President Xi Jinping of China, after assuming office in 2012, declared twin goals for his country — a moderately developed China by the centenary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) on July 1 this year and a fully developed, rich and powerful nation by 2049 — the centenary of the People’s Republic of China. By most accounts he has been able to achieve the first.
However, China, by its stated ambitions and aggressive behaviour, has also concomitantly set off concerns of its neighbours and the developed nations. Thus, the meetings of the Group of Seven and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation the week before the Chinese kicked off the CPC’s centenary celebrations, sounded the alarm. The Chinese behaviour, said Nato, presented “systemic challenges”. US President Joe Biden, to the immense relief of America’s European allies after his predecessor Donald Trump’s dithering, committed the United States fully to the alliance, calling the mutual defence mandate a “sacred obligation”. This was a win for Mr Biden as the European allies have earlier been chary of naming and shaming China due to their dependence on Chinese markets. For instance, in 2020, Germany’s trade with China was $256 billion, as that of the US topped $559 billion.
The two summits also brought the focus back on China’s gross abuse of human rights in Xinjiang and the forced assimilation of Hong Kong. Of course, China called all such debates and resolutions “slander”. Chinese irritation was understandable as the criticism came on the very eve of their centennial celebrations. It was also a personal affront for President Xi Jinping as the post-2008 Chinese assertiveness has his imprint on it. Slowly he has tightened the leash of the CPC and increased his centralised control over almost all levers of power. The personality cult and re-education evangelism is a reminder more of Mao Zedong than any of his successors, including the creator of China’s economic miracle Deng Xiaoping.
It was therefore not surprising that President Xi’s address on July 1 provided the response to the critique. Dressed in a grey Mao button-up assemblage, though his usual attire is a business suit, he spoke at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square from the very platform and stage used by Mao. He delivered a stern message, warning that China would not tolerate any attempt by foreign powers at bullying, oppressing or subjugating them. He spun China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), seen by most of the developed world and India as a debt trap and a means of creating permanent dependence on China, as an instrument for China to share the fruits of its development with developing and underdeveloped nations. A strong nation needs a strong military and China is fulfilling that need, he said. President Xi was addressing not just the 95 million-odd members of the CPC, or indeed other citizens of China, but the entire neighbourhood and the world beyond. It was a clarion call that China had now fully arrived and willing and able to match its wits with the United States.
Just in case countries like India did not get the message, a running commentary was provided in English publications like Global Times.
Coincidentally, the centenary fell soon after India marked one year of the bloody Galwan clash between the armies of India and China. For decades China has considered India as an inferior power, incapable of mounting a challenge to it. However, the rising profile of the “Quad”, US President Joe Biden persisting with his predecessor’s sceptical line on China and the BJP’s consolidation of domestic political power has combined to irk China. India therefore began to get elevated in Beijing’s perception as a strategic rival, if not yet a threat. This explains the sudden Chinese incursions in Ladakh and reluctance to vacate forward military ingress at a number of points. China has always used the unsettled border as a pressure point to condition India’s strategic conduct.
It is also noteworthy that when the 19th Central Committee Politburo of the CPC met on June 25, the focus was on party affairs, foreign policy and security and military matters. Under previous Presidents, post-Mao, much greater attention was paid to economic issues. It is worth examining whether the jingoism and strong language, evoking the powerful imagery that foreign bullies will “face broken heads and bloodshed”, is a sign of confidence or deep worry?
Although the Chinese economy has recovered faster and better than the economies of the developed world during the Covid-19 pandemic, its exports have performed better than domestic consumption growth. There is also the Chinese worry over demographics as their population growth continues to fall below sustainable levels. There may also be murmurs within the party about President Xi’s confrontational foreign policy as China now faces the potential danger of antagonists restraining it through cooperation and coordinated response. The Quad, with its implicit membership criteria being based on democratic credentials, presents an imminent threat. The fact that G-7 invited Australia, India, South Korea and South Africa as dialogue partners for the summit in the UK again underscored an attempt to align the interests of democracies across all continents. The direct or implicit message is that China is the new danger that needs to be contained by all means, including hard and soft power.
The Global Times, the perennial tool for disinformation and propaganda, warned India that because it cannot afford a “long and high-intensity confrontation” it should not try siding with the US in any power games in Indo-Pacific. Reports have been discounted that India had moved more troops to the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in response to China’s troop deployment surge. President Xi’s jingoism may be more for domestic consolidation than international browbeating as the neighbourhood has known Chinese high-handedness for many years. Thus, the rhetoric does not add to the reality of Chinese unilateralism in real and invented disputes.
India’s concerns would be heightened by the new drone-based terrorism from Pakistan and the rapidly succeeding Taliban in Afghanistan. China appears less worried about the Afghan imbroglio than Russia, having the Pakistani assurances in hand. Iran has a new and more conservative President, leaving a question mark over Iranian interests in Afghanistan. Iran’s priority would be to get the US sanctions lifted and its nuclear programme restored. India can only hope that China will moderate its “wolf warrior” diplomacy and move towards a genuinely stabilising role in South Asia. However, events appear to be moving in the reverse direction after the American exit from Afghanistan.