In terms of its "soft" infrastructure, including the national political system, the Chinese government is unlikely to be able to deal with a major external crisis such as a showdown with the United States, Japan and Taiwan.
Judging from the leadership changes that took place at the 17th Communist Party Congress in Beijing last October, it appears that China's political dynamics will continue in the style of imperial palace politics.
Traditionally, highly centralized communist dictatorships such as those of Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong have been better able to deal with major internal or external crises than capitalist democratic systems. However, since Chinese communism has entered an age of "collective leadership" in which the authority of individual leaders no longer holds, the government's overall capability to handle external crises has significantly weakened.
Under the current framework of collective leadership, who would be ultimately responsible in the event of a major showdown with foreign powers?
Looking back at China's handling of crises during the post Cold War years, such as the mistaken NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia in 1999 and the collision of a Chinese fighter jet with a U.S. spy plane above the South China Sea in 2001, the obsolete Chinese bureaucratic structure could not effectively coordinate a response amidst the wrangling between different internal interest groups.
China simply has no operational mechanisms in place for crisis management. There is no effective and timely communication between different ministries or departments of government, which often delays the decision-making process. In addition, Chinese attitudes toward the outside world are often contradictory during different periods of time, so that its response to external events shifts with the political winds.
No one in the Chinese leadership is in a position to take a strong or controversial stance on an issue that would affect China's standing in the world. The selection of leaders within the Communist Party is based on balancing the interests of different factions and the ages of the candidates. None of the Standing Committee members of the Politburo selected at the most recent Congress is above the age of 68. It is said that this has been decided as a mandatory retirement age for all future Standing Committee members.
As a result, by the time of the next Party Congress in 2012 only two members of the current nine-member Politburo will remain in power, the newcomers Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang. This arrangement shows traces of former President Jiang Zemin's continued influence in China's top political leadership.
Xi Jinping, who is expected to replace Hu Jintao as the country's next president, has been very much in the good graces of Jiang and former Vice President Zeng Qinghong over the years. He is also a candidate that can be accepted by Hu's Youth League faction.
Xi's political background satisfies the requirements of all three major factions within the Chinese Communist Party -- the "old men's faction," the so-called princelings, or children of top leaders, the Youth League Faction, and even the military faction. As a result, he is the product of compromise among these interest groups.
This means that the current Standing Committee of the Politburo is destined to be short-lived, lasting not more than five years. The mandatory retirement age of 68 also means that Hu Jintao will have to step down from the top circle of Chinese leaders after the next Party Congress. Hu will not be able to enjoy the privilege of manipulating things from behind the scenes as did his predecessors Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin. Jiang retained this privilege all the way until last October's Party Congress.
All of this implies that the current leadership, with only five years to remain in power, is unlikely to take on the immense political risk of initiating a showdown with Taiwan.
Hu Jintao has now established his position as the "core" of the Chinese Communist Party, and his concept of "scientific development" has been written into the Party Constitution. This is not because of Hu's personal capability, however. It is rather due to the Chinese practice of insisting on a central core or model. In reality, Hu does not have 100 percent control over national or party affairs, however.
Politics at the center of power in China will continue to be stormy, with multifaceted power struggles playing out between the old and new factions. Strictly speaking, among the nine top party leaders, only Li Keqing belongs to Hu Jintao's faction. Fellow Politburo leaders Jia Qinglin and Li Changchun are still influenced by Jiang Zemin; new members Zhou Yongkang and He Guoqiang also have strong connections with Zeng Qinghong and Jiang Zemin. Wu Bangguo is seen as a neutral figure.
Keeping a balance among these power factions is of critical importance. The new political stars cannot be expected to take major risks in important and controversial areas like the Taiwan issue -- this would most likely mean sacrificing their political futures.
Only Hu Jintao could take such a step, provided he had the personal guts and resourcefulness.
But he has not much time or political space in which to maneuver. The fact that Jiang Zemin, following the model set up by Deng Xiaoping, has already anointed Xi Jinping as Hu's successor means Hu cannot behave as a dictator. He cannot easily introduce a new political agenda -- not even the resolution of the Taiwan Strait issue.
No matter how grand his vision, there is a limit to what Hu can do in the next five years. Should there be any miscalculation in his Taiwan policy, he will be held directly responsible. If he does well, however, it will be perceived largely as a result of the "unqualified support from Comrade Jiang Zemin and other veteran comrades of the Party." This is the dominant feature of "princeling" politics in modern China.
(Andrei Chang is editor in chief of Kanwa Defense Review Monthly, registered in Toronto.)