NEW DELHI: Neither the top tier of the Chinese Communist Party (which elevated him in 2012 to the post of CCP General Secretary over the claims of Li Keqiang), nor the international community correctly understood the difference between Xi Jinping and his party peers. Before taking over the top job in China, Xi had been content to walk in the shadow of his elders. The anti-corruption campaigns that he launched prior to his appointment in 2012 had netted only small fish, or those few in the middle echelons who had fallen out of favour with higher echelons in the CCP. There were few hints of the thorough-going changes that Xi would make to both the CCP as well as to domestic and foreign policy soon after his takeover, or of his emergence not just as first among equals but as the second CCP supremo after Mao.
What the elders who chose Xi over Li in 2012 failed to factor in was the fact that in common with Mao Zedong, Xi has a ruthless drive to promote the Han nationalist concept of where the PRC should be, and what needs to be done to get it there. In Mao’s case, the effort was mostly internal. In Xi’s case, the drive for primacy is global. The tactics and policies of Mao and Xi are in many respects different, yet the underlying objective remained the same, which was to position Beijing as the fulcrum of the global order, in much the same way as Washington emerged in 1945 after the war between the Axis and the Allies. Mao took care to camouflage this intention behind a smokescreen expertly crafted by Prime Minister Zhou Enlai, going on verbal offensives against the “hegemony of the United States” to show the PRC’s commitment to an equalitarian world order. During the period in power of Deng Xiaoping, “biding time and concealing strength” became the rule, with China moving away from overt reliance on the military after the 1979 attack on Vietnam. The Paramount Leader instead turned to the use of diplomacy and commerce to create the conditions needed for the rise of China within the post-1945 international order. Mao was clear that this order needed to change, but concentrated on internal changes in preparation for the shift. Interestingly, Mao’s expansion of the PRC and Deng’s expansion of the economy created the conditions that Xi believed he needed to effect changes globally and in the open. Both Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao expended vast sums of money in developing a network of friendly contacts across the world, paying particular attention to the US and to Europe, and secondly Southeast Asia and Africa. Around two decades ago, India was identified by the CCP leadership as the only country with the potential to emerge as a serious competitor to the PRC in Asia. From that time onwards, the attention paid to India multiplied, and priority was given to assessing the probability of India getting over its (mainly self-created) obstacles and better leveraging its immense potential. The assessment in Beijing was that the institutional structure in India was too rule-oriented and process-centred to enable a breakout into the innovative policies needed to generate and sustain double digit growth, while the political class was too busy seeking individual gratification to have time to cogitate over the “Big Picture”. Nor in the Chinese Communist Party view did the political class in India have much interest in taking on the challenge of changing the governance mechanism enough to make it responsive to the needs of the 21st century. Self-interest combined with inertia would prevent such a transformation of the governance mechanism, according to the CCP, although constant vigilance was needed to ensure that India remained in a box, unable to break out and pose a serious challenge to the PRC and its drive for global primacy.
Another worry within the CCP leadership was the possibility of the coming together of the US and India, and in this context, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (unlike Congress President Sonia Gandhi) was considered an individual who was much too inclined for an alliance of the two largest democracies in the world for comfort. Hence the silent welcome given to the sniping against him within India on the grounds that he was far too biased towards the US. In Cold War 1.0 as well, Moscow had proved an effective antidote, preventing India from moving to close ties with the US. This role assumed importance in the changed geopolitical context of Cold War 2.0, with its open confrontation in several fields between the two superpowers, the PRC and the US. This role of the PRC’s most important partner, Russia, has added greatly to its value as a strategic partner of China.
CHINA WARY OF PM MODI
As Chief Minister, Narendra Modi was open to investment from China (as to investment in his home state from other countries). Given the missteps by both Bush and Obama such as the denial of a visa to Modi, it came as a surprise to Beijing that President Obama gave Modi such a warm welcome during his first visit to Washington as Prime Minister of India in September 2014. The expectation had been that the steady drumbeat of criticism of Modi by those in the Democratic Party who were historically close to the Congress Party would ensure a tepid welcome. The welcome given to PM Modi was a warning sign that Washington would go the extra mile to woo India, and that President Obama had discarded the G-2 illusions nurtured during his first term by the State Department under Hillary Clinton. Rather, he had fixed his gaze on the Indo-Pacific and moved away from the Atlantic, as was made explicit by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter together with National Security Advisor Susan Rice. The key strategists embedded in the leadership councils of the PRC kept a close eye on the rate of growth of the economy under Modi, and took comfort from the fact that this was on a gentle downward trajectory since 2015, despite the coming to power of Modi at the Central level. However, the clear intention of Modi from 26 May 2014 itself to once again establish the centrality of New Delhi within South Asia resulted in a wariness about him. A lookout was maintained on efforts during Modi 1.0 to modernize the administrative structure and remove the numerous bureaucratic obstacles to growth. Reports about the success of startups launched by ethnic Indians in Silicon Valley added to the attention paid to the possible breakout of India from its sluggish trajectory. Such linkages made India and the US natural partners in advanced technology, a nightmare for the planners in Beijing. Even before President Donald J. Trump launched a trade war against China in 2017, several companies from the US, Taiwan and Japan had been looking to shift their operations outside of the PRC, and close track was kept of those seeking relocation to India. It was clear to the CCP strategists that only India had the brainpower, locational advantages and market size to pose a serious threat to the supply chains based in China. At a time when General Secretary Xi had fashioned the Belt & Road Initiative to ensure that Eurasian supply chains located their centre of gravity in China, any displacement of industrial assets to a potential competitor of the size and potential of India was unwelcome. Constant watch was therefore maintained over both policy as well as physical developments in India. Increased attention began to be paid on how the country could be thrown off balance, in conjunction not only with Pakistan but other South Asian powers as well. Efforts at this intensified. It would be a catastrophe for the CCP if conditions in India ensured a smooth glide path for enterprises wishing to relocate from the PRC, especially with the advent of the trade war with the US. Although growth in India was slowing down, and in fact strains had been visible from 2011 onwards, the potential for expansion of the second largest democracy in the world could not be ignored. A decision appears to have been taken around 2016 by the PRC leadership core that GHQ Rawalpindi should be given a boost in military assistance, not only to hold its own against India but also to serve as a more effective brake on rapid development of capabilities by India. This could be achieved by generating a volley of internal fissures designed to draw attention away from PM Modi’s key objective of systemic reform and faster growth. From that time onwards, more direct involvement across Kashmir became a focus area for the PLA, and it began to openly work alongside GHQ Rawalpindi in attempts to stymie Indian progress in the union territory. More than generating international opinion, the calculation in Beijing (nurtured by Islamabad) was that heightened activity at the UN Security Council would motivate more Kashmiris to destroy their own futures by taking to violence against their own country. Thus far, despite repeated efforts by Beijing at bringing up a moribund issue in the UN Security Council, the unrest promised by GHQ Rawalpindi has not taken place. This is unlike what took place in 1990 when V.P. Singh was the Prime Minister, who presided over the development of a full-blown insurgency in the state. The UNSC was proving to be ineffective as a motivator for unrest and violence. Perhaps a reversal of fortune by India on the Sino-Indian frontier would cause the sparks of ISI-funded unrest in Kashmir to once again convert to flames. It is very likely that the idea of ramping up border incursions was suggested to the CMC (Central Military Commission) by GHQ Rawalpindi, which by now has in effect become almost a Corps of the PLA. Apart from fear that PM Modi would order the takeover of PoK during Modi 2.0, frustration with the lack of change on the ground in Kashmir in spite of prodding the UNSC was probably the genesis of the May 2020 PLA operation of intruding from several points into the territory of India. Care was taken to ensure that the points selected in this phase of the operation were manned not by the Indian Army but by paramilitary forces. Preparations for the incursions began in November 2019 and the actual intrusions were launched after 3 May 2020.
CMC, GHQ WORK TOGETHER
Given the reality of the Chinese side first working out a comprehensive Plan of Action and thereafter obsessively sticking to it, it is unreal to expect that the PLA will withdraw as a consequence of discussions between the two Special Representatives or the Foreign Ministers of both sides, much less as a consequence of military-level talks. GHQ Rawalpindi seems to have convinced the Central Military Commission that a show of force and resolve against troops in Ladakh will cause elements nurtured by it to launch a conflagration in Kashmir. A withdrawal from such a stance would be tantamount to an admission that the plan jointly worked out by the CMC and GHQ Rawalpindi is defective. Such an admission would cause the downfall of several “star” careers in the PLA, which is why the gambler’s instinct has operated in the CMC of increasing the bid with every failure of build-ups and thrusts (to ignite passions in the Ladakh and Jammu UTs). On the Indian side, there seems to be a fixation by some analysts on conventional modes of thought and operation that fail to factor in the reality that the Chinese methods of planning and execution, especially under Xi Jinping, are very different from the western concepts that have freely been adopted on the Indian side. Any reversal of course by the Chinese side would be seen as unacceptable until the potential penalties for holding firm are too severe to justify to the higher leadership of the CCP. A price that steep can only come about once an alliance structure is crafted on the Indian side on the lines of the alliance with the USSR in 1971 that opened the doors to the liberation of Bangladesh. Thus far, a mutual security pact with the US has yet to take place, to the relief of Islamabad, Beijing and Moscow. Since 2005, a time when allies of the CCP had an outsize influence over UPA policy towards countries such as China and Nepal, the PLA has adopted a policy of changing facts on the ground to its advantage, then negotiating on the basis of the new status quo before seizing the next opportunity to change the previously altered status quo.
TALKS AS DISTRACTION
It is instructive that the public assertion that the Galwan Valley belonged to China came the day after conciliatory statements by the Indian side that were designed to lower tensions. By May, it was clear that the novel coronavirus pandemic was sweeping across India, and hence presented an opportunity to set in motion plans already made by forces already in place for weeks. In the coming period, should major unrest take place in locations across India as a consequence of economic hardship, as is expected by those opposed to PM Modi, that may present the PLA an opportunity to make another series of thrusts, this time in the eastern sector as well. Next year is the centenary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, and the leadership needs a military triumph to cover up the problems being faced on the economic side. The possible locations for an effort to generate such a victory would be the Himalayas, the South China Sea or the Taiwan Strait. Depending on where the pickings would be easiest, the move is likely to be made. Should the Indian economy continue on a downward trajectory and a new Biden administration backpedal on the Obama-Trump offer of a military partnership with India, the PLA may judge that their time to move forward in Kashmir, Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh has arrived. The Chinese side adopts the tactics of the gecko, which is to wait patiently till its prey comes close, and then swoop on it. During this time of waiting for the next chance to strike, talks that in the matter of outcomes go nowhere are welcomed as distractions from the reality of the ongoing plan to resume overt operations. Covert operations, of course, would never have stopped.
RELOOK AT POLICY NEEDED
The twin issues confronting Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the ambience created by the novel coronavirus are the economy and China. Effective solutions will need to be found to address both, as long-held perceptions and policy courses do not seem to be making the requisite progress. The second is related to the first. The Chinese are nothing if not pragmatic. Should the economy of India begin to grow at speed, and should the military alliance with the US become a reality rather than an objective that never seems to be getting achieved, China is likely to back away from further provoking India as the country approaches its 75th year of Independence. India not going in for hard options will not lead to a change in behaviour on the other side, only creation of hard facts and outcomes will. An alteration of tone came after the fighting spirit shown by the Indian Army during the Galwan clash, and the unexpected Apps Ban introduced by PM Modi. Incidentally, despite his rhetoric President Donald J. Trump has yet to banish WeChat from the US. The reason is that a well-endowed lobby of business interests is trying to prevent him from doing so, by arguing that such a ban would affect commercial communications between the US and China. The reality is that WeChat enables the CCP to access any communication between US companies and their Chinese subsidiaries, thereby assisting them in ensuring that domestic champions prevail in a contest with foreign rivals. This far, WeChat has been banned only in India and not anywhere else, thereby continuing to give an advantage to Chinese businesses over the competition. The assessment of the CCP is that Chinese pools of resources and consequent goodwill will enable the country to weather temporary shocks and storms and enter calmer seas less damaged than its rivals. The PLA has already ensured that the degree of control it exercises over the South China Sea is much higher than what was the case five years ago. This is the new “status quo” that Beijing would like the world to accept, which in a practical sense it already has, in that almost all exploitation of the sea by Vietnam and other countries has been blocked. Only a kinetic shock that severely unsettles the PLA would reverse such a progression towards PRC primacy in the Indo-Pacific. Such a reversal of fate would be aided by coordinated military activities of multiple partners (including the US, India, Australia, Vietnam and Japan) across fronts that have been subjected to PLA intrusions, an outcome that thus far seems distant.
RESILIENCE OF DEMOCRACY
India has the potential of being critical link in the transition of US, Taiwanese and Japanese supply chains from the PRC, which is why this country is the object of so much attention by Beijing. Only an action-oriented group that includes India can ensure primacy in the Indo-Pacific. The PRC for its part needs a neutral India to ensure its own progression to that role, and this it hopes to achieve by showcasing that the costs of abandoning neutrality (which by definition includes continued reliance on Russia for defence needs) would be severe. The problem for the planners in the CMC as they parley with GHQ Rawalpindi is simple. Their strategy of diplomatic and military pressure has failed in Kashmir and will fail across the rest of India. Democracies have a resilience and a capacity to overcome not apparent on the surface. What is needed for this is Smart Policy, and soon.