What is Xi up to?
Despite Modi government’s series of friendly gestures towards China in the last six years, why is it that China has not been “appeased” and now created a war-like situation in Ladakh by challenging the Line of Actual Control (LAC) that both New Delhi and Beijing are supposed to respect till a final and lasting solution of the boundary-dispute is arrived at?
It is difficult to find a single satisfactory answer to this question. Let me attempt a few of them and guess what the probable answer is singularly or in combination.
At the outset, let us keep in mind that Chinese aggressive designs or actions in Ladakh should not be seen in isolation. China is now fighting many countries in many ways at many levels. The intensity may not be the same in all these fights, but unmistakably there are fights. China has challenged the United States in South China Sea and East China Sea by interfering with its surveillance activities. It is aggravating territorial disputes by displaying muscular behaviour in East China sea with Japan and in South China Sea with Vietnam and the Philippines. It has intruded into Taiwan’s air space many a time in the recent past. It is on the course of a violent takeover the governance of Honk Kong by abandoning its earlier commitment to the principle of “one country, two systems”. It has threatened Australia by cutting back imports from that country just because it raised questions on China’s handling of the Covid -19 virus. China is now claiming internationally that it is no less than the United States in power and reach and abandoning the conservative and low-profile approach to foreign affairs that characterized the years of its so-called “four modernisations”.
One of the basics in international affairs is that a country’s foreign policy or military (short of war) behaviour is usually influenced by systemic conditions, domestic environment and its leaders. Systemic conditions here imply a country’s profile and power-projection in international system. Viewed thus, it is said that Chinese assertiveness is a response to changes in the international distribution of power after the 2008 global financial crisis. Now that China is a “global economic powerhouse”, it has, so the theory goes on, new interests and responsibilities, something that the rest of the world must respect, particularly when there is now a declining faith in American leadership capabilities.
However, as Taiwanese scholar Nienchung Chang- liao argues, the above explanation does not cut much ice on two grounds.” First, there was no surge in export and import activity in China after the 2008 financial crisis. China’s international trade rose to 65 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2006, but by 2014 had fallen back to around 40 per cent of GDP. Overall, China’s continuing prosperity was driven by enlarging domestic consumption, not by expanding foreign trade. Second, China’s economic interests are likely to be threatened by efforts to flex its maritime muscle. China’s trade with the United States and Japan, its largest and third-largest trading partners respectively, could only be jeopardized by the kind of maritime machismo that Washington and Tokyo would naturally find alarming. China’s energy imports from the Middle East are also protected by American free trade and freedom of navigation policy. China’s image of international assertiveness will do little to serve its business community’s interest in expanding foreign markets’’, he writes, adding that China is still way behind the United States in both economic and military terms.
If a system-level examination of China’s changing external environment and overseas economic interests is not a plausible explanation of Beijing’s foreign policy shifts, we may now turn to the impact of the domestic factors. Here, there are three components – upsurge of nationalism, bureaucratic-tussles and elites-rivalry. Given the fact that China is a totalitarian state, the ‘mob’ nationalism is often manufactured by the top leadership, it does not generate from the below to influence the top leadership’s behaviour. In fact, Chinese nationalism has reared its head repeatedly over the past few decades, with regular appeals by the Chinese leadership, to adopt aggressive policies, particularly against Japan over territorial claims and Taiwan over national unity. Given the state’s manipulation of the mass media and mass education, the Chinese leadership can always generate public support for anything to serve its diplomatic purposes.
Once nationalist fervour has been whipped up, leaders can claim that their choices were constrained and compromise is difficult. But, in our case in Ladakh, the fact remains that the Chinese leadership has totally underplayed the incidents by totally banning any news in this regard in their mainstream papers. Chinese reactions have been limited only to party’s English paper “Global Times”, meant for foreign audience. That being the case, Chinese nationalism is not the issue.
Similarly, China’s assertiveness and hard-line policy in Ladakh as a result of the bureaucratic competition within China does not make much sense. It is true that some scholars attach great importance to the influence of the People’s Liberation Army on Chinese foreign policy. In our case, it is said that Gen. Zhao Zongqi, who was promoted to the rank of a General in 2015 and made the Commanding officer of the Western Theatre Command (Tibet comes under him), has been traditionally to be anti-India, and therefore, he might have exceeded his brief set by the central leadership. But then the fact remains that the PLA is strongly under the control of Chinese Communist party and Zhao himself is a member of the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China.
Besides, in a large and diverse country such as China, one bureaucratic apparatus (PLA) will not be allowed to overcome the resistance of others, particularly when the bureaucratic elites of a country invariably prefer status quo, hence no policy-change, particularly when it pertains to wars. In other words, the party leaders remain firmly in charge.
That leaves the factor of elite-competition. But does that exist in China? No doubt that elite-competition is an important issue, particularly when an authoritarian or totalitarian country is under a leadership-transition. That is not the case with China. As the Communist Party head in 2012 and President of China the next year, Xi Jinping is the supreme leader of the country, particularly after he abolished the term-limits for top posts, allowing him and others chosen by him to continue beyond the accepted retirement age.
It is of course true that for the first time after he assumed office in 2012, Xi is under little pressure following the Corona-invasion, growing unemployment (from around 20 million in 2019 to an estimated 70-80 million by March this year) and declining economy. He has come under open criticisms in the social media. A well-known jurist and law professor, XU Zhangrun, previously sanctioned for criticising Xi, has published an essay urging people to speak out and “cast aside their fear” as the corona virus has revealed the “rotten core of Chinese governance”. Similarly, Ren Zhiqiang, a former property tycoon and party official has written about Xi, describing him to be a “clown with no clothes who was determined to play Emperor”. But predictably, these dissenters have been silenced by Xi. Ren is now either under investigation or arrest; he has not been publicly seen since he wrote the critical piece on Xi. Most likely, he is in jail like more than one million party members who have been incarcerated or punished by Xi’s extra-judicial anti-corruption campaign.
Xi does not have potent enemy now in China. He has further centralised power and authority in the post-Covid period. Since Xi has largely succeeded in rewriting the narrative in China, I will give real importance to the factor of leadership in describing Chinese foreign policy under him in general and towards India in particular. This “individual-level explanation” assumes that policy change occurs because of changes in dominant political elites’ perceptions. Xi and his close followers have become a dynamic force behind China’s self-assertion. China’s assertive or aggressive foreign behaviour is thus a result of Xi’s assessments of the external environments and personal preferred options.
Xi seems confident at the moment that he can exploit the window of opportunity to ratchet up military build-up, extend the nation’s interests and expand China’s geopolitical reach. It may be noted that during his report to the 19th National Party Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in October 2017, Xi had outlined China’s new international role, stating that: “the Chinese nation … has stood up, grown rich, and become strong – and it now embraces the brilliant prospects of rejuvenation … It will be an era that sees China moving closer to centre stage and making greater contributions to mankind.” He further described the PRC a, “mighty force” in international affairs and emphasized that the Chinese military: “must regard combat capability as the criterion to meet in all its work, and focus on how to win when it is called on.”
In an analysis of Party Congress speeches over the last 20 years, a study found that no party leader has referred to China as a “great power” or “strong power” more often than Xi had in this opening address.The Belt and Road Initiative, increased foreign investment and a stronger maritime policy are just some of the manifestations of Xi’s pursuit of a more active role in international affairs.
Viewed thus, it is hard to believe that what is happening in Ladakh does not have Xi’s approval. But what are its implications, or for that matter the implications of his other actions in other parts of the world? That only future will say, depending on the world’s acceptance or rejection of Xi’ “Chinese Dream”. Being a dreamer is one thing, but being “responsible” is a different proposition altogether.
By Prakash Nanda