The Cipher Brief: How ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ Can Shape Diplomacy with the U.S.

November 15, 2021

by: Kenneth Dekleva

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As they prepare for this week’s virtual summit (their first formal meeting since President Biden’s January 2021 inauguration), U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping have many challenges to overcome, especially with the US-China relationship at a low point since formal diplomatic relations were established in 1979.  Much has changed for both leaders since they spoke by phone in September 2021. 

The stakes are high, and President Biden (who met with Xi on several occasions during the Obama Presidency) and his national security team need clarity, strategy, and nuance in understanding Xi’s and China’s ambitions, especially following the success of the CCP’s Sixth Plenum and Xi’s expected appointment to an unprecedented third five-year term as General Secretary in 2022. 

In crafting a national security strategy to adapt to and counter a powerful and aggressive China, a keen and sober understanding of Xi – the most formidable leader in the world today – is more critical than ever.  This is especially true because so many external observers (including in the US government) have often misunderstood Xi.  Whether China is considered a strategic competitor, an existential threat, a strategic partner, or a strategic adversary – all terms which have seen widespread use during the past several years in the US government, think tanks, and academia – understanding Xi’s intentions, aspirations, leadership style, and political psychology has never been more crucial.  It’s important to see Xi through his eyes and perspective, as he is, not as we wish him to be.

By now, Xi is widely proclaimed to be the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao, whose ideology (“Xi Jinping Thought”) was declared at last week’s Sixth Plenum as “the essence of Chinese culture,” and a CCP statement pronounced this as of “decisive significance for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”  Such accolades have in the past, only been granted to Mao and Deng Xiaoping.  This also paves the way for Xi (who earlier this year, presided over the 100th anniversary of the founding of the CCP) to continue his rule as General Secretary of the CCP and President of China for a third five-year term beginning in 2022.

Xi has used the COVID pandemic to ruthlessly consolidate his power in China.  He has most recently done so by forcing huge privately-owned businesses to bow to greater CCP control, and has even been willing to absorb over $1 trillion in losses to assert said control, in the name of “common prosperity.”  He has done so while managing the Evergrande debt crisis and rising tensions over Taiwan, while presiding over the continued growth of the Chinese military.

Tragically, Xi has crushed legislative and judicial freedoms in Hong Kong, with the passage of the new national security law.  And China can be expected to continue its progress with respect to its vast, massive Belt and Road Initiative, which encompasses over seventy countries in Asia, Eurasia, the Middle East, and Europe.

Xi is understood to be a patient, resilient, pragmatic, and aspirational leader.  He is not likely to risk endangering his historical legacy, nor his appointment to a third term as General Secretary and President in 2022, by invading Taiwan.  For Xi knows his Chinese classics, and can resonate with Sun Tzu’s famous dictum that “the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”  What Xi can however, be expected to do, is to continue to slowly pressure Taiwan, both militarily, politically, and economically, and to squeeze the oxygen out of the room – just as he did with Hong Kong.  This doesn’t detract from the significant risk of miscalculation, a declaration of independence by any Taiwanese leader, or even a misstatement or misunderstanding by an American President.

Xi’s soaring rhetoric and his ambitious “great dream of rejuvenation of the Chinese people,” along with his formidable political talents, nevertheless carry certain risks for Xi, the CCP and China.  Xi’s single biggest blind spot – his doggedness and single-minded pursuit of power in the service of his dreams, goals, and aspirations – lies in his misunderstanding of America’s exceptionalism, values, and strengths.  It is surely tempting for Xi and his top advisors to see America – and even President Biden, with his current low approval rating – as weak and in terminal decline.  This view is not entirely new but has gained more credence in Chinese leadership circles over the past several years. 

Recently, Yuan Peng, the Director of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), a think tank affiliated with the Ministry of State Security, stated that “the East is rising, and the West is declining.”  But Xi and his leadership might consider that during Xi’s lifetime, America has often struggled mightily with tragedy, weakness, and decline, and yet it has always returned to, and found its core resilience, democratic values, and unique exceptionalism, and thereby managed to resume its leadership role in a world beset by immense challenges.

President Biden comes to this virtual meeting on a positive note.  The passage of a historic infrastructure bill showcases the ability of Congress to work together in a bipartisan manner to achieve meaningful legislation.  And recent improvements for diplomatic collaboration with China in areas like climate change are encouraging.  President Biden realizes that understanding and coping with a rising China is the most profound national security challenge of our time, a view supported by CIA Director Bill Burns’ recent establishment of a China Mission Center.

President Biden and his national security team are wise to engage with President Xi and China’s leadership.  There is no substitute for diplomatic engagement and better intelligence regarding China, one of our most formidable and challenging ‘hard targets.’ 

As Sun Tzu wrote, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the results of a hundred battles.”

Kenneth Dekleva is a senior fellow with the George H. W. Bush Foundation for U.S.-China Relations. The views expressed in this publication are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the George H.W. Bush Foundation for U.S. China Relations.