The recently concluded BRICS summit in the coastal city of Xiamen, in the Fujian province of China, has received much attention, coming right after the 70-odd days of the Doklam standoff between India and China. At the annual summit, the joint declaration condemned terror groups, including Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM). For India, this was a significant move—the Mumbai attack in 2008 was masterminded by LeT and the Pathankot airbase attack in 2016 masterminded by the chief of JeM, Masood Azhar. Earlier, in 2016, China had blocked India’s bid to ban Azhar at the UN. Given the backdrop, China condemning LeT and JeM is being perceived as favourably disposed towards accommodating India. What is the takeaway from Doklam and China’s ‘handshake’?
While Doklam will be symbolic of unprecedented diplomatic success for both India and China, that it happened in the first place is a niggling worry. The Chinese failed to gauge and catch the Indian pulse earlier on, who viewed the road construction as provocative, one that would alter the status quo in South Asia.
As we look back, what are the possible reasons of China’s withdrawal? Speculating the course of events leads us to domestic and external compulsions that may have caused a rethinking on China’s part.
With the impending 19th Party Congress, a once-in-five-year event, round the corner—scheduled on October 18—China is readying for a big event.
The 19th Party Congress may not be full of surprises, because the writing on the wall already indicates that President Xi Jinping is well in control. Xi has accumulated ‘more titles and formal powers’ than any other leader in China in the past seven decades, including the great helmsman Mao Zedong. He may also be the first Chinese leader to have a fan club (Learning from Xi fan club).
It was not for nothing that the Australian China-hand Geremie Barme called Xi the ‘Chairman of Everything,’ or CoE. This is borne out by the fact that Xi is in control (party-state, military to leading groups) ‘more primus than primus inter pares’ in the current seven-member set-up of the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC, the most powerful body in China). Many of the current members such as Xi’s right-hand man Wang Qishan (aged 68, spearheading the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, CCDI) are deemed to retire, and with the general sentiment that Wang’s shoes are too big to fill, Xi is likely to find the task of finding a replacement (and comrade-in-arms) challenging. Xi is said to rely on a small group of people including Wang (anti-corruption), Li Zhanshu (director of the Central General Office, party-building; Chinese media calls him China’s No 2) and Liu He (economic advisor).
Xi’s unprecedented powers have been officially codified at the Sixth Plenum of the 18th Congress (2016) last year, with Xi anointed as the ‘core’ of the leadership, propelling Xi on par with Chinese greats such as Mao, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin. Observers have chosen to read between the lines, as this designation (core, or ‘hexin’ in Chinese) had eluded and evaded Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao. Hu’s designation, as China-hand Lance Gore noted, remained as ‘the Central Party Leadership with comrade Hu Jintao as the general secretary.’
While Xi is in command, composing the new PBSC (with five members expected to retire) and the Politburo (of the 25 members, 11 are expected to retire) will resound beyond the next five years. Many China-hands foresee Xi’s extended role beyond 2022 (Xi could retain the position of the General Secretary of the Party, or as Chairman of the Central Military Commission). But now is the time for a tricky transition to a ‘new cohort’ of sixth generation leadership (born in the 1960s) amidst factions and loyalists. In the recent provincial level reshuffles (2017), Xi favoured his ex-colleagues who served with him in Fujian (province), Shanghai (municipality) and Zhejiang (province). This could marginalise communist royalty (princelings) or other factions such as the Secretary gang, Shanghai gang, Oil gang or the Communist Youth League gang.
Political heads, as before, tend to roll pre or during the Congress period. Sun Zhengcai (Party Secretary of Chongqing municipality), a rising star and a potential candidate for the PBSC, has made an uneasy exit.
Under these domestic circumstances of reshuffles and jostling between factions, and an unabated anti-corruption drive that continues to net ‘tigers’ (vice-ministerial and above or senior officials), a festering border issue with India would be the last choice.
This sentiment was indirectly honed via Chinese media from the start. While there was noise by Global Times and propaganda-type warnings from China Daily, for the benefit of global readers (i.e. English readers such as Indians and Americans, among others) which voiced a one-sided official account, including an awkward Xinhua video that made a politically incorrect mess of turbans and Indian accent, all this was in English (not read by the Chinese). China’s micro-blogs such as Weibo and WeChat (read by the Chinese and the expats in China) did not cover Doklam much.
That China did not want the matter to escalate can be deduced from Wechat. What went around was an amusing post asking the question as to why the armed Chinese soldiers at the front line (meant to use arms) were throwing stones instead. This was not written out of spite, but with gentle humour, China-style. Another WeChat blog ruled out war, praised India for its military prowess, but said that India should withdraw.
The average Chinese did not think of the immediacy or possibility of war, nor was the ‘India threat’ primed on the horizon. The Sino-India dispute was, however, contextually framed in the familiar framework of ‘aggrieved nationalism’ (for example, India ‘obstructing’ China’s ‘normal patrols’ and that China’s restraint was ‘not without a bottom line’). But this was not fanned hard.
In the recent past, many of us will remember the anti-Japanese demonstrations in China in September 2012—which spread like wildfire within China following Sino-Japan dispute over islands in the East China Sea. Recently too, following the American deployment of THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) in South Korea, demonstrators went on a rampage, singling out South Korean department stores and goods in March 2017.
That for thousands of Indians—medical/engineering students in Suzhou and Beijing, traders in Yiwu and corporates, embassy and consulate personnel in Beijing and Shanghai—life was normal through the crisis was a redeeming aspect. So was it for the Chinese in India.
Speculating on external factors, China’s handshake with India just might have been motivated by China’s bellicose neighbour next door and what is happening in China’s neighbourhood.
North Korea, which shares a 1,400-km long border with China, recently concluded its sixth nuclear test. The three possible scenarios: North Korea’s collapse, unification with South Korea which has extended the olive branch, or North Korea under the Chinese umbrella, all have deep ramifications for China—as this is where the ‘great game’ is being played once more.
In the South China Sea, where China has staked ‘historical’ claim along a ‘nine-dash line’ is also coming to a head with the US Pacific Command having readied a schedule for FONOPs (Freedom of Navigation Operations).
It is a forgone conclusion that China has been testing boundaries in the ASEAN region (South China Sea) and Central Asia (in Russia’s backyard). India (South Asia) may have been no different or exception.
With so much playing on China’s mind—the 19th Congress on the home-turf, the complexity of engaging North Korea (Northeast Asia), America (and its allies, in the South China Sea)—in the scheme and immediacy of things, Doklam may not have been that high. There is too much already on the Chinese plate.