Int'l Herald Tribune

Rivalry in Beijing makes the neighbors nervous

China's power struggle

Friday, September 03, 2004

By Ian Bremmer
president of Eurasia Group and a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute

New York -- Few countries today have as much direct impact on global economic and political stability as China. And at the center of that impact is the intensifying contest for power and influence between Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin.

A little background: In November 2002, Jiang Zemin passed the Chinese Communist Party's highest post to Hu Jintao. Five months later, Jiang ceded Hu the state presidency. But Jiang has yet to surrender his third, and perhaps most important, position, that of chair of the Central Military Commission. Hu was widely expected to inherit this role after a short transitional interval, or at the latest, the Central Committee plenum in September.

But he's still waiting, and Jiang shows no sign of stepping down. So while Hu has ultimate authority to resolve questions of both state and party, it is the 77-year-old Jiang who commands the 2.3 million troops of the People's Liberation Army.

Implications of this struggle for China have been broad and far-reaching. And while their economic and domestic political differences are important, the big story for China's neighbors and beyond is Hu and Jiang's sharp split on security questions.

Hu's policy of "peaceful rise" is designed to reassure regional actors that China's economic, political, and military rise, while inevitable, will not destabilize the existing regional order. For him, China's interest is in promoting a stable status quo. Jiang, who has lobbied to remove the phrase "peaceful rise" from official discourse, has demonstrably more assertive foreign policy inclinations.

In Hong Kong, for instance. After widespread street protests there this July, Hu studiously avoided taking any potentially incendiary action. Jiang, on the other hand, used his military authority to answer pro-democracy public protests with tighter security measures. In case anyone missed his message, the People's Liberation Army celebrated the holiday that marks its Aug. 1 founding with its first parade in Hong Kong ever, with 3,000 Chinese soldiers flanked by tanks and aircraft marching through the city.

On North Korea's nuclear program, while Hu's position remains fairly close to that of the United States and Japan, pressuring Pyongyang to continue with productive six-party talks, Jiang has been principally interested in minimizing U.S. influence in the neighborhood, arguing that the onus should be on Washington to adopt a more conciliatory position.

The rivalry between Hu and Jiang is most destabilizing in Taiwan, shifting the entire political spectrum to the right, as cadres scramble to demonstrate their patriotism against political adversaries. Jiang has adopted the hardline tack, fearing Hu's policy undermines the credibility of China's stated determination to go to war with Taiwan if the island's leaders claim its independence. To preserve that credibility, after the March re-election of President Chen Shui-bian in Taiwan, Jiang commented that war with Taiwan was "inevitable" In July, he called on the military to develop the capacity to take the island by force by 2020, while the army mobilized 18,000 soldiers in weeklong land, sea, and air exercises intended to simulate an invasion.

Taiwan's leaders aren't helping: Chen has amassed political capital by publicly answering China's aggressive rhetoric in kind. Chen's assertions of Taiwan's right to independence were reiterated in the United States last week by the anti-Beijing rhetoric of a large delegation led by Prime Minister Yu Shyi-kun. When I asked the prime minister about cross-straits relations, he described Taiwan as a beautiful young woman, and China as a big man with a gun demanding marriage.

Jiang responded in kind, raising pressure on Taiwan's neighbors, and leading Singapore and Australia to take the remarkable step of declaring they would no longer defend Taiwan if China attacked (though Prime Minister John Howard of Australia later recanted after senior Bush administration officials expressed surprise and concern).

Is the storm still building? If Jiang retains his military chairmanship after the September party plenum, the factionalism will intensify, compelling Beijing to harden its posture on Taiwan. No aspect of U.S.-Chinese relations provokes more friction than Taiwan's international status. Over the past year there's been reason for optimism, since the United States generally shares Jiang's view that Chen's belligerence should be discouraged. But a decision in Beijing that the discouragement should come by way of the People's Liberational Army will be decidedly unwelcome in Washington. Above all else, Taiwan's future relies on the struggle in Beijing.

Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group and a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute.