New Delhi: India’s on-and-off relationship with China is not just dictated by bilateral concerns, but also Beijing’s anxieties and rising sense of siege about the wider world. Therefore, the Chinese Communist Party’s latest Congress was carefully watched in New Delhi for a clue about the direction that China may go in over a relatively short period of time.
President Xi Jinping’s centralisation of power by smoothly confirming an unprecedented third term amidst volatile global geopolitics was the key theme of the 20th National Congress that concluded Sunday, October 23. However, decoding the outcomes of the Party Congress as portents for the future of Beijing’s engagement with the rest of the world, including India, is tricky.
In a comprehensive interview, professor of Chinese Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Centre for East Asian Studies, Alka Acharya, who is also the former director of the Institute of Chinese Studies, reads between the lines of President Xi’s report to the congress and his public speech to answer questions on its significance for India.
With Jinping ensconced as CPC general secretary again and the Politburo Standing Committee filled with his close aides, did his remarks at the Party Congress indicate how he intends to navigate the difficult global geopolitical scenario in his third term?
The problem with making predictions is that we are in a highly dynamic situation. Much will depend on how the situation evolves. The Ukraine war is showing no signs of winding down and it has had a ripple effect on the world economy, as well as the domestic economies of a large majority of countries. The western bloc has decided to take a hard-hitting stance and its position on China has also hardened considerably.
China finds itself in something of a bind, given its close relationship with Russia. Within the region, closer to home, it has tensions with India. Also, while not dramatic or wholesale, certain questions about China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) are being raised. Then, there is the whole imbroglio in the South China sea, and so on.
Nonetheless, the Chinese are poised to play a bigger global role economically; and in the Southeast Asian region, they are not just significant, but dominant. With the US now pushing an anti-China coalition in Asia, their attempts to energise the Quad and, of course, now also with the freshly minted AUKUS, the Chinese have to contend with what they look like as the new US containment of China strategy unfolds. Their response will depend on how the situation evolves. Therefore, I don’t think that it is very easy to make specific predictions about change.
Did you notice the particular usage of any specific phrases in his remarks or the report to Congress, related to foreign policy?
On the whole, we see there were differences between the report he made and the speech he gave in the great hall as far as foreign policy is concerned. There were no direct references to any country, but there were plenty of references to the challenges China faced, which made it very clear who was being referred to. And in the context of the significant challenges, the report mentioned the need for China to give a befitting reply or that China has to be prepared for regional wars. Of course, there was a large section with regard to Taiwan – for the People’s Republic of China (PRC), that is clearly an internal matter with major foreign policy ramifications.
The Chinese President has reportedly omitted two phrases – “period of important strategic opportunity” and “peace and development remain the themes of the era” – in his remarks and report to the Congress. What does this signify?
Much before the 20th party congress, they had ceased to characterise the existing situation as one of ‘peace and development’ and, therefore, as a ‘period of strategic opportunity’. What replaced it is the phrase, “unprecedented changes not seen in a century“. Obviously, when you assess the current changes as occurring once-in-a-century, with all the attendant uncertainties and transition problems, and when you foresee turbulence, you will not talk about peace and development.
The Chinese Communist Party discourse has always been marked by a tendency to assess a particular period in terms of the dominant characteristic or feature which determines the nature of the policies and strategies to be adopted. They assess the period in terms of its opportunities or challenges and the general trend of international affairs, and this goes back to Mao.
It was Deng Xiaoping who started describing the 1980s as an era of ‘peace and development’. Following the rapprochement with the US, we next saw the Chinese foreign policymakers speak in terms of it being a period of strategic opportunity. Obviously, policies have to be adjusted in accordance with the nature of the world order and global dynamics.
The current historical juncture is being seen as a period that is full of challenges. Security is, therefore, now being brought into the foreign policy sphere. In his report, Xi brought up an entire range of non-traditional threats. He talked about how there is pressure to relocate the supply chains, the move to put sanctions on China, technological decoupling and, as he put it, “interference and long-arm jurisdiction,” which has to be resisted.
There is a profusion of challenges to China’s developmental goals due to all these aspects. This becomes a security challenge as the whole modernisation program becomes affected. And that leads to an entirely different approach to moving towards ‘self-reliance’ in the coming years.
We can see that in his report, Xi focused on projecting the nature of the challenges in a way that economic, security and political aspects tend to get interlinked. Thus, factors favouring peace and development are no longer there, and the period of strategic opportunity is effectively over.
Suppose China worries that the external environment will only get riskier. Will this have any fallout on how President Xi will steer relations with India, especially with our membership in the Quad and closer ties with the US?
There has been a certain shift in the way that India is being assessed as far as China is concerned. However, there have been relatively balanced views also coming out, even in their hyper-nationalistic Global Times, where India’s position on the Ukraine War or its abstention in the UN vote on sanctions on Russia have been assessed favourably – that India can take an autonomous stand from the US-led alliance and proceed on the basis of protecting its national interests.
While there is an appreciation of that on one hand, there is also apprehension that India’s membership of Quad, and its proximity to the US, may be exploited by Washington. There is definitely going to be a certain wariness. There is, given the situation on the borders, not going to be a return to bonhomie soon, even on the Indian side.
The mood is grim in India regarding China. You can see that in the kind of writings that are coming out over the interpretation of what has happened during the 20th Party Congress with respect to India – the Galwan footage that was shown in one of the opening reels of showcasing the Party’s achievements. Then you have the western theatre command generals, specifically one who was in charge of the Galwan episode, being promoted and elevated and who will be very important in the new setup.
Third, you have Xi talking about preparation for regional wars. Some people say this is a good thing as they are not thinking in terms of huge conflagrations and wars will be limited or in the nature of skirmishes that we saw on our western borders. But that is also not very encouraging in terms of both countries moving towards a resolution soon.
Finally, the emphasis that he is giving to military modernisation, especially hi-tech modernisation involving AI and the like, will ensure that China cannot adopt a very offensive posture overall. Moreover, they will have to contend with an adverse international environment, and their apprehensions regarding Taiwan are also on the rise, so concerns of territorial integrity and sovereignty will also be paramount. As far as I see it, it will be a blend of an offensive and defensive strategy to protect their interests. They are still a long way behind the US, particularly in the defence technology realm.
The point of concern is that no political initiative has emerged from India or China to break the logjam on the border. Both sides are sticking to positions that do not appear to have a meeting ground – India insists on the restoration of the status quo ante while the Chinese side argues that the boundary dispute should not be allowed to hold the development of the relationship hostage. The Indian side, of course, is not buying it.
Unless there is a political initiative that breaks this logjam, we appear to be well and truly stuck.
With China firmly in the hands of an unusually powerful leader who is anxious about the external environment – isn’t this bad news for India-China relations in that it would disallow Beijing to take any conciliatory position as part of normal diplomacy?
Concerns about the external environment and diplomatic efforts to resolve outstanding issues are interconnected. At one level, it is certainly a matter of concern that we are face-to-face with a neighbour who is far more powerful and with whom we have a complicated boundary dispute. It is also clear that we are at this moment in a situation where the talks to reach a mutually acceptable solution following the Galwan clashes of 2020 appear to be at an impasse.
I am not pessimistic in the sense that we are doomed, but the situation calls for a political initiative, and that is entirely possible, given that we have powerful nationalistic leaders in both countries. However, that very nationalism can become a force against taking any steps that may be seen as a concession or compromise.
It is difficult to see the Chinese moving out from where they are already sitting, and for the time being, we cannot dislodge them – which once again takes us to a political approach. This confrontation and the stationing of armies, and the state of tension along the western front cannot be allowed to persist indefinitely.
However, trade and investment are moving along, almost on autopilot. There are calls from time to time to curb the Chinese presence and investment, and there are moves to disallow them from some critical tech sectors – 5G and so on. There is some talk about reducing dependence on China. But China continues to be our largest trading partner, investment continues to come in, student exchanges are gradually going back to normal. It’s ‘cold’ politics, but if not hot, then warm economics.
Isn’t this impasse in ties helpful for both governments in the domestic context? In other words, what’s the incentive to change it?
As I said, not quite. India and China are engaging on multiple issues at multiple levels – domestic, regional and international. To begin with, the border dispute is stretching out interminably and, notwithstanding its complexities, both sides should be driven by the strategic objectives that will be achieved in its resolution. Regrettably, it appears that neither India nor China is giving sufficient weight to the international implications of this state of confrontation.
First, it restricts the scope of the contribution that each can make to the development and modernisation goals of the other. China is far ahead in many respects, but it can still benefit from the strengths India possesses in several other aspects.
Secondly, at the regional level, we do feel a bit hot under the collar in our own neighbourhood, given the China factor in our relations with the neighbours. Chinese presence is visible and huge. But at another level, and more crucially, the impact on regional dynamics of this state of confrontation is equally deleterious for the much-awaited and heralded ‘Asian Century’.
It is also important to see that this Asian Century is not merely a symbolic shift of the centre of gravity of international relations away from the West. It is about the India-China relationship constituting the substantive foundations of this shift. Any meaningful transformation of the international order – or not – can only emerge from this relationship.
Both India and China have a fair degree of understanding on the need for cooperation at the global level on a range of issues. Again, there must be greater coordination if this understanding can be converted into a force for actual change – for instance, the need to push for tougher climate change accountability from the West and a more equitable economic order.
All this, therefore, is hinging on this rather chill kind of phase. And the problem is that neither India nor China seem to trust each other – and we have good reasons not to trust them. I fear that we will find it very difficult to get past this logjam till 2024 at least.
According to Western media reports, the CPC congress has cemented a more aggressive stance on Taiwan’s independence. The US secretary of state has also said that China has accelerated its timeline for Taiwan. Has there actually been a shift as per the Chinese public documents?
The American military (and, to a certain extent, sections of the political establishment) may not be putting out a very objective picture; rather, they appear to be beating the drums of war and escalating the situation without any serious basis. There is nothing extraordinary about what Xi Jinping has said about Taiwan which has not been said before since Deng Xiaoping. They have never minced words about their claims to Taiwan or that they reserve the right to use force if necessary.
When Pelosi went, the Chinese reaction was, of course, extremely aggressive. Their concerns, which were articulated categorically, were that the US was watering down its commitment to the one-China policy that was the basis of the Sino-US rapprochement in 1972. In the 20th Party Congress Report, Xi Jinping has reiterated the same position in an even more uncompromising manner.
In any case, it is not the first time the Americans have provoked China over Taiwan. It’s a card that they use from time to time. The Chinese go ballistic and the US then say, ‘look, they are warmongering’.
The Ukraine War has created a whole lot of problems all around. Now, the Chinese are not going to get into a war in which the Americans and some other western countries are supplying arms or positioned in some manner alongside Taiwan. Not at this stage in any case.
There is another argument that is trotted out quite often – if things go south domestically in terms of the economy or if Xi believes he is losing ground, he might consider a military operation (against Taiwan) as a way to boost his domestic standing.
The difficulty with this kind of argument is that if one wants to go to war to boost domestic ratings, it is always contingent on winning the war. You don’t do this unless you are certain about not losing it. Xi will not make these calculations without fully understanding the implications of a war in the Taiwan Straits. An entire array of people in China are following and studying the Ukraine War very minutely.
In my view, the possibility that Beijing may launch an attack is entirely contingent on what Taipei will do. Were Taipei to declare independence, that’s when they would move. At present, the PRC-ROC economic, political and social linkages are fairly dense. Their outreach to their Taiwanese “compatriots” is a consistent element in their strategy, and the “rise” of China has some more miles to go. Xi does not want to go down in history as the man who lost Taiwan. The CPC firmly believes that time is on their side.
Now India has not changed its policy on ‘One China’. From time to time, a section of the strategic community tosses out the suggestion that we should use this as a leverage against China. At one point, Sushma Swaraj, who was then the external affairs minister, had said that if the PRC wanted India to uphold the ‘One China’ policy, then they should also reciprocate with a ‘One India’ policy. It was in the context of Kashmir, of course.
Except for the US and the odd European country resolutions, the rest of the world has remained silent. Very few countries recognise Taiwan as a sovereign state. India did make a rather anodyne sort of statement in the context of the Chinese missile firings, following Pelosi’s visit. We do see some acceleration in the establishment of economic and technological linkages with Taiwan. But that’s about it.
In conclusion, was there anything surprising that emerged from the party congress?
As I wrote in a recent piece, the big surprise is that there was no surprise. It was expected that Li Keqiang would go, that Xi would bring in all his loyal supporters. The only question was, who would they be, and what would be the nature of the core group, i.e., the Standing Committee of the Politburo; who would be brought into the Central Military Commission; and who would be the heads of the Central Disciplinary Commission and the Internal Security department – this would help us in understanding the concentration of power. It is a Xi show. The question is how will India go about engaging with this ‘new’ China.