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Hong Kong CNN  — 

It was a crowning moment for Xi Jinping when he stepped onto a red-carpet stage on Sunday to begin his norm-shattering third term as China’s supreme leader.

Xi, 69, has emerged from the ruling Communist Party’s five-yearly congress with more power than ever, stacking his party’s top tiers with longtime proteges and staunch allies.

That loyal inner circle has not only strengthened Xi’s hold on power – but also tightened his grip over China’s future. To an extent unseen in decades, the country’s trajectory is shaped by the vision and ambition of one man, with minimal room for discord or recalibration at the party’s apex of power.

In the eyes of Xi, China is closer than ever to achieving its dream of “national rejuvenation” and reclaiming its rightful place in the world. But the path ahead is also beset with “high winds, choppy waters, or even dangerous storms” – a dark warning Xi made at both the start and the end of the week-long congress.

The growing challenges have stemmed from “a grim and complex international situation,” with “external attempts to suppress and contain China” threatening to “escalate at any time,” according to Xi’s work report to the congress.

Observers say Xi’s answer to that darkening outlook is to intensify the fierce defense of China’s national interests and security against all perceived threats.

“Xi is likely to tightly control and be involved in all major foreign policy decisions. His packing of the top Chinese leadership with loyalists will allow him to better control and exert influence,” said Bonny Lin, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) China Power Project.

What he decides to do – and how he goes about doing it – will have a profound impact on the world.

China and the West

Xi steps into his next era in power facing a significantly different landscape to his previous two terms. The relationship between China and the West has changed dramatically with US-China relations cratering over a trade and tech war, frictions over Taiwan, Covid-19, Beijing’s human rights record and its refusal to condemn Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Xi’s work report, a five-yearly action plan delivered during the congress, pointed to “drastic changes” on the international landscape, including “external attempts to blackmail, contain, blockade, and exert maximum pressure” on China – terms often used by Chinese diplomats to decry US actions.

The new Politburo Standing Committee members assemble in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

“It is clear that Xi sees China having entered a period primarily of struggle in the international arena rather than a period of opportunity,” said Andrew Small, author of “No Limits: The Inside Story of China’s War with the West.”

An expectation that ties will deteriorate further “is resulting in a China that is far more openly engaged in systemic rivalry with the West – greater assertiveness, more overtly ideologically hostile positions, more efforts to build counter-coalitions of its own, and a bigger push to shore up China’s position in the developing world,” he said.

These pressures are also likely to impact Beijing’s close relationship with Moscow. While China has sought to appear as a neutral actor in the war in Ukraine, it has refused to condemn Russia’s invasion and instead blamed the West for the conflict – a dynamic that also may be unlikely to change.

“(Xi) already seems to have written off many of the costs that result from (that relationship) for China’s relations with the West, and Europe in particular,” Small said.

Threat posed to Taiwan

At the opening of the congress on October 16, Xi won the loudest and longest ovation from the nearly 2,300 handpicked delegates inside Beijing’s Great Hall of the People when he vowed to “reunify” the mainland with Taiwan – a self-governing democracy Beijing claims as its own, despite having never controlled it.