Sharing with friends my article published in Modern Diplomacy (EU), on 21 January,2018.
Modern Diplomacy is an invaluable platform of mainstream Western media and academia assessing and evaluating complex international issues . It is a leading media for European opinion-maker with far-reaching influence across the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.
January 21, 2018
Xi Jinping “The Dream Seller”
Xi started 2018 by dream-selling that all rural Chinese living below the poverty line would no more be poor by 2020. Internationally he projected himself as the crusader for world peace and climate change, insurer of international order (Despite ignoring the ruling of PCA and violating UNCLOS), with a resolve to push through Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to fulfill Chinese dream. It indirectly amounts to declaring himself as tallest leader on the planet, in the manner he got himself re-elected for second term and did everything possible to make himself great under the banner of ‘Making China Great’. He seems to start 2018, assuming that the world accept him as tallest autocratic leader, as China has accepted him without worthwhile checks and balances.
Post 19th Congress of CPC1, Xi Jumping’s election, enshrinement of his thoughts and ideas like BRI in the Chinese constitution, resulted into his self achievement of a parallel status to Mao Zedong in China. He has been on a title grabbing spree holding over 12 top class appointments in China. It includes becoming the Commander in Chief of Joint Battle Command of PLA, and now reorganizing CMC as its Chairman, with his loyalists holding top hierarchy, to rein PLA for him. He was able to sell the dream of prosperous life and freedom from poverty. He also demonstrated that mainland China is the safest place in the world with no terrorist attack so far1, in an era when no country feels safe from terror attacks of varying variety (Even if amounted to overlooking some Pakistan based militant groups support to ETIM, active in Xinjiang, isolation in support to Masood Azhar).
His anti-corruption drive was most popular amongst masses seeing powerful people in jail, notwithstanding the accusation of systematically eliminating the entire dissenting elements and all his possible competitors through every possible means including this drive. Many critiques in China and abroad feel that his real achievements do not match his elevation to the status of Mao, which would have definitely created some disgruntled elements in his system, and powerful lobbies who may be quiet now, because disagreeing with Xi ‘The Core’ is anti national and may lead to jail.
Internal risks ahead for Xi Jinping: creation of a boiling pot?
2018 sees ‘Financial Battle’ as the greatest challenge for Xi Jinping. Despite global slowdown his record of financial growth has not been good. He took over in 2012 with 7.9 percent GDP growth and his economist does not see him going beyond 6.5 in 2018. It is quite clear to the dream seller Xi Jinping, that so long he delivers economically, the people will tolerate his autocracy, and his opponents will be quite. So long CPC ensures economic progress and the people of China get a decent life, they will tolerate the forced praises of Xi Jinping. When his regime stops delivering economically, the democratic winds will start flowing from Hongkong and Taiwan, and the educated youth may not tolerate the autocratic system of Xi Jinping, having no worthwhile grievance redresser mechanism. After all China is third most popular educational hub, with largest number of PhD’s in the world, where population understands the entire power play. Xi’s loyalists assuming every key appointment in China including chiefs of State Owned Enterprises (SOE’s), which are surviving on bank loans. They cannot be assumed to be quiet forever. Hongkong continues to protest for more autonomy (the last one in the beginning of 2018, in City Square). Xi realizes the need for economic delivery and he continues to repeatedly emphasise on success of BRI. He did deliberate on economy in a mega economic conference, but his catchy slogans like “Xi Jinping’s Economic Thoughts on Socialism with Chinese charecteristics in New Era” have to deliver.
Riding the Tiger: PLA
Suppressing/sidelining PLA is like riding a tiger, because historically PLA had a major role in creation of PRC and has been having a stronghold in the CPC. In successive reorganizations of PLA, anyone who thought differently than Xi Jinping has been sidelined, with his puppets propped up including manning CMC. This has created a powerful lobby which has suffered in such reorganisation, with hidden potential to explode. Xi is also planning another watchdog body ‘National Supervisory Commission’ likely to be above law indicates that dissent has no place in “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” and adequate ‘Revolutionary Tampering’ will be resorted to quell dissent. It will also make PLA commanders extra cautious in exercising command, causing further disgruntlement. In fact Xi is pushing his country to a state where there is only one leader and everyone else is a worker. It is also fair to assume that whenever anyone gets more than his dues, everyone else becomes jealous of him and disgruntled, hesitant of cooperating willingly with him thus creating a boiling pot.
China can boast of speeding up its ammunition manufacture by utilizing robots, but with over centralization of power, the PLA hierarchy also has no choice but to behave like robots and no scope for dissent which is not a very happy state of affairs for any military force. It is learnt that PLA sidelined more Generals in anti corruption campaign than poor performers in any war, with suspicion of falling out of Xi’s thinking, besides genuine corrupt cases.
Amongst many firsts post !9th Congress, China places its internal security force PAPF being placed under CMC, which is being managed by loyalists of President Xi Jinping. Message which comes out is that the internal security will also have much better grip of CMC and the role of NPC under which it has been traditionally, will have a limited role. The speculation can also be that with total autocratic style of hierarchy, China may be expecting much greater dissent than earlier.
No dissent with “The Core” XI Jinping, or be declared anti-national: A new normal
The biggest threat to China comes from within. The viability of “Implosion theory” is worth analysation with a totalitarian regime. Besides taking control of powerful PLA, with dissenters sidelined, some powerful civil members who held important positions in CPC, and booked under anti-corruption drive also add on to this lobby of disgruntled elements. The resolution of 19th Congress includes that adequate ‘Revolutionary Tampering’ will be resorted to quell dissent even in the society. The legal system stands hostage to party leadership justifies the boiling pot theory. The people’s belief that Xi will make China great and his popularity amongst the masses is his greatest strength, a dent on which is a great risk. Some of his actions like forcing Christians to replace Jesus Christ photos by Xi Jinping’s photo to avail government benefits, laying restrictions on religious practices on Uyghurs’ in Xinjiang, use of force in trying to prevent democratic thoughts and autonomy in Hongkong may be too risky, as it may break the internal cohesion of China. Xi’s efforts like forcing students to read Xi’s thoughts (Equivalent of Mao Redbook) can be seen as an effort to change societal fabric may not go very well in China of New era having educated population. The strict censorship of media and internet, and electronic isolation of thoughts indicates attempt to bring societal changes in a manner that chances of student unrests/disagreements are minimized.
With Xi Jinping holding all key appointments with no room for dissent, the over-centralisation of power with him will lead to decision paralysis, with everyone in governance looking up to him for every decision, which might affect effective execution and growth of the country.
External Risks for Xi Jinping: Has he pushed others together?
The second major risk comes from reactions of the external environment to the autocratic, over ambitious Xi Jinping challenging the entire global system. Xi has left no ambiguity in conveying that he wants to ‘Restore’ China’s position as the ‘Global Superpower’ replacing US, and have a world class military by 2050.He has forced other countries not in tune with him, and some neutral countries to come closer to US against his aggressive designs. His direct threats to Taiwan and indirect ones to potential adversaries in his speech in 19th Congress, and the Resolution thereafter, indicate unprecedented arrogance. The threat to Taiwan, is being demonstrated with increased number military drills and air exercises around Taiwan, notwithstanding the Tsai call for mainland trying to destablise the region.
China’s aggressive posture is visible in incremental encroachment of features and converting them into islands in South China Sea, stretching its sovereignty claim as per its perception based on impractical historical logic, over-riding UNCLOS and ruling of Permanent Court of Arbitration in favor of Philippines. Having done that his claim to be “Insurer of world order and peace” in his New Year message of 2018 does not make sense to the world outside China. China also continued to convert features to islands to military base (Announcing completion of infrastructure development in Ferry Cross Reef), without any physical opposition by taking advantage of window of opportunity due to US engagement with North Korea, Afghanistan, and controversies regarding Iran and Israel, besides certain internal controversies. China may have projected North Korea as a concern and supported UN sanctions, but the alleged leakage of oil despite, more so with impounding of Hongkong ships by South Korea, keeps China under scanner for not being serious about UN sanctions.
His direct messaging for PLA to be ready to realise China’s reunification at any cost (Implying use of force), take expeditionary roles to ensure world peace, leaves no doubts about his hegemonic design and uncontrolled autocratic stance. He challenges the law based global system but wants to impose it inside China. This has pushed all other powers which are immediately affected by it, to get closer. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) may be at official level talks on sidelines of Association of Southeast Asian Nations and East Asia Summits, to discuss regional and global cooperation in Manila may be an old idea with limited scope today, but it signals thinking and talking about balancing China’s growing assertiveness. The signal seems to have reached China as its foreign office shows concern that it should neither be politicised nor exclusionary. It is seen that China is trying to deal with each country bilaterally, thereafter. Malabar exercise in Bay of Bengal and global use of word ‘Indo-Pacific’ instead of ‘Asia-Pacific’ (cutting out China from it), Asia- Africa Growth Corridor are some examples of it. Quad may not be a relevant balancer today, but it may become formal, relevant and powerful in future, in case Chinese stance continues to be aggressive.
Notwithstanding larger than life image of Xi Jinping inside China, Post 19th Congress most reactions from other countries do not indicate any global swing in Xi’s favor. Pakistan, the closest ally of China refused to accept Yuan as global currency in Gwadar SEZ in favor of Dollar initially, till US announced cuts in financial aid. It pulled out from Diamer-Bhasha dam deal over China’s ‘too strict’ conditions. CPEC is being criticized in Pakistan to be against their interest, raising questions on viability of CPEC. In fact China itself has apprehensions on CPEC, concerning security and corruption of officials, and has recently stopped its fund flow to Pakistan to revisit terms and conditions, leaving some other energy projects in jeopardy. Nepal has already scrapped the deal of $ 2.5 Billion Budhi Gandaki hydropower project. Its BRI programs seem to be slowing down after symbolic progress initially, starving for funds.
While Xi may claim to have reached in US neighborhood for investments in South America, as a counter to US influence in South and East China Sea, but his idea of replacing US as global peace provider is still not acknowledged by anyone and does not indicate the practicality of its dream of being leading superpower. If China’s Defense budget for 2017 was $ 215.7 Billion and US had allocated $ 611.2 Billion for defense (SIPRI Factsheet), there is no way that it can replace it as global security provider. The largest military need not be the best in the world, despite such aspirations. In my opinion his ambitions, aggressiveness and arrogance is moving faster than its capacity building. Xi’s idea of proving to the world that the authoritarian, socialist model of governance with Chinese characteristics in new era is better than liberal democratic model of West has no takers. China’s next door neighbours like Nepal going for complete democracy and Vietnam moving towards more liberalism post 19th Congress justify the point.
The global strategists have reason to expect a more confident, assertive, foreign policy from China in light of Xi Jinping’s announcement that China would continue to seek a greater role in world affairs in a new era, as it strides towards the global centre-stage. He is following it up with military build-up in expeditionary design in places like the South China Sea, and soft power play through economic schemes like the BRI.
History is full of examples where a totalitarian regime whenever started making threatening postures with no internal checks and balances, it led the country to disaster, like the way Hitler led Germany to a disaster when his ambition grew beyond his capability. It also need to be noted that in future the idea of having one or two superpowers is getting outdated, because all countries work as per their national interest and do not follow the dictate of any one country. North Korea standing up to US, Vietnam standing up to US and China, India and Bhutan standing up to China in Doklam stand-off, are some examples to prove that a well determined country cannot be forced to adopt a particular course by any power.
Strategic Encroachment in India’s Neighborhood, post 19th Congress
Post 19th Congress of CPC, China continues to encroach in Indian neighbourhood without talking about the core issues and points of divergences as earlier. To that extent I do not think 19th Congress of CPC has made any major difference to India China relations. While China has talked of better relations with India in 2018, but the visits of its Foreign Minister alongwith Russian Foreign Minister did not yield anything worthwhile, with each side quite firm on its stance on issues of divergences like BRI. On the controversial border issue there is a crying need of delimitation, definition and demarcation of LAC, and the demarcation be known to the troops manning it, if both sides want to avoid stand-offs. The Chinese however seem to be singing the old tune of better border management and confidence building measures to prevent it, which to my mind is a quick fix solution; with China again postponing the core issue even after 20th round of talks.
The only difference which affects India indirectly is that some of our common neighbors may give in to more aggressive ‘Chequebook diplomacy’ and ‘Infrastructure diplomacy’ of China or may get coerced/influenced by it. China’s decision for extension of CPEC into Afghanistan may affect Indian influence in that country. It indicates the clear strategic intent of getting Afghanistan into its strategic orbit, attempt to play as a mediator between Pakistan and Afghanistan by ‘Infrastructure diplomacy’, take Afghanistan away from US strategic space and Indian influence, mitigate Indian Chahbahar connectivity, besides using Afghanistan mineral resources. China has achieved rail connectivity with Iran, which does generate fresh concerns for Washington. Maldives signing FTA with China, land grabbing efforts of China in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan are few such examples affecting Indian security adversely for which India needs to find an answer.
China is also trying to play the role of mediator in Rakhine state of Myanmar, emphatically increasing its influence over Myanmar, advertising its capability for humanitarian development, checkmating Indian stance towards Rohingyas to show India in poor light. China is not concerned about the terror potential of Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army duly supported by ISI/Pakistan. China with little investment of money power expects to get a pat from UN, as a responsible state .
On diplomatic side India needs to not only ‘Act east’ but ‘Act west’ also. India is better located to be the hub of global sea lanes with lesser choke points either side, and is working towards this capability to provide an alternate model of global connectivity like Asia- Africa Growth Corridor connecting further West.2 Domination of Indian Ocean is going to be another strategic competition, which will become unavoidable in due course. China can keep increasing bases in Indian Ocean, but whether they will be its strength or vulnerability will be a question mark due to distance involved, choke points and growing strength and operability of Indian Navy with other global Navies.
The National Security Strategy of United States calls China and Russia as competitors3. Although rubbished by China as ‘Cold War Mentality’, still brings the inclusion of China into a new arena of cold war with many more regional players getting in, looking for check and balance to aggressive China, even if they do not say so openly. A beginning of new cold war which may lead to a trade war is evident and reality. While China may be confident to ensure that the ‘Implosion theory’ will not work by its super strict checks, but will this narrative sell outside, I have my doubts. It remains to be seen that a country having an autocratic system, with only one decision maker and rest executers, with educated population will continue in this form for decades. Any slowdown in economy might result in democratic winds flowing inside to an extent that it may be difficult to control. The exact evaluation of Yuan is a suspect hence China may claim to stand tall on economic front, but is there a bubble inside only time will tell.
The views expressed are of Major General S B Asthana (veteran) and do not represent views of any organization. The General is reachable on Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter and Google+ as Shashi Asthana, also on website http://www.asthanawrites.org
- Resolution of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China on the Report of the 18th Central Committee, October 24, 2017, Xinhuanet.
- Asthana S B, Opinion: What does Xi’s autocratic position mean for India?WION News, December 07, 2018. URL http://www.wionews.com/world/opinion-what-does-xis-autocratic-position-means-for-india-26100
- National Security Strategy of United States of America, December18,2017. https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/…/NSS-Final-12-18-2017-0905.pdf