Xi’s obsession to look strong amid domestic discontent likely reasons for China’s rogue behaviour, say experts

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Published: July 23, 2020 2:50 PM

A variety of reasons like growing domestic discontent against President Xi Jinping's economic policies, his obsession to look strong and concerns about international legitimacy may be driving China's misadventures in eastern Ladakh and South China Sea, global strategic affairs experts said on Thursday.

Xi Jinping,india china standoff, Ladakh, galwan valley, south china sea, COVID-19 pandemic, Border Roads Organisation, LAC, defence news, latest news on india china tensionChina mobilized its forces in the Western sector of the LAC in huge numbers taking advantage of India’s preoccupation with the COVID-19 pandemic.(Reuters photo)

A variety of reasons like growing domestic discontent against President Xi Jinping’s economic policies, his obsession to look strong and concerns about international legitimacy may be driving China’s misadventures in eastern Ladakh and South China Sea, global strategic affairs experts said on Thursday.

They said the tensions have added to a sense of apprehension in the US, Europe and parts of Asia that China will engage in more aggressive behaviour in pursuit of its territorial interests, which in turn has raised the possibility of a serious and coordinated pushback by leading global players.

“There are certainly economic costs China will bear,” said Paul Staniland, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago.”The question that we can’t answer yet is how severe the economic cost actually will be, and, above all, how much pain the Chinese leadership is willing to accept relative to the gains it sees from advancing a more assertive posture in the region,” he told PTI in an email interview.

China’s actions in eastern Ladakh fit the pattern of its aggressive behaviour in other parts of Asia, including the South China Sea and East China Sea where it has made territorial claims, often on historical precedent and in the case of the Philippines by ignoring international legal ruling. Principally, it has disputes with Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Brunei, Cambodia and Vietnam among others.

Vipin Narang, an Associate Professor of Political Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said China’s strenuous attempts to expand its assertive influence and territorial claims along the Line of Actual Control(LAC) in eastern Ladakh and elsewhere in Asia could be the result of a variety of reasons.

“It could be anything from opportunism to concerns about India completing the infrastructure projects such as the DS-DBO (Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie) road to concerns about international or domestic legitimacy, where Xi Jinping believes he cannot afford to look weak,” he told PTI.

China mobilized its forces in the Western sector of the LAC in huge numbers taking advantage of India’s preoccupation with the COVID-19 pandemic. “China exploited a window of opportunity to make shallow penetrations across a variety of points simultaneously,” said Narang, also a fellow at Harvard University’s Olin Institute for Strategic Studies.

The 255-km long DS-DBO road that Border Roads Organisation built over a period of two decades connects Leh to strategically important Daulat Beg Oldie(DBO) near the Karakoram Pass. The road runs along Shyok and Tangtse rivers and gives India access to several strategically key points.

Besides engaging in a major military standoff with India in eastern Ladakh, China has been expanding its maritime offensive in the South China Sea and East China Sea displaying an attempt at aggressive consolidation of control over contested territories when the world has been battling the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed over 600,000 people globally.

Another Strategic affairs expert, Dr Laxman Behera, said Xi’s economic policies are triggering resentment in China and the offensive on the border could be a reason to divert attention and bolster his stature. He noted that the Chinese are never transparent about what they do. “Nobody knows their intention. It is a very opaque society,” he said.

This was evident from the fact that the Chinese never gave details of the casualties they suffered in the Galwan Valley clashes on June 15 while India was upfront and reported 20 deaths. According to an American intelligence report, Chinese suffered 35 casualties.

China will “never care about their casualties and they are very good at hiding all the facts. The fact is that there were severe casualties on their side. But they never tell it to their population. That is the way they do things,” Dr Behera said.

India’s former Deputy Chief of Army Staff Lt Gen (retd) Subrata Saha also told PTI that China did not release their casualty figures because it feared a domestic backlash in China upon hearing about human loss. During an interview with PTI last month, Chinese Ambassador Sun Weidong had refused to address important questions such as: why China resorted to aggressive military behaviour when fighting COVID-19 was paramount for the world; what was the motive behind the massive buildup of troops and why the Chinese military carried out the brutal assault on Indian soldiers in Galwan Valley.

The Chinese envoy was also asked whether China will punish the soldiers involved in the attacks on Indian soldiers in Galwan Valley and what was the Chinese casualty figure. However, Sun sidestepped the questions. Gen Saha said the ambassador’s reticence was the outcome of China’s autocratic system, which is “very strictly controlled” and where it is perfectly normal for people lower in the hierarchy to sidestep issues for which they do not have clearance unlike in India where democracy allows officials to speak their mind.

“It is no surprise that people are reluctant to speak out. It is driven by the fact that the total power is consolidated in one single authority — president of the country, general secretary of the Communist party, chairman of the central military commission, all the powers are vested in one person,” he said.

“Therefore, it is a very strongman kind of a rule. Therefore, it is not abnormal for people down the line to be reluctant to speak anything for which they do not have clearance,” he added. But, experts say, this secrecy and the military belligerence, will come at an economic cost to China.

Staniland, the University of Chicago expert, said the extent of possible economic losses depends on whether countries like India and Vietnam can effectively compete with the communist nation, and whether firms in the US, Japan, and Europe will actually change their behaviour.

“I think China’s behaviour has certainly increased the likelihood of serious, coordinated pushback against its behaviour. That said, it’s too early to tell what the long-term impact will be,” said Staniland, who is also a non-resident scholar in the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “There is no doubt that China wants to reshape some key aspects of the world order to its advantage,” he added.

Meanwhile, Tilak Devasher, a member of the National Security Advisory Board, told PTI that China’s offensive in eastern Ladakh has dented its international image, adding “there are reasons to believe that there are also domestic considerations for President Xi to be so reckless.”

But “the rest of the world has shown that it will not accept China’s bullying tactics. Many countries, especially democracies, are coming together to resist China. There will be a substantial economic cost for China,” Devasher added.

“The fact that it has hidden its casualties indicates that the losses were severe and it did not want the public and the world to know about it. There has been anger in China about the soldiers not getting proper last rites. The world watched how the Indian martyrs were given full military honours in their respective places,” he said.

“This lack of honouring its deceased soldiers has reflected poorly on China’s military prowess. Secondly, it has shown that China will not respect bilateral or international agreements or it will respect them only so far as it suits them. Thus, it has proved that for China such agreements have no sanctity. Rest of the world will have to tailor their policies accordingly,” he added.

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