Pandemic, Ukraine war and the waning comprehensive national power of China | The Financial Express

Pandemic, Ukraine war and the waning comprehensive national power of China

Over the past two years, the pandemic and the Ukraine war have upended some Chinese myths. Many popular assumptions of China and its CNP have been laid bare.

The onset of the pandemic saw a steep rise in the Chinese CNP. (Representational image: Reuters)

By Lt Gen P R Shankar (R)

In the pre-pandemic period it was thought that China’s Comprehensive National Power (CNP) was increasing rapidly. It was deemed to be strong enough to establish a Sino-Centric World order. In the initial phase of the pandemic, this view was reinforced manifold as its economy boomed. It seemed that China was unstoppable. The USA appeared to be on a veritable decline. In India, the common refrain indicated a deference to China. During the Eastern Ladakh crisis, it was generally felt that China’s CNP and its national stamina would prevail over India should certain redlines be crossed in conflict. This was a view nationally and internationally held with a lot of conviction.

Over the past two years, the pandemic and the Ukraine war have upended some Chinese myths. Many popular assumptions of China and its CNP have been laid bare. In fact, if anything, severe deficiencies in the Chinese propagandist projections have exposed. Hence the myths surrounding CNP need to be understood in their correct perspective to enable us to deal with China better.

Comprehensive National Power (CNP) is a term coined by the Chinese. It purportedly indicates China’s Overall capability to achieve its strategic objectives and national interests – domestically and internationally. The ‘number’ fixated Chinese calculate their CNP numerically based on complex but quantified indices. These quantified indices are then used to create a single number, which indicates the power of a nation-state/country relative to the other. The Chinese use this figure to convey their relative superiority over their competitors and also convince themselves of their greatness. However, the basis and logic of this number are as obscure and opaque as the Chinese. The mystical part is that the metrics of this quantification are unknown. Notwithstanding this,  by common sense it can be concluded that CNP would include all elements of soft and hard power of a nation including political, military, economic , diplomatic, scientific, technological, resources, energy, material and other cultural and non-cultural factors. Based on this common sense approach an attempt is being made to evaluate the CNP of China against the backdrop of the pandemic and the ongoing Ukrainian war.

The onset of the pandemic saw a steep rise in the Chinese CNP. It was visible in its assertiveness in the South China Sea, Eastern Ladakh and Hong Kong in 2020.  Wolf warrior diplomacy as also mask, PPE and vaccine diplomacy gave a fillip to its CNP. At that time it seemed that China was the centre of the world. Its authoritarian approach to stopping the spread of the virus in its tracks, within China, reinforced its rise. This short term success led China to flaunt its strong political systems being far better than the weak and chaotic democratic systems which failed to either prevent the spread of the disease or save lives of their citizens. It led to imposition of the draconian Zero Covid policy of widespread testing, tracing and vaccinations combined with strict isolation and quarantining. It was the peak of China’s CNP. The downfall commenced when its vaccines failed. As the rest of the world started learning to live with the virus, China was attempting to live apart from the virus with the forlorn hope that one day the virus will vanish.  It didn’t. In the meantime, as China isolated itself from the world, the process of decoupling and supply chain relocation commenced. Simultaneously around this time, the burgeoning private sector spearheaded by Jack Ma’s Alibaba posed challenges to the control of the state by Xi Jinping and the CCP. The real estate was in a bubble and going out of control.  Xi Jinping invented common prosperity and corruption to cull the engines of Chinese growth – real estate, big tech and fintech and keep them firmly under his control as he was bidding for an unprecedented third term in office . He sent Jack Ma into an extended period of hibernation in the wilderness. All this took the wind out of China’s economy. China’s CNP started declining. The virus did the rest when its virulent variants defeated Zero-Covid conclusively. Wide spread lockdowns (from Shanghai to Urumqi and beyond), triggered protests of ‘never before seen variety’ in China. People refused to pay mortgages. The political protest by a solitary bridgeman was symbolic of subsurface unrest. The widespread rebellion against zero covid, protests for  health insurance and a whole lot of other issues including cuts in pay and job losses shook Xi Jinping and his coterie. The pandemic also exposed the poor state of health infrastructure in China. It is a  CNP detractor. Amidst all this, two long term issues have  surfaced which will further impact China’s CNP adversely,  without fail , incrementally , and irreversibly – demographic decline and climate change.  The demographic decline which commenced a decade ahead of time just exposed the pack of lies which China keeps bundling and dishes out to the world. The record and unprecedented bouts of flood and droughts in quick succession during this period, indicate the dark spectre of climate change which looms over China. At the end of the pandemic, it became clear that China’s economy was not going to recover in a hurry. China’s CNP is going down when viewed from any metric.

An important issue which came forth in this period is erosion of trust in China. As it is, trust in China was pretty low due to multiple factors. The pandemic destroyed any modicum of remnant trust in China. As per the Taiwanese , it takes an idiot to trust a Chinese Communist. This lack of trust will hurt China’s CNP the most for a long time.

The foundations of the Ukraine War were laid by Russia during the ‘No Limits’ friendship pact between Putin and Xi Jinping prior to the winter Olympics last year. Whether the war was undertaken with Xi Jinping’s connivance or not is a matter of historical verdict. However, the needle of suspicion swung firmly towards China and the trust factor dipped even further. Resultantly, all international decisions on the Ukraine war were taken without even consulting the Chinese. In fact the Chinese were kept on the side lines and warned of the repercussions of rendering direct warlike assistance to Russia. They have had to simply lump it so far;  since they remain an export oriented manufacturing economy whose major markets are in the West. So much for China’s CNP. Further, ever during the course of the Ukraine war, China’s CNP kept getting eroded with  Zero Covid, Common Prosperity, state control, hammering of the private sector, real estate crisis and above all Xi Jinping’s spectacled ascendance to his third term with an absurd emphasis on security. All this has contributed to a plunging  CNP.

China’s incapacity to do anything significant during and after Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan only underscored that CNP remains a figment of irrelevance in the world of realpolitik. The Ukraine war and Nancy Pelosi’s visit, enforced self-realisation on China that Taiwan was a prickly pear to gobble and a military porcupine to deal with. PLA was simply not up to the task of a cross strait action as yet despite China’s CNP superiority. This has been tacitly admitted by China itself. During the recent Two Sessions, the emphasis was more on political and diplomatic outreach for re-unification rather than the strident tone of military action during the 20 Party Congress. An important issue which is often missed is that the PLA remains inexperienced and untested in battle. Further China has remained reticent or hesitant to commit PLA in out of area operations to underscore its super power claims.All this places huge questions on the military which is considered a huge component of China’s CNP.

In the past  year many countries have declared China as their systemic threats / competitors including USA, EU nations and Japan. They have taken steps to contain  China. Most significant amongst them is the USA’s CHIPS Act. It will deny to China three important aspects of chip technology – the design (from USA), the lithography (from Denmark) and production engineering (from Taiwan). Resultantly, Chinese dreams of superiority in AI, Quantum Computing et al are at risk. One must also remember that Chinese efforts to be self-reliant on chip technology resulted in a number of scams last year without getting results.Additionally, many other technologies which China needs from the West and Japan will hereafter be either denied to them or be made proportionately costly. All this will have an effect on its CNP as per its own calculations.

As per the latest reports coming out of China, its economy remains sluggish despite the initial euphoria of re-opening. Its consumption has not picked up, jobs remain scarce, the housing sector remains sick, and the export slump continues as empty containers pile up. China is wooing international investors and trying to revive the private sector. However common prosperity, the ghosts of state control and trust deficiency still haunt the system. The fact that China has made a huge budgetary commitment to internal security during the Two Sessions is also not lost on any one. These two factors are contraindicatory  to each other. No wonder Jack Ma is reduced to teaching the value of AI to rural teachers as Alibaba suffers losses. The overall numbers do not add up and this will be reflected in the CNP.   

The recent diplomatic forays of Mr Xi Jinping have made international headlines. The Iran Saudi peace deal was followed by his high profile visit to Russia. This was preceded by a 12 point peace plan to end the Ukraine war. It was promptly rejected by the EU and USA. Despite this, it was expected and heavily speculated in Chinese media that Xi Jinping will pull off a peace commitment from Putin making him an international statesman. However nothing of that sort happened. Reflexively, Chinese media went to town proclaiming that the new chapter of Sino-Russian friendship will put them into a ‘two vs one’ situation with the USA. It was also proclaimed that China will isolate Russia. A new bipolar global order was hailed with China on top of one pole with Russia as its junior partner. The moment Xi Jinping left Russia,  Putin started deploying nuclear weapons in Belarus. This is after a promise by Putin that nuclear weapons will not be deployed outside Russia. Remember Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus, concluded his state visit to China just before Xi’s visit to Russia. Surely, one of the requests to Xi would have been to persuade Putin to desist deploying nukes in Belarus. Russia is in clearly no mood to be anyone’s junior partner. China’s diplomatic outreach and CNP has limits despite the No Limits friendship with Russia.

A major issue which has surfaced in the course of the Ukrainian war is that Chinese capacity to undertake protracted and long drawn operations is suspect. Russia, an energy, food and resource surplus nation with technological self-sufficiency and a secure unassailable land mass, has demonstrated the capacity to withstand sanctions and conduct operations on its terms despite the losses it has suffered. A question which comes to mind is will China be able to do so?  Its food, energy and resource insecurity is chronic with no solution in sight. Further its technological prowess falls short of its global ambitions. More than scarcity, its routes  of food, energy and resource import are also vulnerable. The recent global events will force a rethink on Chinese thinkers to re-evaluate their CNP. 

In this period, two important neighbours of China have started revamping their security postures in a big way to ward off the Chinese threat – Japan and India. Further all its neighbours, specially in the Indo Pacific have upped their security  capacities. What is worse, they have also started building interoperable structures to face the China threat together. On top of this, the USA has returned to Subic Bay. It is doubtful if China with its declining CNP will have the wherewithal to take up military cudgels or exert even regional influence like in the past.  What is more, all regional countries are hedging their bets away from China. One of their biggest hedges is India, which is seen as a growing and more trustworthy power. Last but not the least, the BRI has been quietly failing in this period to underscore China’s falling CNP

Two issues to conclude. Firstly, the CNP does not win wars. If that was so, Ukraine had no chance against Russia and Taliban had no hope in hell against the USA. Armies win wars. So the need to invest in them for national security remains paramount. Secondly, the recent years have shown us that a food surplus India, whose energy supply chains are far more secure than Chinese, is relatively better placed than we thought till now. As India rises and its economy grows, so will its CNP , as per Chinese standards. If the Government of India is sensible enough, it should spend wisely on defence and build capacities which enable our Armed Forces fight a protracted war in the high Himalayas should the need arise. Alongside this, we should have the gumption to innovate and hybridise the battle across the Himalayas to put paid to the thought that Chinese CNP wins battles. Surely even my worst detractors will agree that the Chinaman is no more than 10 feet tall with an outsized CNP.  We need to reappraise him and reassess our own strengths too.

The author is PVSM, AVSM, VSM, and a retired Director General of Artillery. He is currently a Professor in the Aerospace Department of IIT Madras. He writes extensively on defence and strategic affairs @

Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited.

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First published on: 29-03-2023 at 16:13 IST
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