The Work Report delivered by President Xi Jinping at the 20th Party Congress has three broad aspects—it reviews the work done by the government in the past five years; it is a framework for future policy measures that will be implemented and goals that will be adopted; and finally, it is a detailed assessment of the international environment and socio-political and security challenges facing China. The Work Report is a significant document enumerating Xi’s vision regarding China’s economic and political development, at a time when Xi begins his third term in office. As regards the foreign affairs, military and national security aspects of the Work Report, two major trends regarding China’s perception about its external environment are notable. First is a concern about systemic uncertainty and growing instability and the second relates to the perception about a hostile external environment.
Uncertainty and Instability a major concern of CCP
The 20th Party Congress Work Report flags concerns about rising uncertainty and instability at the international level. The document notes that since the last Congress in 2017, China’s external environment has been turning increasingly uncertain and unstable. It goes on to elaborate that China has entered a period where risks and challenges are concurrent with strategic opportunities and uncertainties.1 It indicates the possibility of outbreak of major conflict due to the cumulative impact of various crises. It warns that “various black swan and gray rhino events may occur at any time” and China should be ready to “withstand high winds, choppy waters and even dangerous storms”.2
The wariness exhibited by the latest Work Report was not visible in the recent past Congresses of the CPC. For instance, the 17th Party Congress in 2007 emphasised that in China’s external environment, the balance of power was changing in favour of maintenance of world peace, notwithstanding the presence of volatile elements.3 Similarly, the 2012 and the 2017 reports had only vaguely mentioned about volatile developments and complex changes and highlighted primarily the strategic opportunities that were favourable to China.4 None of these three reports projected China as facing any major systemic instability or uncertainty that could adversely impact it. Moreover, the overall international environment was seen as balanced and stable and geopolitical challenges and resource competition was not seen as disruptive.
However, recent series of events like the outbreak of the pandemic and its continuing politico-economic impact, the security vacuum caused by the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, economic disruption caused by the Ukraine crisis, Sino-US trade war and increasing major power tension in the Indo-Pacific has evoked a feeling that the international situation is fast moving towards unpredictability. As China considers a stable international situation as an essential prerequisite for its national rejuvenation, the high degree of volatility has emerged as a major concern for the CCP.5
Rising Threat Perception
Along with being concerned with international instability, Beijing also appears to consider that the external environment has become hostile to China’s interests. The threat perception is notable as there is pointed emphasis on ensuring “national security” in every respect to combat “risk” and “challenge” emanating from external actors.6 Further, in the context of describing China’s geostrategic environment, the report states that China is confronted with drastic changes in the international landscape, especially external attempts to blackmail, contain, blockade and exert maximum pressure on it. Also, it states that “external attempts to suppress and contain China may escalate at any time”.7
It is noteworthy that this is the first time such phrases have been included in the work report to convey the nature of the threat China perceives. While previous work reports do refer to hegemonism of the West and bullying of weaker states by powerful ones to define the negative features of the international environment, they do not delve into specific threats posed to China.8 The worsening relations with the US and other major Western countries over different issues including trade, origin of COVID-19, allegations of violation of human rights in Xinjiang, status of Taiwan, apart from increasing geostrategic and economic competition in the Indo-Pacific, are viewed as the causes of China’s rising threat perception. This in turn has evoked fears of blackmail, containment, and blockade.
Beijing’s Darkening World View
It is noteworthy that concern about international instability, threat perception about the external environment and sense of crises has been underway post-2017. The onset of the trade war with the US, Western criticism of China’s crackdown in the restive regions of Xinjiang and Hong Kong and increasing pushback against China’s power projection in Asia-Pacific has instilled a sense of insecurity in Beijing which has grown in the subsequent years. Various public documents and statements made by Xi himself and other high-level officials proves this.
For instance, China’s threat perception about hostile external environment was evident in the 2019 Chinese National Defence White Paper which underscored the rising threat of militarisation in the Indo-Pacific. The document contended that US actions were undermining the region’s strategic balance, charged that Japan was trying to circumvent post-war mechanisms and develop offensive capabilities, and held that Australia was bent on military expansion.9 Subsequently, in 2020, as a warning of the impending crisis, the Central Party School (which trains Chinese diplomats) in an article published in its flagship journal Study Times stated that a ‘long-term’ struggle was ahead and called on Chinese diplomats to be prepared to fight through adversity.10
Further, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, in an interview in 2021 observed that international instability has been exacerbated due to the pandemic and various events like the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Taliban’s victory in Kabul, as well as intensifying confrontation between major powers like Russia and the US.11 Later, in April 2022, Chinese ambassador to the US Qin Gang wrote in the National Interest that the post-war international system has come under the heaviest pressure since the Cold War.12
At the BOAO Forum for Asia in 2022, hinting towards possibility of major conflict between countries, Xi, in his inaugural address stated that while the international community was reeling from the after-effects of the pandemic, traditional security risks are already emerging.13 Xi was more direct at the BRICS conference held few months later where he stated that
Our world today is overshadowed by the dark clouds of Cold War mentality and power politics and beset by constantly emerging traditional and non-traditional security threats…14
Thus, Beijing has been closely following the evolving international situation while debating its impact on Chinese national interests. The work report can therefore be seen as a culmination of China’s recent world view which seems to have further darkened.
Double Down on National Security
One of the important implications of China’s negative perception about its external environment is Beijing’s heightened sensitivity towards national security. Breaking the traditional pattern, this year the work report has a separate section on national security titled Modernizing China’s National Security System and Capacity and Safeguarding National Security and Social Stability.Some of the notable aspects relating to enhancing security across a wide spectrum including economy, major infrastructure, financial institutions, cyberspace, are highlighted and it declares the government’s intent to counter foreign sanctions and interference. It calls for maintaining a high-alert against systemic security risks while stringently cracking down upon infiltration and separatist activities by hostile forces.15
Such an extensive note on augmenting national security in various aspects was seen for the first time in such reports. Previous reports only contained broad affirmations regarding the Party’s focus on strengthening political, military, economic and social stability. More importantly, for the first time, the issue of foreign sanctions and long arm jurisdiction featured prominently in the context of national security.16
The document, consistent with previous work reports, holds a strong military as the primary means for strengthening national security. It also elaborates on the national security goals of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and continuing modernisation of the armed forces and national defence. However, unlike the 18th Party Congress work report, it does not talk about increasing mutual trust and cooperation with other countries or active participation in regional and international security affairs.17 Instead, it discusses at length the need to improve synergy between different departments of the military to enhance combat capabilities. Further, in contrast to the 19th Congress work report, which had simply mentioned the party’s responsibilities towards strengthening the army,18 this year’s work report calls for a centralised and proactive approach by strengthening Party’s control over the military and urgent development of strategic deterrence, combat capabilities and enhancing joint operations reconnaissance and joint strike capabilities.
Considering China’s grim perception of the international situation and external threat environment, sensitivity towards national security and focus on harnessing military power was hardly surprising. The concerning aspect is that China could frame national security threats more broadly and be more willing to take risks.19 Xi Jinping, for instance, could resort to risky strategic manoeuvres to retain his strongman image. Furthermore, the proposals regarding strengthening strategic deterrence (used primarily with regard to nuclear forces) and deployment of military forces on a regular basis and in diversified ways could mean that China is normalising the use of military force in dealing with its neighbours or asserting its territorial or maritime claims through military means.
The 20th Party Congress exhibited a number of exceptions. These include Xi Jinping continuing into his third term, delivering a shorter speech than usual and choosing a governing body solely made of his loyalists. Similarly, the work report also differed from previous reports in terms of conveying China’s negative assessment of the international situation, high threat perception and sensitivity towards national security, the leadership’s intent to exercise greater control over the military, urgent development of China’s strategic deterrence and normalisation of use of military forces.
Given the above, the growing insecurity and threat perception as articulated in the work report could lead to tighter controls in the domestic space and especially in the restive regions of Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet. Secondly, China might increasingly strive to reduce its international dependence on critical technologies, energy supplies and other essential goods to counter US pressure. Finally, Beijing is likely to become more assertive in its international dealings and project military belligerence in the Indo-Pacific region.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.
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