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China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin: partners together, now and for a further Presidential term

Meeting of China’s Parliament and Russian Presidential election ensure that the most powerful relationship between two world leaders will continue

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Chinese President Xi Jinping exchange documents after their talks in Moscow's Kremlin, Russia, Friday, March 22, 2013. Making Moscow his first foreign destination, China’s new president urged Russia Friday to enhance foreign policy coordination in order to better protect joint security and interests, a call reflecting Beijing’s new assertiveness in the global arena. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

One of the reasons for Western dismay at the decision by the Chinese parliament earlier today to abolish the terms limits of the Chinese Presidency – paving the way for President Xi Jinping to remain Chinese President when his present term limit expires – is that it guarantees that the partnership between Xi Jinping and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin which has been making the international political weather ever since Xi Jinping emerged as China’s President in 2013 is set to confinue.

President Putin is due to be re-elected on 18th March 2018 for what it is widely assumed will be his last term as Russia’s President, which will end in 2024.  President Xi Jinping’s second term as Chinese President is due to end in 2023.

Even if the Chinese parliament had not just decided to change the Chinese President’s term limits, Xi Jinping would therefore continue to be China’s leader throughout President Putin’s next term.

Moreover, as many people have pointed out, the office of the Chinese President (more correctly, of the ‘State Chairman’) has only nominal power, with the actual power held by the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, who has no term limits, and who is of course Xi Jinping himself.

The ending of the term limits for the Chinese President, together with the widespread and almost certainly correct assumption that it will be President Xi Jinping who will benefit by being re-elected for a further term as Chinese President in 2023, however conclusively confirms Xi Jinping’s position as China’s paramount and undisputed leader.

This means that after the colourless eras of Xi Jinping’s two predecessors – Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao – China once again has in the person of Xi Jinping a strong leader, just as it once did in the eras of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.

This is vitally important because China currently stands at a crucial crossroads in its development when strong and purposeful leadership is needed.

In its domestic policies China is engaging in the massive task of reorienting its economy away from mass production towards growth driven by services and technology.

This is an exceptionally difficult transition to navigate, one which the Soviets in the 1970s – who at that time found themselves facing roughly the same transition as the one China is facing now – referred to as the transition from ‘extensive’ to ‘intensive’ development.

The USSR failed to make the transition successfully, setting the scene for the crisis which eventually led to its collapse.

A strong and authoritative leader, popular in the country and able to push through essential decisions in the face of the bureaucratic and political obstacles which are certain to arise, is indispensable in this situation if a crisis is to be avoided.

That the Chinese leadership understand this very well is shown by how the abolition of the term limits is explained by this editorial in the semi-official Global Times

First, in this juncture China faces a series of major challenges regarding its reform in and outside the country, which demands the Constitution be revised in accordance with the times. Major countries now are mobilising their political resources to strengthen their decision-making capacity. The amendment is primarily driven by China’s internal needs for development.

Second, Chinese people are deeply aware that their happy life must originate from solidarity and stability, and that this has to be guarded by the whole of society led by the CPC Central Committee. In these years we have seen the rise and decline of countries and particularly the harsh reality that the Western political system doesn’t apply to developing countries and produces dreadful results. 

Luckily China has maintained its steady rise for a long period. We are increasingly confident that the key to China’s path lies in upholding strong Party leadership and firmly following the leadership of the Party Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping at the core.

Upon its founding, the People’s Republic of China largely copied the Soviet Union’s socialist system. Since reform and opening-up, China has embarked on a socialist path with Chinese characteristics and become the second-largest economy. This shows political independence is key to how far China can go.

Most major phenomena facing China can’t be explained by Western theories. China must find solutions with its own wisdom. Whether our practices are good should be assessed by whether they respond to and promote China’s mission, and the actual results.

Despite the flood of information that poured into China after reform and opening-up, Chinese society has managed to deal with it and accumulated collective wisdom. In this process the leadership of the Party Central Committee has been instrumental. The Constitutional amendment comes at a good time as it consolidates the guiding thought, Party leadership, the leadership structure and the improved supervisory mechanism when China faces arduous tasks in the new era.

(bold italics added)

The careful reference to the USSR makes it perfectly clear to which country the words about the “rise and decline of countries” refer to.

As for the words the “harsh reality that the Western political system doesn’t apply to developing countries and produces dreadful results”, taken in conjunction with the references to the USSR, these clearly refer to Mikhail Gorbachev’s disastrous democratisation or ‘perestroika’ policies, which instead of helping the USSR’s transition from ‘extensive’ to ‘intensive’ development, caused instead its collapse.

The final words about the need to “consolidate the leadership structure and improved supervisory mechanism when China faces arduous tasks in the new era” show that the Chinese do not intend to repeat Gorbachev’s mistakes.

Unlike the USSR, instead of ‘democratising’ they will strengthen the central leadership in order to keep a tight control of the process so as make the transition from ‘extensive’ to ‘intensive’ development successful.

Those familiar with Soviet history will recognise this as the same approach which Yury Andropov – the USSR’s last but one leader – had intended to follow.

Not coincidentally, just as Yury Andropov in the brief period when he was Soviet leader emphasised the fight against corruption as essential in order to carry out the transition from ‘extensive’ to ‘intensive’ development successfully, so does his Chinese equivalent Xi Jinping today.

In both cases, apart from a genuine desire to root out corruption, mounting an anti-corruption campaign imposes discipline, which is essential if a successful transition is to be achieved.

If however confirmation of Xi Jinping as China’s paramount leader has a primarily internal purpose, it also has an external dimension the importance of which should not be underestimated.

Even as China changes the structure of its economy the external environment is becoming less favourable for China.

Whereas in the 1990s and 2000s China’s economy was able to grow with the benevolent encouragement of the US, today US attitudes towards China have changed, with many Americans (not just President Trump) feeling that China has taken the US for a ride by growing its economy at the US’s expense.

That means that China may not have unimpeded access to the US market for much longer,

China must also face the reality of a US naval build up in the Pacific, with the US increasingly challenging China in China’s peripheral areas, notably the South China Sea which is for China a key artery for its trade.

The growing confrontation with the US means that China can no longer afford to take its maritime trade routes – vital not just for its exports, but also for its imports of vital raw materials – for granted.

This explains the gigantic One Belt, One Road programme upon which China has embarked, which aims to secure for China access to Eurasia’s unlimited supply of raw materials and to provide high speed transport links across Eurasia for China’s goods.

This in turn explains why for China its close relationship with Russia – the supreme Eurasian power – is not just geopolitically but also economically crucial.

Quite simply, without Russia’s cooperation the One Belt, One Road programme is impossible, and China becomes increasingly vulnerable to economic pressure from an increasingly hostile US.

This is the foundation which underpins the relationship between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin.

Though all the indications are that the two men have developed a strong relationship with each other and even regard each other as friends, ultimately it is their countries’ vital interests which draw them together.

Just as for China its relationship with Russia is vital for its long term economic security, so for Russia – by now disillusioned about the prospects of its relations with the West – the relationship with China – the world’s second biggest economy – is vital in order to secure its geopolitical and economic future.

Having said this, though the relationship between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin is firmly based on a clear sighted understanding of their countries’ respective national interests, given the current extremely fraught nature of the international situation both will be relieved that their partnership is set to continue and become stronger.

Neither of them would want at this complex and difficult time to have to start over with someone else.

The political changes underway in both China and Russia this month – the meeting of the Chinese Parliament and the Russian Presidential election – ensure that both men will get their wish, and their partnership will not only continue but will become stronger

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