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Close Army Ties of China’s New Leader Could Test the US

A policeman patrols under a giant communist emblem on the Tiananmen Square on June 28, 2011 in Beijing, China.
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A policeman patrols under a giant communist emblem on the Tiananmen Square on June 28, 2011 in Beijing, China.

On one of his many visits abroad in recent years, Xi Jinping, the presumptive new leader of China, met in 2009 with local Chinese residents in Mexico City, where in a relaxed atmosphere he indirectly criticized the United States.

"There are a few foreigners, with full bellies, who have nothing better to do than try to point fingers at our country," Mr.Xi said, according to a tape broadcast on Hong Kong television. "China does not export revolution, hunger, poverty nor does China cause you any headaches. Just what else do you want?"

Mr.Xi is set to be elevated to the top post of the Chinese Communist Party at the 18th Party Congress scheduled to begin here on Nov.8 — only two days after the American election.

He will take the helm of a more confident China than the United States has ever known.

He will be assuming supreme power in China at a time when relations between the two countries are adrift, sullied by suspicions over a clash of interests in Asia and by frequent attacks on China in the American presidential campaign.

In the last four months, China has forged an aggressive, more nationalistic posture in Asia that may set the tone for Mr.Xi's expected decade-long tenure, analysts and diplomats say, pushing against American allies, particularly Japan, for what China considers its territorial imperatives.

The son of a revolutionary general, Mr.Xi, 59, boasts far closer ties to China's fast-growing military than the departing leader, Hu Jintao, had when he took office.

As Mr.Xi rose through the ranks of the Communist Party, he made the most of parallel posts in the People's Liberation Army, deeply familiarizing himself with the inner workings of the armed forces.

Even if Mr.Xi does not immediately become head of the crucial Central Military Commission as well as party leader, he will almost certainly do so within two years, giving him at least eight years as the direct overseer of the military.

This combination of political power as head of the Communist Party and good relations with a more robust military could make Mr.Xi a formidable leader for Washington to contend with, analysts and diplomats in China and the United States say.

"The basic question is whether Xi will suspend the drift in the U.S.-China relationship and take concrete steps to put it on a more positive footing — or will he put it on a different, more confrontational track?" said Christopher K.Johnson, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, and until recently a China analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency.

The answer appears to lie somewhere in between.

In a speech in Washington in February, Mr.Xi said that China and the United States should forge a "new type of relationship between major countries in the 21st century." Mr.

Xi offered little specificity beyond respect for each side's "core interests and major concerns," "increasing mutual understanding and strategic trust" and "enhancing cooperation and coordination in international affairs." But essentially, said Jin Canrong, a professor at the School of International Studies at Renmin University in Beijing, Mr.Xi was challenging the global leadership of the United States by suggesting that Washington needs to make room for China's rising power.

"China should shoulder some responsibility for the United States and the United States should share power with China," Dr.Jin said.

"The United States elites won't like it," he added, "but they will have to" accept it.

Dr.Jin predicted that the Chinese economy would continue to grow at a much faster pace than America's.

"That fact will change their minds," Dr.Jin said of American attitudes toward sharing power with China.

Before becoming heir apparent — ascending at the last party congress in 2007 to the position of first secretary of the Communist Party and then a few months later to the vice presidency of the Chinese government — Mr.Xi had little exposure to the world beyond China.

Significantly, though, he spent much of his career before moving to Beijing in the coastal area of Fujian and Zhejiang Provinces across from Taiwan, which China regards as a breakaway province.

In that capacity, he nurtured economic ties with Taiwan, and met frequently with Taiwan business leaders who made huge investments transforming the two provinces into one of China's most powerful economic engines.

In 2003, when he was elevated from provincial governor to party chief in Zhejiang, the top position there, Mr.Xi kept the portfolio of relations with Taiwan, even though Taiwan affairs were usually relegated to the governor, said Joseph Wu, a former representative of Taiwan in Washington and a member of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party.

In the medium term, Mr.Wu said, he expects Mr.Xi to be "tougher" in calling for greater integration between Taiwan and the mainland, a policy that Taiwan has resisted so far.

Since becoming vice president, Mr.Xi has visited more than 50 countries, a concerted effort to get to know the world before taking power, said Bo Zhiyue, senior research fellow at the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore, who tracks elite politics in China.

In contrast, Mr.Hu made 17 foreign visits during his tenure as vice president, Dr.Bo said.

One of the big changes from the past decade, when China's foreign policy was focused on securing raw materials from abroad for its soaring domestic economy, will be a stronger emphasis on building up the military to protect China's interests in Asia and expand its reach abroad.

Mr.Xi is perfectly positioned to take on that role.

"The P.L.A.considers he is their man," said Dr.Jin, the professor at Renmin University.

Mr.Xi will be in charge of a military whose budget almost certainly will grow at a pace with the economy, or even faster. The People's Liberation Army is awaiting an array of sophisticated weaponry now under development, including space and long-range missiles capable of use against American aircraft carriers in the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

The question is how it plans to exploit them.

"There are voices in China saying that now that the military has the capacity, they should use them," said Phillip C.Saunders, director of the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs at the National Defense University in Washington.

As vice president, Mr.Xi has served as vice chairman of the Central Military Commission since 2010 under President Hu.

As part of the brutal factional politics at the top of the Communist Party, Mr.Hu delayed Mr.Xi's rise to the deputy post by one year, but that did little to undermine his longstanding ties to army leaders, Chinese officials say.

The Chinese military's new buoyancy comes as America's allies across Asia — Japan, South Korea, Australia and other friends, particularly Singapore and India — worry whether the United States has the money, and the will, to enhance its military presence in Asia, as President Obama has promised.

In this situation, China will try to make inroads across the region, Asian diplomats say.

But Mr.Xi, with his strong standing with military leaders, may also find himself called on at times to restrain the ambitions of the army.

"Xi will have to guide strategy," Dr.Saunders said. "Then he has to go back to the P.L.A.and say, 'This is how it will be.' That is potentially contentious."

Even before his watch begins, many see the stiffer hand of Mr.Xi in disputes in the South China Sea with the Philippines and Vietnam and in the East China Sea with Japan.

Chinese officials and commentators have alluded recently to what they see as the need for Japan to distance itself from the United States, even forgo the mutual defense treaty with Washington.

When Mr.Xi met with Defense Secretary Leon E.Panetta in Beijing in September, he delivered "an earful," and left the unmistakable message that the United States should stay out of the way in the standoff between Japan and China over claims to the disputed islands.

Many see that as a harbinger of an effort by Mr. Xi over the next decade to increase the power and presence of China in Asia, a region where the United States has held the upper hand since the end of World War II.