Will China’s ‘dream’ be a nightmare for India?

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From the Indian perspective, the prominence given to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in the deliberations is noteworthy for policymakers.

While the global repercussions of the six-day national congress of the Communist Party of China, that ended last week, will continue to be discussed for some time, for India the effects are immediate.

The 2,300 delegates at the congress elected a 25-member Politburo, of which seven constitute its Standing Committee (PSC), equivalent to a small but empowered Cabinet in the Westminster form of government. Analysts have of course immediately observed that there was no visible successor to President Xi Jinping among the five new appointees to the PSC, besides himself and Premier Li Keqiang, who continue in their old positions. However, most of the remaining 18 members of the Politburo have had close past links with Mr Xi. This probably is to avoid the situation in the past when a successor would shrink the dominance of the President as the end to his second and final term approached. Mr Xi may yet induct a successor mid-term or ordain a third term for himself, in breach of the post-Deng Xiaoping convention.

Mr Xi has also ignored other Deng prescriptions outlined from 1980 onwards, such as the need for collective leadership, non-renewal of Politburo membership of those aged over 68 and abandoning the foreign policy injunction that China must “hide its capacities, bide its time and never take the lead”. With the CPC amending Article 2 of its constitution, to imbed “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”, Mr Xi has been put on the same pedestal as Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. At the same time only one among the Standing Committee’s seven members appears a hardcore Xi follower. Four of them are from organisations seen as his rivals. That may be mere trade-off for Mr Xi extracting support for his elevation as “core” leader.

From the Indian perspective, the prominence given to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in the deliberations is noteworthy for policymakers. Also significantly, its implementation schedule runs parallel to the Chinese politico-economic vision spelt out by Mr Xi. For instance, China aims to become a “moderately prosperous society” by 2020; a “basically modernised nation” by 2035; and a “rich and powerful socialist nation” by 2050. These lampposts relate, of course, roughly to a hundred years counted from the founding of the Communist Party in 1921 and the founding of the People’s Republic of China’s in 1949 respectively. The BRI markers are for Phase I — mobilisation 2013-16; Phase II — Planning 2016-21; Phase III — Implementation 2021-49. Thus, BRI is the sinews of a Sino-centric new global commercial and political architecture.

The consolidation of power by Mr Xi is of course only the logical and final step in a process that he has undertaken since assuming power in 2012, combining greater authoritarian control with nationalism. He has built his repute on a number of moves. First is his successful anti-corruption drive used to sideline rivals and cleanse the party and government, including the military’s secretive networks. Next, he has avoided a hard landing for the Chinese economy despite doomsayers predicting a collapse due to excessive dependence on exports and overhang of debt. Finally, he has successfully inserted China into the strategic space vacated by President Donald Trump, a veritable God-sent who inter alia junked the Barack Obama-sponsored Trans Pacific Partnership, which would have isolated China commercially from a large swathe of trans-Pacific trade. China also raised its international profile by firmly supporting the Paris climate treaty when the United States turned tail.

India also needs to note that besides dominating the CPC and Politburo, Mr Xi has an iron-clad hold over the powerful Central Military Commission (CMC). He is upgrading and modernising equipment and doctrines as indeed command and control structures to make the Chinese military nimbler and deadlier.

He has reduced seven districts into which the PLA was divided into five regional commands. Thus, India has to be extremely wary of any post-Doklam standoffs as the Chinese ingest setbacks and take a long view of settling scores or righting imbalances. In any case, they now have an open alliance with Pakistan instead of the earlier below-the-radar cooperation. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, being a part of BRI, imparts a new dimension to the full spectrum Sino-Pakistan collaboration.

Chinese innovation and growth is on a higher trajectory than that of India. The fact that electric car manufacturer Tesla is heading to China to set up its first plant abroad, despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi visiting its plant in America some time ago, shows the attractiveness of China due to its reserves of rare minerals needed for batteries and the size of its market. Despite assurances on Tesla’s intellectual property being safe in China, the assumption that Chinese will poach it will prove right. Similarly, in the field of energy, China buying 14.16 per cent of Russian oil and gas giant Rosneft and being a frontrunner to quietly pick up a five per cent stake in Saudi Aramco, which Saudis prefer to a public IPO, shows the challenge facing India.

It is true that Prime Minister Modi has, like Mr Xi, consolidated power but his two key economic steps — demonetisation and the rollout of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) — have so far brought disruption without visible gain. Unlike Mr Xi, he has crucial state elections which will test his popularity and distract from governance.

The time lost by India in matching its politics to its economics is an advantage for China. India is thus still in starting blocks to balance the looming ascendance of China in the Indo-Pacific region.

It needs domestic harmony and deft aligning abroad to construct a counter-strategy. Otherwise President Xi’s “China Dream”, articulated in 2013, may turn out to be India’s nightmare.

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