(India and China on Monday signalled an end, though not yet fully clear, to the three-month-long standoff in Doklam. The Ministry of External Affairs in a statement said the two countries have agreed to an "expeditious disengagement" of troops in the disputed border area. China, on the other hand, claimed the Indian troops have withdrawn, and that the Chinese would continue to patrol the Doklam region. The following piece – originally published on 29 July 2017 – is being republished in the backdrop of this development.)
There is no doubting that President Xi Jinping is less popular in China when compared to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in India. This was my assessment during my recent visit to China.
According to a Chinese observer, Xi is faced with internal resentment on several counts.
One reason is his sweeping anti-graft campaign which has led to the filing of over 1.6 million corruption cases since the campaign began in 2012. The authorities have also imprisoned and suspended top party officials and veterans.
The removal, for the first time, of a sitting member of the Communist Party's top leadership, Sun Zhengcai, dubbed as a potential rival of Xi Jinping, was reflective of the intense power struggle within the party ahead of the forthcoming 19th Party Congress in November.
Notwithstanding Xi being hailed as a “core” leader last year, his dissenters may have grown.
China’s Sudden Aggression
- Doklam face-off comes at a time when the number of Xi
Jinping’s dissenters may have grown and China’s economy is slowing down.
- Tension on
the border might be an excuse to neutralise domestic dissidents.
- Chinese army’s drills and troop deployment could be
serving other purposes than just threatening India.
- India’s economic reforms could also be the reason
behind recent anxiety as the GST will have a negative impact on imports of Chinese
- China is also concerned about US designating India as
a ‘major defence partner’.
Challenges for Xi Jinping
Amassing of more power by Xi is seemingly being systematically opposed by other elite groups, especially the Shanghai faction loyal to Jiang Zemin and the Beijing faction loyal to Hu Jintao. But pro-Xi leaders like Hu Chunhua, among others, are calling for safeguarding Xi’s core leadership. Former Premier Wen Jiabao is also seen to be rallying behind Xi.
Secondly, the slowing down of the economy could also be impacting Xi’s position. The economy is not expected to recover in the near future. With China’s Central Bank piled with massive debts, global financial rating agencies seem loath to forecast a positive scenario for the country.
Thirdly, there appears to be strong internal differences over the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), driven so far by Xi’s own ambitious vision. And fourthly, not everyone in the party would be on the same page with regard to China’s policy on North Korea which is facing serious scrutiny following mounting pressure from Trump’s administration on Beijing to rein in Pyongyang.
China’s discomfiture on the issue was apparent when its foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said recently that the “key to a resolution did not lie with China” and that “everyone needed to accept their responsibilities”.
Xi’s Domestic Compulsions
If we are to draw a linkage between these fissures inside China and the Doklam stand-off, Xi may well be keeping the border face-off on the boil to neutralise dissidents in the party and the PLA ranks.
The PLA seems to have taken Indian army chief General Bipin Rawat’s statement that India is ready to fight a “two-and-half-front war” as deeply insulting and provocative; hence it is plausible that they are putting relentless pressure on Xi Jinping to act against India.
“India should quickly withdraw its troops and not put too much pressure on Xi, as he is already under lot of stress,” said a veteran Chinese professor.
To be sure, it is rather difficult to fully assess whether the prevailing rhetoric against India has anything to do with China’s internal power struggle, but the stand-off could well be serving Xi Jinping’s interest to assuage the military while providing additional incentive to boost the troops’ morale and their readiness.
The PLA’s drills and its rapid troop deployment in the Tibetan plateau could be serving other purposes than simply threatening India.
Worried Over India’s Growth Trajectory
There is also no doubt that the Chinese are beginning to get worried about the series of sweeping and aggressive economic reforms carried out by the Modi government which will put India’s growth rate at an even higher pedestal post 2020.
Clearly, the tide turning in India’s favour would not be easily digested by the Chinese especially when their own manufacturing and export capacities are going belly up.
India’s new tax regime may also not have come as happy news for Chinese exporters. They know that the GST will streamline India’s domestic competition in terms of manufacturing, sale, consumption as well as services at the national level. This has serious consequences for the import of Chinese goods in Indian market.
The Chinese were also troubled over India’s aggressive drive for enhancing its manufacturing facilities by pushing collaborative partnerships with key countries such as Germany, France, Japan, the US, Israel and others both in defence and civilian sectors.
India-US Bonhomie Triggers Insecurities
The most visible worry for China is the growing convergence of strategic interest between the United States and India – a trend the Chinese expected would end under the Trump administration.
An assortment of deals India and the US have signed this time i.e. the long-term import of $45 billion worth LNG by India, the purchase of 205 civil aircraft from Boeing worth $20 billion etc., were well designed to boost India’s manufacturing capacity as well as to create jobs in America.
What seems more worrying for Beijing is the US legislation designating India as a “major defence partner”. US’ recent offer of its sea predator ‘Guardian’ drones to India has further signalled the trend of converging strategic interests. Already, massive defence projects are in the offing including Lockheed Martin’s offer to build the F-16 Block 70 fighter jets in India.
Such a high degree of technology transfer can’t be taking placing without the eventual signing between India and the US of three defence sector “foundational pacts” necessary for military cooperation.
Threat to Sino-Pak Equation
India has already signed a logistic support agreement with the US, although a watered down version, called LEMOA – Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement. The fear of India’s neighbour is that India will sign CISMOA – Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement – and BECA – Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement – with the US.
The three agreements are expected to upset the Sino-Pak strategic calculations. Hence the growing sense of nervousness in Islamabad and Beijing, for such interoperability strength would result in altering the regional setting – especially the ground situation in Kashmir, Afghanistan and the Indian Ocean. China’s counter-push for its presence in Hambantota (Sri Lanka), Gwadar (Pakistan) and Djibouti in the horn of Africa is to be seen in this context.
A tougher approach from Washington to pressurise Islamabad to rein in the forces of terrorism emanating from Pakistan and the resumption of drone attacks on the Taliban and the Haqqani network are some emerging signs of change in the South Asian theatre.
(This is part one of a two-part series on Doklam border standoff.)
(The author is a former Ambassador. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)