China's leadership shake-up and Asean: The Jakarta Post columnist

Labourers working on a giant lantern decorated with the logo for the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) displayed at the entrance to the venue of the Asean Regional Forum meeting in Manila, on Aug 3, 2017.
Labourers working on a giant lantern decorated with the logo for the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) displayed at the entrance to the venue of the Asean Regional Forum meeting in Manila, on Aug 3, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

JAKARTA (THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - China's authorities have tightened security in Beijing to ensure the National Party Congress (NPC), starting on Wednesday, will run in an orderly fashion.

The quinquennial congress, to be attended by more than 2,000 representatives from across the country, will review the country's overall progress, but more importantly, it aims to shake-up members of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), the party's most powerful decision-making body, which currently has seven members.

As the party's general secretary, President Xi Jinping leads the committee and is flanked by six influential members, namely Premier Li Keqiang, Zhang Dejiang, Yu Zhensheng, Liu Yunshan, Wang Qishan and Zhang Gaoli.

According to a well-established party norm, five of the seven currently serving members, namely Zhang Dejiang, Yu Zhensheng, Liu Yunshan, Wang Qishan and Zhang Gaoli, will end their terms this year, as they have reached the mandatory retirement age of 68.

But observers have debated whether President Xi will retain the top graft-buster Wang, 69, who is considered a key figure behind President Xi's successful anticorruption agenda.

Letting go of Wang, dubbed the second-most powerful man in China, may be seen as a setback, if not a loosening of President Xi's grip on power. It is to be noted that President Xi's strong anticorruption credentials have earned him unprecedented popular support since his rise to power in 2012.

The drive has sent thousands of party tsars and military strongmen to prison, including Bo Xilai, Zhou Yongkang, Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou.

During the first five years of his tenure, President Xi focused on stabilising the country's domestic politics, as party elders, notably former president Jiang Zemin of the party's Shanghai faction, were still trying to pull the strings.

President Xi outmaneuvered them all and emerged victoriously in 2016, when he was elevated to the rank of "core leader" (lingdao hexin), a status that only Mao Zhedong, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin enjoyed before him.

As lingdao hexin, President Xi practically has all the power he needs to shape the country's future without being held hostage by the collective leadership system of the previous governments. As such, he has become the PSC's sole veto-bearer.

One can therefore pretty much assume that the upcoming NPC meeting will unanimously entrust President Xi with shaping the country's political and developmental agenda for the next five years - and probably far beyond - free from continual faction infighting, a hallmark of president Hu Jintao's reign.

It remains to be seen, however, whether President Xi as lingdao hexin will follow in the footsteps of Mao, Deng and Jiang, who ruled the big nation either formally or informally without any fixed time limits. Apart from the trio, party general secretaries normally ruled China for "only" two consecutive five-year terms.

Countries in the region need to anticipate this scenario. If it really happens, they should seriously take it into the equation in dealing with China, for it might have significant impacts on their collective regional stability and security, especially for countries that traditionally rely on the United States' security blanket.

These countries may be unable to depend on the US, as President Donald Trump is currently overwhelmed by his domestic agenda, including his fight against Congress over healthcare and immigration policies.

Indeed, with stronger credentials, wide-ranging political power, combined with sufficient military might, President Xi will soon have it all to expand China's sphere of influence in this region. As such, China can be expected to be more assertive in pursuing its core national interests, notably those relating to Taiwan, the South China Sea as well as East China Sea and the Korean Peninsula.

While busy at home, President Trump has been irritated by North Korea's incessant missile and nuclear bomb tests. He has made it clear that the military option is now open, dismissing a warning from US Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, who said there were "no risk-free options" to deal with North Korea's recalcitrant attitude (CNN, Oct. 9).

For geostrategic reasons President Xi will certainly not let the US invade North Korea, as that would obviously lead to the unification of Korea, a real nightmare for China to share borders with a new country that has signed a defense treaty with the US.

The South China Sea and East China Sea claimant states should also anticipate that China - under a more powerful leader - will be more assertive in these contested territories, which includes the possibility of constructing and expanding infrastructure capable of serving its tactical and strategic military maneuvers.

Whether one likes it or not, sooner or later countries in the region, including Indonesia, will therefore have to face this dilemma. Hoping for the US to play a balancing role as devised by President Barack Obama under the now-defunct "Pivot-Asia" policy is unrealistic, given the predicaments with which President Trump is now confronted at the home front.

The least countries in the region can do is to put aside their differences and build a solid bloc to collectively and constructively engage China under the soon-more-powerful President Xi, by employing all available regional architectures, notably the Asean. The main objective will be to convince China that its future is inherently and naturally intertwined with countries in the region.

It's time also to refer back to the maiden foreign policy speech of President Xi, which was delivered in Boao Forum (April 7, 2013), in which he firmly stated the need "to turn our global village into a big stage for common development, rather than an arena where gladiators fight each other. And no one should be allowed to throw a region or even the whole world into chaos for selfish gains."

Rocking the boat is therefore not an option.


The writer, Indonesia's ambassador to China from 2010 to 2013 and to Australia from 2003 to 2005, is a member of the senior advisory team under the defence minister.