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3 reasons why China may become more assertive — and what that means for the U.S.

Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers a speech during the opening session of the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China on Sunday in Beijing.
Lintao Zhang
Getty Images
Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers a speech during the opening session of the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China on Sunday in Beijing.

Xi Jinping is expected to break longstanding tradition in the coming days and secure a third term as China's president, putting the country on a new course that could increase tensions with the U.S.

No other leader has had a third term since Mao Zedong, who founded the People's Republic of China. This break from historical norms would represent China moving into a new era, according to Yun Sun, a senior fellow and co-director of the East Asia Program and director of the China Program at the Stimson Center.

Sun told NPR there were three main factors that could play into Xi's assertiveness in the coming years.

1. Xi's focus will no longer be on domestic politics

For the past five years, Sun said Xi had largely focused on securing his third term, and part of that meant convincing his party to remove the term limit and break with tradition. Now, his political agenda is likely to change from primarily domestic to global.

"He's able to focus even more on implementing his foreign strategy and operationalizing his vision of the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation," Sun said. "That inevitably will lead to even more, I would say, contest for influence and a contest for leadership, contest for superiority with the United States."

2. More of Xi's political allies will be appointed to government positions

Sun said she expects the "political confidants" and "political loyalists" of Xi to be appointed to key positions involving national security and foreign policy to help enact his vision.

"This is actually one of the areas — compared to, for example, domestic reform and domestic economic policy — this is an area that Xi Jinping is going to prevail," Sun said. "These people are going to operationalize his vision and his strategy with even more momentum and more precision."

3. Dissenting voices will be removed

There are people within the government who do not believe that China's policies toward the U.S. are the best, Sun said, but she predicts that those voices will be "eliminated from within the bureaucracy," leaving China without a system of checks and balances.

Sun believes these three factors will "deepen Xi Jinping's boldness" – and that boldness will have an impact on U.S.-China relations.

What this could mean for the U.S.

Two key issues China and the U.S. are likely to clash over in the coming years are Taiwan and technology, according to Chris Li, the director of research at the Asia-Pacific Initiative at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

China's strategy toward Taiwan has not fundamentally changed, Li said, but "there's a perception that Beijing is more and more focused on no longer just deterring independence ... but rather, compelling reunification."

But that perception — and the resulting actions from the U.S., such as high-level congressional visits from the likes of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — has led to something of a catch-22 situation, Li said.

"You get this tit-for-tat retaliation where there's not a lot of trust ... and sort of a back and forth where the U.S. views its actions as responsive to China's actions, [and] China views its actions as a response to the U.S.'s actions," Li said.

Meanwhile, the tech industry has become a larger priority for China, especially as the country moves toward the "great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation" by the centennial of the People's Republic of China in 2049, in which Xi aims to make China a modern socialist country.

As this has become more of a focus, China has worked to bolster its domestic research and innovation capacity, Li said, and that has then caused those in the U.S. to talk about decoupling from China when it comes to the technology and the supply chains that support it.

With this response from Washington, and China's desire to increase its self-reliance, it's likely that "this sort of strategic competition between technological capabilities, between supply chains, that's going to accelerate," Li said.

While these are two specific issues, there's a larger one that plays into the overall relationship: the asymmetrical views both countries have of the relationship. The U.S. tries to approach things issue by issue, Li said, while China often sees everything as connected, with action needed on certain issues before talking about others.

That's led to what Li said is essentially an impasse. But that doesn't mean progress can't happen, only that achieving it will test both countries in the years to come.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Wynne Davis is a digital reporter and producer for NPR's All Things Considered.