FOREIGN policy and geopolitical analysts in the Indo-Pacific are closely watching the domestic politics in China, saying that any changes within China may affect the region economically, and possibly militarily.
Speculation mounts over the whereabouts of China’s defense minister Li Shangfu, who was last seen publicly two weeks ago during a China-Africa peace forum in Beijing.
The Chinese media is silent whenever Chinese leaders or members of the influential Chinese Communist Party are under investigation.
Li’s absence came after President Xi Jinping ousted Foreign Minister Qin Gang in July, and removed two rocket force commanders from the People’s Liberation Army.
“It looks like President Xi Jinping is consolidating power,” Rear Admiral Rommel Jude Ong, professor of Praxis of Ateneo School of Government (ASOG), said in an interview at the sidelines of a forum of think tank Stratbase ADR Institute for Strategic and International Studies in Taguig Thursday.
Commodore Debesh Lahiri, executive director of National Maritime Foundation of India, said the internal wranglings within the Chinese leadership started to manifest during the People’s Congress last year when former President Hu Jintao was escorted out unexpectedly.
“These are all indicative of the large-scale dissension,” Lahiri said.
Dr.Prashanth Parameswaran, fellow of the US-based Wilson Center, explained that domestic infightings happen even in autocratic regimes such as China.
“China is not 10 feet tall,” Parameswaran said. “There are a lot of issues, problems in the Chinese system. A lot of it we don’t hear about in contrast with the American system…It comes out as President Xi not attending a particular meeting, and then there’s a foreign minister who’s been missing for a weeks, his name is on the website, not on the website, back on the website.”
He said throughout China’s post-war history, the country has projected itself as united and becoming “too centralized.” When it becomes too centralized, disenchantment follows and the authoritarian regime is forced to decentralize to sustain its power.
“The big dynamic under President Xi’s leadership is overcentralization of power in his hands,” Parameswaran said. This is the third five-year term of President Xi. During his first term of office, China reclaimed the rock features it occupied in the South China Sea and constructed military-grade runways, aircraft hangars, and deployment of anti-ship cruise missiles.”
His new term means he has the support of the political elite of China for his more expansionist, revivalist foreign policy,” Robin Michael Garcia, president and CEO of WR Advisory Group, said. “We are seeing changes including foreign policy chief. The foreign affairs portfolio is important for China, for Xi Jinping’s ambition. It’s all underpinned by the revivalist foreign policy of China.”
Ong and Lahiri believe that the worsening economic condition in China —the crash in its real estate sector, the double-digit unemployment rate among its youth, and slump of its economic growth—may have contributed to the changing of guards of Xi.
“At the end of the day, economics is the main driver,” Ong said.
What worries the region is that China is “deeply economically enmeshed” globally.
“If Chinese market suffers, there will be massive consequences in our own economies,” Lahiri added.
The analysts think China may use the South China Sea as a decoy to divert attention away from its domestic problems.
“The South China Sea is a good distraction whenever they have problems inside,” Ong said, partly in Filipino. “Minsan nag-overreact tayo. Pag nagpublish sa dyaryo, minsan masakit sa tenga. Let’s say palaban sa Pilipinas. Pero titingnan mo, baka di tayo ang target audience. Baka domestic. Ganun din minsan kapag nagra-ramp up sila sa South China Sea, di dahil galit sa yo. [Sometimes we overreact. When we publish in newspapers, sometimes the noise if too loud. They’re fighting words. But then consider, we may not be the target audience. Might be domestic. That’s how it is sometimes when they ramp up activities in the South China Sea—it’s not necessarily because they’re angry at you]. They are trying to divert attention from their economic problems.”