By: Our Correspondent

The lame duck factor is a fact of American political grammar. It
describes the third year of the final term of a sitting president. From
then on, all important policy decisions or policy changes must wait
until the election of his successor. Is a similar phenomenon also
emerging for China, which is not a democracy?

Even for a
non-democratic system, China has institutionalized the process of
orderly succession of its president and prime minister. President Hu
Jintao has a little more than a year left before he must step down. How
does that fact weigh among US China-watchers who are advising President
Barack Obama? Are US-China relations going to be less or more
confrontational or conciliatory when his successor comes to power?

From
the perspective of the lame duck factor for China, Hu made his last
consequential trip to Washington last week. He visited the US amid high
speculation about the People's Liberation Army's purported independence
from China's civilian leadership. Given how far off the US intelligence
analysts have been about a number of issues regarding China, one cannot
attach much weight to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates' assertions that
when he was about to meet the Chinese president, Hu was not aware that
the PLA made the decision to fly China's stealth fighter J-20 at that
time. Gates also made an observation about a possible disconnect between
the PLA and China's civilian leadership. Hu was even described as a
weak leader.

Hu had barely returned to China from his American
trip when the New York Times ran a story that The Chinese leader "has
already begun preparing for his departure from power, passing the baton
to his presumed successor, a former provincial leader named Xi Jinping…"

Even
if the lame duck factor is a real phenomenon for the People's Republic
of China, one still cannot overstate its significance, because policies
in the post-Deng Xiaoping era are a product of bureaucratic consensus
and not necessarily driven by one dominant leader. Since no one really
knows – certainly not the US intelligence agencies – which leader's
views would become as the driving defense or economic policies, it is
hard to state which politician would emerge as the architect of what
particular policy in the coming years. The era of political giants in
China is over, with the death of Deng. The fourth and the fifth
generation of leaders are, and will be, known for their personal touch
in a considerably less significant way than was Deng.

When we put
into perspective what we know about Hu's expected successor, Xi
Jinping, who is currently serving as China's vice president, the
uppermost fact that emerges is that he is a princeling, the son of a
well-known leader. As such, he brings with him a lot of "political
acumen, family connection and ideological dexterity." However, none of
these characteristics points to the possibility that he is likely to be a
charismatic leader, even remotely resembling the allure of Mao Zedong
or Deng. Xi is reported to have "deeper military ties than his two
predecessors," Hu and former President Jiang Zemin, when they took the
helm. Even that type of relationship is not likely to enable him to play
a dominant role in military affairs.

Xi is likely to be more of
an expert in steering bureaucratic consensus to support his policy
preferences. If he were to succeed in doing that, it would say a lot
about his leadership. However, no one expects him to break new
directions on major policy issues important to the United States or any
other major country.

Xi is socialized – as has been every leader
of China in the post-Deng era – to give enormous primacy to China's
economic growth. He will have ample room to maneuver in his dealings
with Washington or New Delhi, or other major European, Latin American,
and Asian powers, but only about what has been previously agreed to in
the backroom dealings with Beijing.

How much room will he be
allowed to promote innovative ideas of his own within the ranks of
China's communist party? That depends more on China's own speed of
continued economic development and the shape of global affairs than
anything else. The linkages between domestic and international politics
play as significant a role in Beijing as they do in Washington or in any
other capital.

It is an established fact that China draws its
own policy cues from what the United States is doing at a given time,
both in the realms of economic policy and the modernization of its
military. If the decline of the United States were to appear more
conclusive or irreversible in the next few years than it is in the
beginning of 2011, then one can rest assured that China will be more
assertive (even in a friendly way) about making its own policy
preferences known about reforming the international monetary system and
global environmental laws, and regarding other affairs of East Asia.

For
example, one has to keep an eye on how far China would go in adding
more issues to its list of "core interests" in the coming years. At
least for now, it knows that it does not have much leeway in extending
that list, because the United States has responded rather decisively
about the importance of diplomatic resolution of issues listed under its
core issues, as opposed to unilaterally adding issues to that list and
then declaring that they cannot be negotiated. By the same token, when
China and Japan were having diplomatic spats about the Senkaku/Diaoyu
islands, the Obama administration was also unequivocal about siding with
its major ally in the region, Japan. Those were clear signals to the
Chinese conservative leadership to back off.

As China's global
profile continues to grow, it is required to have at its helm leaders
who are well-versed in the incessantly transforming nuances of global
politics than those leaders from the third and the fourth generations.

By
the same token, the internal process of policy deliberations of China
has to become equally sophisticated, with growing reliance on
specialists and experts on complicated issues of global trade and
military competition. All these developments underscore the emergence of
a leader who feels very much at home in dealing with complex issues, a
pragmatic person, and a person whose charisma is used to influence and
promote internal consensus of China in global arena in a highly
deliberate manner. Xi Jinping seems to fit that bill.

China seems
to have reached a state in its development when it is likely to be more
assertive in demanding that the international rules of the game be
changed. There is nothing inherently confrontational about that. The
global political and economic institutions – the U.N., the IMF, and the
World Bank – belong to the anachronistic realities of the post-World War
II era. The so-called "great powers" of that era (Britain, France, and
Russia, for instance) need to be moved into less significant categories
of nations.

Room must be made for China, India, Brazil, and even
South Korea, Turkey, Indonesia, and Mexico, since they are increasingly
emerging as new powers of the future. A new Chinese leader might be
more forthcoming and assertive on such issues. In this sense, the end of
China's lame duck era of Hu's leadership is a good thing for more
realistic debates affecting the world at large.

Ehsan Ahrari,
Ph.D. is a specialist in great power relations and transnational
security. His latest book on great power relations is entitled, The
Great Powers and the Hegemon: Strategic Maneuvers. He can be reached at ahrarie@gmail.com