The political changes in China are important to the United States, but hard to fathom. The workings of China’s new Politburo and its new leader, Community Party General Secretary Xi Jinping, suggest several things.
The new government’s legitimacy in the eyes of China’s 1.3 billion citizens depends largely on the ability of the country’s economy to give them a higher standard of living.
At the same time, the 2.3-million member People’s Liberation Army continues to play a vital role. The military deters any element of Chinese society that might think democratization or other political change would make life better, improve the economy, or bring new faces to the top of government.
China values continuity and consistency in government. The U.S. military might want to encourage the perception, to further its own claims on the federal budget, that China is acting more aggressively in Southeast Asia to counter America’s own “pivot” to that continent. But whatever China does there is likely to be a slow process.
China has one old, refurbished, ex-Soviet aircraft carrier; the United States has 11 carriers. China’s efforts to extend its reach in Southeast Asia are confined almost entirely to the South China Sea, where its interests are centuries old.
Some analysis — perhaps wishful thinking — suggests China’s economic performance is sagging. That could make Americans feel less embarrassed about China’s high growth rate. Yet China appears to have recovered relatively quickly from the global recession, enabling it to move again toward rapid growth.
The change in leadership from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping likely won’t mean that much to China or to the United States. It is still important, though, for President Obama to establish personal lines to China’s new leaders as quickly as possible.