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Xi Jinping: How India can handle China’s strongman

Minhaz Merchant
Minhaz MerchantNov 03, 2017 | 17:31

Xi Jinping: How India can handle China’s strongman

Chinese President Xi Jinping is now in the august company of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. The 19th Communist Party of China (CPC) Congress last week enshrined “Xi Jinping Thought” in the CPC’s Constitution at the end of the week-long conclave. “Mao Thought” and “Deng Theory” are the only two such previous enshrinements.

Some believe that by not appointing an heir at the end of the Congress, Xi is positioning himself for an unprecedented third term in 2022-2027. None of the seven Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) members is likely to be eligible to be president in 2022. The unofficial age limit is 68. Xi will be 69 in 2022 but with no other contender in sight, he could well persuade the CPC to give him a third term.

There are dissenting voices though in the CPC and Xi will have to tread carefully. He has alienated many powerful people. In his first five-year term, Xi purged or jailed nearly one million officials on charges of corruption. Several senior army Generals have been sacked. China’s powerful armed forces are now firmly under Xi’s command.

According to Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post, “It appeared from the state-run TV report that two top generals, the former chief of general staff General Fang Fenghui and director of the political work department, General Zhang Yang were absent. Both Fang and Zhang were Central Military Commission (CMC) members in Xi’s first term, but they were left out of the list of PLA delegates to the party Congress. Earlier, the two Generals were taken away on the same day last month as part of a corruption investigation.”

Xi’s aggressive stance in the South China Sea, on the Dalai Lama, over Doklam, and in Arunachal Pradesh as well as his support for Pakistani terrorists like Masood Azhar make him a challenge for Indian foreign policymakers.

china-body_110317050937.jpgNew Delhi is dealing with an authoritarian country that in effect abets Pakistan-sponsored terrorism against India.

China is positioning itself as the world’s leading superpower by 2050, replacing the United States. Its economy is likely to surpass America’s over the next 20 years though its military will take far longer to catch up with America’s formidable armed forces.

Xi’s ascent has worried several countries. The last time a Communist state sought superpower status to challenge the United States was the Soviet Union. The West engaged in a 45-year-long Cold War to counter that threat. An authoritarian China poses similar problems under Xi.

As The Economist wrote of Xi: “His personal powers reflect his exalted sense of mission. He is president, head of the party and in July was referred to by state media as ‘supreme commander’, a title last conferred on Deng. He bestrides the bureaucracy like a colossus, having swept away and replaced almost all the party leaders and local governors in China’s 31 provinces, as well as much of the top brass of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).”

India needs to build a coherent strategy to counter China’s aggression and Xi’s growing hegemonistic ambitions. The Doklam standoff revealed two truths.

One, that Communist China is a land-grabber by instinct. It will continue its creeping acquisition of other countries’ sovereign territory - whether on land or at sea - as long as it can get away with it.

Two, when confronted, China will back down as it did at Doklam. That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t try again. It will. That is why army chief General Bipin Rawat has repeatedly stressed India’s preparedness to fight a two-front war. 

China has threatened Taiwan for years with military invasion, but has done nothing. It has clamped down on Hong Kong’s moves towards greater democracy and autonomy, but has backed away in the face of public protests.

Beijing remains prickliest though over the Dalai Lama. In a remarkable display of arrogance, it used the Communist Party’s Congress last week to warn world leaders not to meet the Dalai Lama, saying it would constitute a “major offence”.

Zhang Yijiong, who heads the Communist Party’s Tibet working group, told reporters on the sidelines of the party Congress: “Any country, or any organisation, accepting to meet the Dalai Lama, in our view, is a major offence to the sentiment of the Chinese people.” Zhang is also an executive vice-minister of the United Front Working Department of the Communist Party. Zhang said of the Dalai Lama: “After fleeing China in 1959, he established a so-called government-in-exile (in India), whose goal and core agenda is the independence of Tibet and to separate (from) China…”

Ever since the disastrous 1962 war, India has had a negative reflex action on matters regarding Tibet and China. In this context it is important to note the views of Prasenjit K Basu, a Singapore-based economist whose new book, Asia Reborn: A Continent Rises from the Rages of Colonialism and War to a New Dynamism, has key insights on Asia’s past, present and future.

In a recent interview with senior journalist Aditi Phadnis in Business Standard, Basu said of India’s Tibet policy: “Nehru was a brilliant historian: his Glimpses of World History is a masterpiece. But his naivete on statecraft was astounding, as if his knowledge of history was somehow utterly separated from his approach to governance and foreign policy. Sardar Patel saw clearly that India’s traditional role as Tibet’s main ally (and the only country with four consulates in Tibet while China had no representation in 1950) was essential to India’s security, (but) Nehru allowed China to invade and occupy Tibet – while doing nothing militarily or diplomatically to thwart this thrust from a rogue Communist regime that most of the world didn’t recognise as legitimate at the time.” 

Such historical errors of judgement have allowed Beijing to control the India-China narrative for decades. That is beginning to change. Doklam was the first sign of a more robust policy to counter Chinese aggression.

India is dealing with an authoritarian country that in effect abets Pakistan-sponsored terrorism against India and brazenly builds infrastructure on occupied sovereign Indian territory.

Xi is a leader who will make China even more authoritarian in the future. India must hold the line - and its nerve.

Last updated: November 03, 2017 | 17:31
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