Publication: Strategic Survey 2017: The Annual Assessment of Geopolitics
06 September 2017
The ramifications of China’s extrovert and confident foreign policy, together with concerns over the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear-weapons and missile programmes, continued to dominate the Asia-Pacific security landscape in the year to mid-2017. However, from late 2016 onwards, the approach of an extraordinary new US administration led by Donald Trump created uncertainty and complex problems for the region’s states, particularly Washington’s allies and security partners. Behind China’s policies on the region lay President Xi Jinping’s position as its ‘core leader’, strengthened through the intensification of a far-reaching anti-corruption campaign within the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that seemed at least partly designed to install a new generation of leaders. As China’s economic growth slowed, the leadership emphasised the need for structural reforms aimed at stimulating innovation, creating jobs and reducing poverty. The party dealt firmly with dissent from non-governmental organisations, academics, Uighur separatists in Xinjiang and pro-independence activists in Hong Kong. Meanwhile, Xi and the party leadership continued to rapidly increase defence spending while also launching a major restructuring of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to significantly enhance China’s military capability.
In some ways, China handled its foreign-policy challenges adroitly. Importantly, the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, convened in Beijing in May 2017, helped the country project its vision of a regional and global order that would satisfy not only its needs but also those of its international interlocutors. With the Brexit referendum result and Trump’s election indicating the strength of unilateralist and protectionist sentiment in parts of the West, China used the Belt and Road Forum – as well as the earlier G20 summit in Hangzhou, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Lima and the 2017 Davos summit – to project its strong support for international trade and investment. The trade wars Trump spoke of while campaigning posed a serious threat to Chinese interests, but one result of Xi’s summit with him at Mar-a-Lago resort in April was an agreement on a 100-day plan for talks to resolve disagreements over trade.