What role India needs to play in Xi Jinping assuming presidency for lifetime
New Delhi needs to position itself as an alternative political model that can effectively counter Beijing's illiberal vision.
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Who is going to keep the flame of democratic spirit burning if the leader of the world's most powerful democratic nation sings praises for the leader of world's most powerful authoritarian country? Responding to the prospect of Xi Jinping holding the Chinese presidency for the lifetime, American President Donald Trump has reportedly remarked that "I think it's great. Maybe we'll have to give that a shot someday," also adding that Xi is "the most powerful (Chinese) president in a hundred years."
Nobody can dispute that Xi Jinping is the most powerful Chinese leader in a century. But any suggestion, however remote, of adopting his country's "strongman model" is deeply disturbing, particularly for those of us who live in democracies. Whether or not Trump's comments were made to cause amusement and entertainment, the manner in which he seemed to throw his weight behind the concept of life-long presidency is not only undemocratic but also a sad news for democratic societies worldwide, both established and nascent.
Why Trump's utterances are a blueprint for greater political confusion is not difficult to understand. The most unfortunate aspect about this episode is that while there is greater clarity on China's authoritarian challenge, the existing international system seems paralysed to come up with sustainable solutions to deal with it. The US seems either unwilling or incapable of playing a balancing role in order to prevent ceding strategic space to China. Beijing appears unrivalled in Asia and beyond given its rising military might and economic power. In such uncertain geopolitical circumstances, who can mount a challenge to China's authoritarian charm offensive? India can. But not without the help of democratic countries led by the US.
Beijing claims to adhere to a rules-based international order, but there is a wide gap between the perception of China and liberal democracies about what actually constitutes the international order. This is very significant even as global powers are beginning to shift their stance. For instance, America's traditional allies such as Germany, France, Italy, the United Kingdom and South Korea, have already joined the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), a multilateral financial institution created and led by China. Although joining AIIB does not necessarily mean that these American allies have developed great trust in China's financial skills. After all, India is also a part of AIIB. But the significance of these democratic countries' involvement is obvious to an increasingly ambitious China. The rising popularity of AIIB would surely give Beijing the opportunity to take a more decisive and proactive role on the world stage. With the US no longer willing to assume greater responsibilities, this will prove to be a destabilising development.
China is now increasingly setting the global rules in accordance with its own value system. Beijing is fast extending the ambit of its global ambitions further afield, from surrounding Asian nations to other countries in Europe and Africa, being aware that no country has enough power to stand in the way of it fulfilling its ambitions. The One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative, which is aimed at propping up China's economic domination while eroding the foundations of the liberal economic order, is just a manifestation of Beijing's ambitious strategy. All signs point to China seeking to exploit the weaknesses currently plaguing the international system characterised by America's growing isolationism. Can India afford to be a mere spectator to this creeping signification?
As China is advancing an ambitious modernisation drive aimed at increasing the sophistication and reach of its armed forces, Beijing has just announced that Chinese military budget this year would increase at 8.1 per cent from 2017, a larger increase than the previous two years. China's defence budget for 2018 will be $175 billion. According to Chinese premier Li Keqiang, Beijing will "advance all aspects of military training and war preparedness, and firmly and resolvedly safeguard national sovereignty, security, and development interests." China is busy turning the South China Sea into its backyard by setting up several military installations despite stiff opposition from other countries. Many disputed islands have already been transformed into a secure platform for China's military manoeuvres. Unfortunately, the US has failed to check China's growing activities in the maritime domain, paving the way for Beijing's inexorable ascendance over the region.
Now, the Chinese leadership does not feel the need to conceal its intentions to achieve global leadership. An "era of socialism with Chinese characteristics" is another term for Chinese authoritarianism, "comprehensive national power" can be viewed as China's bid for global military superiority, and "great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation" is actually synonymous with global ideological pre-eminence. These terms may not be explicitly stated, but are central to China's political belief system: a country with extensive economic and military power must be accepted as the sole global leader.
China remains a revisionist and expansionist power. Hence the major challenge before the democratic world is as much ideological as military. China's aim is to create more strategic space for itself that would compel all regional powers, including India, to accommodate its ever rising ambitions. Having already acquired a dominant position in the South China Sea, Beijing has decisively begun to shift its focus to the Indian Ocean, which is India's traditional "sphere of influence". Xi would like the leaders of all neighbouring countries to loudly beat the Chinese drum song, having internalised its inherent superiority. India needs to work with other democratic countries to limit Chinese ascendency with regard to port infrastructure and maritime commerce in the Indian Ocean. Quadrilateral, with the combined might of four democratic powers, is quite formidable. It offers great hope, but its activities must become more consistent and coherent.
China is aggressively selling a new economic model for developing countries to follow as it is engaged in covertly and overtly corroding the democratic space, with the express intent of promoting an authoritarian order dominated by Beijing and like-minded countries. It is therefore imperative for the "quad" powers to expose the essentially self-serving and opaque nature of China-led OBOR initiative while providing its credible alternatives. Only a decisive democratic group such as the "quad" can shape the stability and security of the Indo-Pacific region, and therefore of the whole world.
Is Chinese politico-economic model not a direct challenge to the democratic model followed by liberal democracies including India? Claiming otherwise will allow the fragile citadel of democracy to crumble. What is required at the moment is a sense of shared narrative against authoritarian threats to our democratic institutions. If people living in democratic societies are made to understand that they are bound by fundamental shared values despite many differences, that they become stronger due to the democratic principles of freedom and rights, they can find ways to resist attempts to weaken them.
India needs to position itself as an alternative political model that can effectively counter China's illiberal vision. If Trump's America perceives its national political ideal to be imperfect or contaminated, India must be the linchpin of "quad" to mount a credible counteroffensive to Chinese authoritarianism and dictatorship.