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China to Choose New Slate of Leaders: How Will It Affect the U.S.?

Chinese President Hu Jintao (on the screen) speaks during the opening session of the 18th Communist Party Congress on Nov. 8. Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images.

After a year of political scandals, China is selecting a new batch of leaders at a meeting of the Communist Party that starts Thursday.

Who: The National Congress of the Communist Party of China meets once about every five years.

What: The National Congress will choose new members of the Politburo Standing Committee. President Hu Jintao’s successor already has been named: Xi Jinping.

When: An announcement about the new leaders is expected by Nov. 14.

Where: They’ll meet at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

Why: This year’s meeting is significant because there’s a higher than normal turnover in the leadership, including the top two positions: president and premier.

How will the new leaders — and President Obama’s re-election — impact U.S.-Chinese relations? We asked the following analysts that question (answers edited for clarity and length):

David Lampton

Director of China Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies

Even without considering personnel changes, the mere fact of getting past hothouse succession/election politics in both China and the United States is a significant plus for bilateral relations. It means that decisions can be made without overweighting purely domestic considerations in both societies.

With regard to the Obama administration, one can expect basic continuity in the thrust of policy rebalancing toward Asia perhaps with a softer touch, and an ongoing attempt to get a level trade playing field by pushing with some vigor in the World Trade Organization on trade issues. But, the thrust will be continuity with policy in the first term.

Having said this, we probably will soon see change in the secretary of state, defense secretary, treasury secretary, and perhaps other key players. On balance, all the likely candidates to succeed in these posts have both experience and commitment to sound U.S.-China relations.

In China, the new leadership has not been announced, but one can say two things: First, President Hu Jintao’s Report to the Party Congress of today indicated a basic new leadership belief that China remained in a period of opportunity for development which to me means it does not expect, and does not want, external turmoil.

Second, most of the likely candidates for the Standing Committee of the Politburo, irrespective of who specifically is chosen, have had considerable experience dealing with the outside world and the United States. China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, for instance, has had extensive conversations with Vice President Biden and it is my understanding that both sides are quite confident that they can work with each other. In short, I think there is an opportunity to sum up some of the past frictions and push relations positively forward.

Zha Dajiong

International political economy professor at Peking University’s School of International Studies

“No new surprise” is an ideal beginning for the second Obama administration and a new team of China’s leaders to approach each other. There was a good deal of rhetoric, including that during the U.S. presidential campaign, about China. Understandably, I suppose, China will have incentive to wait and see what first next step from Washington, D.C., is going to be in deed and in words.

Elizabeth Economy

Senior fellow and director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations

It’s too early to know how the leadership change in China might affect U.S.-China relations. There’s not much indication that President Obama is planning to change his policy toward China in some sort of radical way. I think the administration here feels as though the most recent couple of years have actually been fairly good for the U.S. position in Asia and in terms of what we can do with China.

I think the change, if there’s going to be one, will have to emanate from the Chinese side. Two things I think argue against a fundamental transformation: first, we don’t know who else will be in the top leadership. This is a consensus leadership, so even though the president can set the tone, he still has to bring along the other six members of the Standing Committee, and whether or not they are favorably inclined toward the United States will make a difference.

Second, we might see some dialing back of what has been quite an assertive Chinese policy in the last two years: Stepping back from all the conflicts in the East and South China Seas and not pushing forward so aggressively talking about moving away from the dollar as the world’s reserve currency. Not asserting China as an alternative power to the United States in some ways, but really saying we want to work with the United States. It’s possible Xi Jinping might adopt this approach, but it’s hard to know. If the economy continues to be a drag in China then it argues that nationalism probably will continue to be a pillar on which Xi Jinping will want to rest his leadership, and that would suggest we’re not going to see a stepping back from this very assertive Chinese policy.

Related Coverage:

David Shambaugh, director of the China Policy Program and professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, discusses the implications of the ouster of Bo Xilai on the Sept. 28 NewsHour:

We’ll hear more from David Lampton on Thursday’s NewsHour broadcast. Browse all of our World coverage and follow us on Twitter:

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