Two elections, one in the US and the other in China, have produced weakened governments that are not likely to be well-equipped to handle crises arising from misunderstanding or miscalculation.
Consequently, this could leave the US, with the world’s largest economy and most powerful military force, and China, with the second-largest economy and the fastest expanding military force, dangerously pitted against each other.
In the US elections, US President Barack Obama was re-elected by a narrow margin, getting only 50.5 percent of the popular vote. He carried only 27 of the 50 states as well as Washington. His Democratic Party retained a slim hold on the US Senate, while the opposition Republicans have solid control of the US House of Representatives.
Thus Obama hardly has a mandate to strike off in new directions, including policy toward China. Moreover, his foreign and security policy team is about to break up and will most likely be replaced by newcomers who will need some time to find their footing.
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has said she will leave office at the end of this term. US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta may step down early next year, as might Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner. Former CIA director David Petraeus resigned after disclosing an extra-marital affair.
Furthermore, a rift between the president and the military surfaced the day before the election, when 500 retired generals and admirals publicly endorsed then-Republican US presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
That was their constitutional right under the First Amendment, but it was of questionable propriety when US tradition dictates that military officers stay out of politics.
Against this divisive backdrop, any of Obama’s initiatives toward China that require political and public approval could be in jeopardy from the start.
In China, the 18th Party Congress called to “elect” Vice President Xi Jinping (習近平) to replace President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) heard the outgoing leader rail against rampant corruption that imperils the CCP’s rule.
Hu delivered a 90-minute keynote speech, in which he said: “Combating corruption and promoting political integrity, which is a major political issue of great concern to the people, is a clear-cut and long-term political commitment of the party.”
“If we fail to handle this issue well, it could prove fatal to the party, and even cause the collapse of the party and the fall of the state,” Hu said.
Xinhua news agency said that pressing tasks include “stopping the flagrant abuse of power and corruption among government officials and businesspeople — issues that have triggered a series of protests.”
Xi is a graduate of Tsinghua University, which is similar to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and is a technocrat who has risen steadily through the ranks of the CCP. He visited Washington to meet with Obama in February last year, but is not known for experience in foreign policy.
On national defense, Hu asserted that acquiring “powerful armed forces that are commensurate with China’s international standing” is a strategic task.
He said China should “intensify military preparedness and enhance the capability to accomplish a wide range of military tasks, the most important of which is to win local wars.”
Hu did not refer to the growing rift between the CCP and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which comprises all of China’s armed forces. The highly nationalistic PLA has been seen recently as more aggressive in asserting China’s claims in the South China and East China seas.
However, the PLA’s highest-ranking officer, General Guo Boxiong (郭伯雄), brought it up indirectly.
Guo, who is more a political general than a military one, was quoted by Xinhua as saying the PLA must “adhere to the principle of [the] party’s absolute leadership over the armed forces more voluntarily.”
Three more times in a nine-paragraph dispatch, Xinhua called for adherence to the “absolute leadership” of the CCP over the PLA. Those who read Chinese tea leaves say this harping can only mean the CCP is unhappy with the PLA’s defiance.
Against this divisive backdrop, any Chinese initiatives toward the US that require both political and PLA approval would also be in jeopardy from the very start.
Richard Halloran is a commentator based in Hawaii.