Foreign minister S Jaishankar reiterated the Indian position – that the LAC standoff cast a negative light on the entire India-China relationship and that improvement in the latter depended on the standoff being resolved soon – at an SCO meet in Dushanbe on Wednesday. Should we hold our breath for peace and tranquillity to be restored in border areas, and for India-China relations to return to an even keel soon?
For an answer, one could do worse than turn to the keynote speech delivered by President Xi Jinping on July 1, marking the centenary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) this month. Xi admonished foreigners that they would have their “heads bashed bloody against a Great Wall of steel forged by over 1.4 billion Chinese people”, if they attempted to “bully” China.
Since no one can remember who has tried to bully China in recent times, a great deal hinges on what Xi and the CCP interpret as “bullying” or even “China”. The same speech also warned Taiwan and its “foreign” friends of “resolute actions” against “Taiwan independence”, as reunifying it with China was the Party’s “historic mission and unshakable commitment”. Likewise, the CCP considers Arunachal Pradesh to be part of China, as the southern part of its Tibetan province.
The Party is marking its centenary with a great deal of pomp and pageantry, and indeed it has much to celebrate. China was a poor country when the Party was born; now it’s a $16 trillion behemoth, on course to become the largest economy in the world. About 800 million Chinese have come out of poverty over the last four decades. At a time when communist parties are dying or dead across the world the CCP has 95 million members, a number higher than Germany’s total population. To all appearances the CCP today is indeed a glittering, awesome machine.
China’s leaders like to project an air of inevitability about their nation’s continuing advance, with a coming “Chinese century” to serve as just recompense for an alleged “century of humiliation”. They put this together with a narrative of inexorable Western decline – for instance, Xi claimed in a speech last year “The East is rising and the West is declining.” Neither does Beijing have a very high estimate of New Delhi’s capacities – the “Chindia” dream is purely an Indian fantasy.
What many miss about the Chinese Communist Party is that it is a Communist Party – anyone going through Xi’s centenary speech cannot miss the Marxist rhetoric. This central fact about the CCP has been obscured by the flexibility and pragmatism it displayed in the reform years inaugurated by Deng, designed to ensure its survival when communist parties were in decline.
However, in another keynote speech – when Xi was re-selected as Party general secretary for a second time in October 2017 – he essentially overthrew Deng’s “hide your strength, bide your time” doctrine: “China has stood up, grown rich, become strong, and is moving towards centre stage.” Thus, if Xi’s centenary speech has more than a whiff of “wolf warrior” sentiment, that’s no accident. And the certainty about China’s continuing advance also stems from the Marxist certainty that it alone has read history right, and can leverage its forces to maximum advantage.
This new approach, in what has been officially termed “a new era” under Xi’s leadership, brings in rigidities that do set up vulnerabilities for the Party. Xi is centralising economic and political decision making at a time when the Chinese economy is approaching a productivity frontier, as indicated by the spiralling debt it incurs to squeeze out each additional percentage of growth – its total debt has grown from 140% of GDP in 2008 to nearly 290% of GDP now.
To break out of this cycle while ensuring high growth China needs better technology, and indeed it is investing heavily in high-tech industries. But it’s here that its opacity on Covid, and general practice of “wolf warrior” diplomacy, is going to hurt it. These have triggered a strategic confrontation with the US, which has set up a technology and market denial regime. Meanwhile, the formidable digital-era surveillance state Xi is setting up internally has led to widespread suspicion of China’s own high-tech exports – look at the escalating bans on Huawei products worldwide.
There are other structural limitations as well – China’s rapidly ageing population, its stark inequalities and neglect of its rural population. There’s also the question of what happens when Xi, who’s 68 currently and has abolished term limits to his time in office, ages or dies – an intense power struggle within the CCP is all but inevitable.
These factors, however, will manifest only in the long run. In the short run, it’s best to remember the prophecy made by Asia’s wise man, Lee Kuan Yew: while the “Chinese will [initially] want to share this century as co-equals with the US” they ultimately have the “intention to be the greatest power in the world”.
There’s abundant evidence that China intends to dominate its periphery; as a consequence New Delhi will face intense pressure from Beijing, which will wax and wane over the medium term. To ride this out New Delhi must take a leaf out of Beijing’s book and learn to play the long game. This could include intermittent wars, both on the LAC and the LoC. Indian foreign policy, and its military, will be tested as never before.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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