tell more about how these choices unravel.