The concept of a “period of strategic opportunity” was first introduced by Jiang Zemin in 2002. In his political report to the 16th Party Congress, Jiang identified “the first two decades of the twenty-first century” as “an important period of strategic opportunity that must be grasped tightly.” In Jiang’s telling, the turn of the 21st century introduced a rare window of time in which China could focus all of its efforts on economic development. By embracing the forces of globalization during this window, the Party had the opportunity to build Chinese power through peaceful means, thereby laying the foundation for “a strong, prosperous, democratic and culturally advanced socialist country by the middle of this century” (Jiang 2002).
Jiang’s slogan was born out of the foreign policy debates that racked the Communist Party of China in the late 1990s. A decade before Deng Xiaoping had declared that PEACE AND DEVELOPMENT WERE THE THEME OF THE TIMES; a suite of reform era policies—including China’s opening to outside investment, Deng’s pursuit of market reforms, and the decision to terminate support for Maoist guerillas in the developing world—flowed from this assessment. A world trending towards peace and economic integration was a world where it was safe to focus the work of the Chinese party-state on economic reform.
The annual debates over China’s trading status in Washington, the 1997 Taiwan Straits crisis, and America’s 1999 bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade all put Deng’s assessment of the international scene to question. Many in China believed that it had been a mistake to prioritize economic growth over military power or confrontation with the United States. China’s ascension to the WTO and the 9/11 attacks—which diverted American hostility away from the PRC and towards the Middle East—put an end to their worries. By 2002 it was clear that globalization would not only power China’s economic ascent but would also temper opposition to China’s growing material might.
Jiang’s conception of the period of strategic opportunity was endorsed by the two men who governed China during the remainder of this window of opportunity. Both Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping repeated Jiang’s phrase verbatim; both paired it with fulsome depictions of globalization as an unstoppable historical force. Yet as Xi Jinping’s second term came to a close, economic integration seemed a far less powerful trend than it had seemed at the start of tenure. By that point the BELT AND ROAD INITIATIVE had met with numerous setbacks; China was engaged in an unforgiving trade war with the United States, and anti-China sentiment was rising across the globe. Two decades after Jiang’s introduction of the period of strategic opportunity, Xi would offer a new assessment of the times:
Our country has entered a period of development in which strategic opportunities, risks, and challenges are concurrent and uncertainties and unforeseen factors are rising… We must therefore be more mindful of potential dangers, be prepared to deal with worst-case scenarios, and be ready to withstand high winds, choppy waters, and even dangerous storms (Xi 2022).
Xi’s new formula does not predict imminent war. It does suggest, however, that the Party can no longer rely on globalization and economic integration to shepherd the REJUVENATION OF THE CHINESE NATION. In an international environment defined by risk and danger, the strategies of the reform era are no longer sufficient to secure the Party CENTER’s desired future.
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