Keeping a watch on Xi

With US global power on the wane, Ashis Ray reports onBeijing’s escalating assertiveness and its particular impact on India

China today possesses unprecedented money power and military muscle, both of which are on the ascent. Such might is challenging the authority of a bungling and declining United States of America, which had achieved unipolarity after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Coupled with this, Chinese President Xi Jinping has emerged as one of the most powerful leaders of his country in modern times and one who has embarked on a clearly assertive foreign policy.

China’s 2018 defence budget had an allocation of US$175 billion, which was 8.1 per cent higher than the previous year’s outlay. It has changed policy to correct what it labels as ‘historical wrongs’. Indeed, Xi is adamant China will not surrender any territory that it considers to be its own, including a part of the north-eastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which it calls South Tibet. Last year, the aggressive intent spilled over into trying to alter the status quo in the Doklam plateau bordering India and Bhutan, not far from India’s vulnerable Siliguri corridor.

Thereafter occurred the meeting between Xi and NarendraModi at Wuhan in April this year, which did little to repair the relationship. No guarantees were provided by the Chinese that violations will not take place in future. Perhaps only the preoccupation over a burgeoning trade war with the US might postpone its attempt to dominate India.

M. K. Narayanan, a former National Security Adviser of India, speaking at a by-invitation-only seminar at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, confirmed what has been obvious to some of us from 2014 and has now dawned on many, including elements in the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, who previously ignored the writing on the wall.

Having outlined the minor positives of the Wuhan ‘informal summit’, Narayanan remarked: ‘It would need more than a leap of faith, however, to think that India-China relations have been reset as a result of the Wuhan interlude. The Wuhan outcome in actual terms does not add up to much. China has made no manifest concessions to India. The Doklam issue remains unresolved. China has given no indication that it has softened its attitude vis-à-vis the disputed territories in Arunachal Pradesh and elsewhere on the Sino-Indian border. No guarantees have been provided that further border transgressions would not take place.’

Narayanan was associated with the Indian government for over 55 years, as a police officer, director of the Intelligence Bureau and then National Security Adviser (NSA), not to mention his stint as governor of West Bengal. He is not one, even in a relatively private setting, to make ill-considered comments. His presentation would have received insightful input from honest, intelligent and well-informed personnel within Delhi’s diplomatic and security establishments, not to mention experts in academia and think-tanks and his contacts in China.

Xi’s tough line was evident as early as his maiden visit to India after Modi’s election, when Chinese troops were deliberately squatting inside Indian territory in Ladakh. He was out to test the Prime Minister’s resolve after the latter’s earlier veiled criticism of China on Japanese soil. Instead of taking a stand on Chinese soldiers being on Indian soil, PM Modi proceeded with a pre-arranged pitch for Chinese investment. (It is another matter that only about 10 per cent of the $20 billion heralded has materialised.)

Narayanan’s analysis concurred with recent conclusions of respected Sinologists. He stated Xi ‘has concentrated more power in his hands than any other Chinese leader since Mao (Zedong)’. The 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC), according to him, marked a return to the Mao era, with Xi in his opening address to the Congress describing China as a great power 25 times. He announced the Chinese military would be ‘world class’ and ‘one that is capable of winning wars’. China aims to wipe out poverty by 2021 (to coincide with the centenary of the founding of the CPC); and turn China into a fully developed nation by 2049 (in time for the 100th anniversary of the emergence of the People’s Republic).

Narendra Modi (l) and Xi Jinping at the Wuhan summit in April
Narendra Modi (l) and Xi Jinping at the Wuhan summit in April

After the low returns and growing uncertainty from India’s post-2014 tilt towards the United States, Indian diplomats appear to have introduced course corrections, inherent in these being the Wuhan interface. Subsequently, at June’s Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore, Prime Minister Modi was careful to avoid references that could upset Beijing. Narayanan underlined: ‘China is unlikely to agree to a détente with India.’ Indeed, he mentioned there are signs of ‘China positioning itself to wage a “water war” with India’ by squeezing the flow into the Brahmaputra river.

Xi’s aggressive anti-India policy has weaned away a number of India’s neighbours and is endeavouring to reduce India’s influence in East Africa and South-East Asia. The extraordinary financial resources at his disposal enable him to do so.

Perhaps only China’s preoccupation over a burgeoning trade war with the US might postpone its attempt to dominate India

The generosity of Jawaharlal Nehru towards China was rudely un-reciprocated by Mao. Deng Xiaoping, the father of China’s current prosperity, was magnanimous enough to realise this. His outreach to Rajiv Gandhi – who made a favourable impression on him – P V NarasimhaRao’s game-changing peace and tranquillity treaty and AtalBihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh’s skilful nurturing of the relationship maintained a lid on Chinese adventurism. China accepted India’s sovereignty in Sikkim and agreed to a concession on the border dispute when Narayanan was NSA, which it has since withdrawn.

But India now needs to maintain an extra vigil on Chinese intentions. Narayanan asserted that ‘India is well aware of Chinese ambitions, especially under a leader like President Xi’. In other words, there is unlikely to be any let-up on Beijing’s part to spread its wings around India. It has moved unrelentingly in Nepal and the Maldives even after the Wuhan dialogue; and has refused to consider India’s grievance in respect of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. India legitimately objects to the project on the grounds that it ploughs through the part of Jammu & Kashmir illegally occupied by Pakistan since 1948, which the United Nations, too, defines as disputed territory.

The point is, an alliance with Donald Trump is certainly not the answer to combat China’s design.Only a well thought out counter-strategy from Delhi’s intellectuals will cope with it.

Ashis Ray has worked for the BBC, the Ananda Bazar Group and the Times of India. He was CNN’s founding South Asia bureau chief in Delhi and is the longest serving Indian foreign correspondent

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