China’s internal pressures are driving Xi Jinping’s tough stance on border, says veteran Beijing watcher Jayadeva Ranade

Given the domestic political situation inside China, can the leadership afford to go back to status quo, asks Mr. Ranade, a former Additional Secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat.

Updated - June 07, 2020 11:48 pm IST

Published - June 07, 2020 10:35 pm IST

Facing pressure from the trade war with the U.S. and an economy hit by the pandemic, China’s leadership appears to be taking a tougher line on issues related to sovereignty from Taiwan to the India border, says Jayadeva Ranade, a former Additional Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India, and President, Centre for China Analysis and Strategy, who has been tracking China for three decades. Beijing is unlikely to change course and pull back, as doing so would hurt the credibility of the leadership which is already under pressure, he said.

How unusual is the current situation on the Line of Actual Control, given the number and scale of stand-offs since last month?

The situation is certainly different. Firstly, these have occurred at multiple points along the LAC, from Ladakh to Naku La in Sikkim. I also associate the activation of a new diplomatic front by Nepal against us as a part of this. It is a new kind of activity that the Chinese have created on our northern borders. Since Xi Jinping has taken over, the nature and kind of intrusions that we have been seeing have altered. They have become more firm and appear to have been premeditated and planned.

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh has attributed the tensions to differing perceptions of the LAC. Do you share that view?

I would disagree with that, for the simple reason that in quite a few of these places, there have been no such intrusions and there has been no instance of a difference in perception of the LAC. Galwan Valley, which is one of the main points of confrontation, has not witnessed an intrusion for the last 15 to 20 years. So it's not that this difference in perception of the LAC is what prompted this. I do get the sense that these intrusions have been planned and then launched.

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Why is China opening a new front in Galwan? It has been suggested that the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulet Beg Oldi (DSDBO) road is one reason. The change in status with Ladakh as a union territory, which China had objected to, has been cited as another. Are these plausible reasons?

The construction of the DSDBO road certainly would have been one of the factors together with the upgrading of our defence logistics infrastructure. These are points of concern for the Chinese. In addition to that, what has occurred in the recent past is growing Chinese stakes in the region, particularly with the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) having developed and China having certain interests in that area, both financial and strategic.

If we look at the time from when Xi Jinping announced the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, which was in April 2015, since then the Chinese have been consistently telling us, whether at the official level, whether at the leadership level, whether at the track two level or the think-tank level, to resume talks with Pakistan and ease tensions to resolve Kashmir, and then look to improve relations with China. They have been explicit, so I think they have been signaling their discomfiture since then. Since the time we published the new maps, and after revocation of Article 370 and 35(A) of our Constitution, the Chinese got more apprehensive. Of course, the Pakistanis would have egged them on, which is why we have seen the Chinese taking the Kashmir issue to the UN Security Council on four occasions so far, and maybe there will be more.

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External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar made the point to Beijing during a visit last August that the change in status had in no way altered India’s external boundaries. From Beijing’s perspective, what would be their concern if there is no change to the boundary dispute?

Well, that's absolutely correct, and I think Jaishankar put it across very correctly. But the fact is that we have always depicted our borders as they are. And the new map essentially changes the domestic borders of the states of Kashmir, Ladakh etc. so to that extent we are correct. But when you combine that with the fact that over the years now, China has acquired tangible strategic and financial stakes in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, Gilgit-Baltistan, that was not there earlier, they are now more apprehensive of the safety of their projects. The surgical strikes that we carried out, the airstrike on Balakot which was about 30 kilometres away from one of the projects, are things which are of heightened concern in Beijing. And with their close ties with the Pakistanis, they may have decided that they need to safeguard their interests in these areas.

How do you see the current situation along the LAC being resolved? Do you see any likelihood of resumption of the stalled process to clarify the LAC?

There are two ways of looking at it. If we show not only our determination to hold ground but also maybe apply pressure in some areas on China, it could cause a rethinking in Beijing about how the LAC is, and to come to some kind of an understanding with us on what the LAC is, and then consider areas that are acceptable to both sides on the ground as well as on the map. But that is unlikely in my point of view because China does feel that it is very strong. It has got a larger agenda, a global agenda of where it wants to position itself. And according to them, we don't figure in that calculation. The second point is that, as far as the talks itself are concerned, they're not going to give in easily. Our position is we want status quo ante so that means everyone goes back to their earlier position. Which begs the question, why did the Chinese do this in the first place? And given the domestic political situation inside China, can Xi Jinping afford to go back or to disengage or to withdraw, now, once again, having done that earlier in Doklam and not find people who are critical of his action?

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The 23 round of the talks between Special Representatives on the boundary negotiations will be held later this year. What are the prospects of the boundary talks making any headway?

Let me answer that in two short points. The first is that it's good that the talks are on going for the simple reason that it keeps temperatures below the boiling point, hopefully, and the fact that we have some point of contact on the other side. I think that is one plus out of these SR level talks. Having said that, I don't really see much progress, unless there is a willingness in Beijing to settle the boundary issue. And I don't see that willingness right now, either from a study of their media or from their actions. As I said, they have a larger global agenda. They are intent on securing that rather than allowing us to become free and move out of the South Asia box, which is where they want to keep us.

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How do you assess President Xi’s position internally after the pandemic? Does the holding of the National People’s Congress last month suggest he has shored up his position?  

There are two factors that are really bothering Xi Jinping right now and which are causing concern. The first is the economic situation. The way the U.S.- China trade war is developing is aggravating that. Unless he's able to tackle that, domestic criticism will continue. As you are aware, the unemployment situation is bad, it has risen from around 20 million to 70 million. Second, the sources of voiced discontent, the intellectuals, the academics and the students, I don't think they are reconciled to the situation. Neither are those Chinese Communist Party cadres, serving or retired, who don't want to return to one man rule. They are also unhappy and they remain unhappy. So these factors remain, and they are probably waiting for an opportunity to voice their criticism.

The other factor is the U.S. China trade factor. Chinese think tanks have highlighted two things. One is the exponential rise in anti-China sentiment around the world, which, particularly the Chinese Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, which is a think-tank of the Ministry of State Security in China,  has warned that foreign powers could fan that sentiment, even leading up to a state of conflict. They have sounded a very, very highly cautious and worried note. The second is the PLA Daily, which carried a long essay on May 5, which itself is unusual, warning of a bleak economic situation and saying that the socio-economic factors inside China have reached a high explosive point - I'm quoting that phrase - and that foreign powers will find that, in order to create social upheaval. So Xi Jinping does have serious concerns. I think that was reflected during the NPC, particularly in the government work report presented by Premier Li Keqiang. It was a very temperate report. There were, of course, 13 references to Xi Jinping, genuflecting as was expected. Li Keqiang made no bones about pointing to the tough economic situation that lies ahead.

Podcast | The State of Play on the India-China Border 

Xi Jinping has managed to get through the NPC, but it doesn't really solve the issues. A lot depends on the level of discontent within the Chinese Communist Party, particularly its middle and higher echelons, and I don’t know how much of that has really been sorted out. Look at the fact that he has created a new central small group under Guo Shengkun who is Secretary to the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, his right hand man in a way, to look at political stability and the political situation in China. I think these indicate that Xi Jinping himself knows that there are problems ahead, and that his own position is not 100% secure.

Do these internal challenges influence China’s external postures, whether on Taiwan or with India? Is it the case that Xi is incentivised to take hard lines on these issues?

I have no doubt that this tougher line has come about because of the perception domestically that the two centenary goals as they call it, the China Dream and catching up if not surpassing the US by 2049, are slipping out of the grasp of the leadership. The continuing protests in Hong Kong for slightly over a year was one factor, the manner in which Taiwan was making its critical comments about China was the second factor. So I think this perception among the Chinese people, that the leadership was no longer that effective, it didn't have a firm grip of the situation, is one of the real key factors why Xi Jinping has opted for a much tougher line. That and the U.S.- China factor is another. So it has happened that in Hong Kong he has taken a tough line. In Taiwan , he is applying pressure. In the South China Sea, he has started sending PLA Navy warships there. And I think what we are seeing on the borders with India is similar. So that does bring us to the question, that if he's adopting this tougher line, can he afford to pull back and face criticism from within China, in case he's doing this to shore his credibility?

Also read | China ratchets up media blitz on LAC

In this new context, where do you see India China relations headed? Do you expect a tough line on the boundary to continue, as also a deepening of the China Pakistan relationship?

I don't see China changing its policy on issues of national sovereignty and territorial integrity. For them , it trumps everything else. And they have said so quite explicitly. I think that will remain. Until and unless the power balance shifts, or even improves, it's not going to change. The China Pakistan relationship is something that has been there for a long time. I think the Chinese will continue that relationship. It's something they've made a lot of investment in. And they're gradually, if I may say, virtually taking over Pakistan. I remember having been told once by a very well informed Chinese analyst who often briefs the Politburo, when I asked him about the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, his comment was, he said, you know, till now we had bought over the Pakistanis. Now, we are going to buy out Pakistan.

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