China’s 20th Party Congress concluded with hardly any surprises, and a predetermined script was implemented without any hitch. Xi Jinping was anointed President for an unprecedented third term, and all six of his acolytes made it to the powerful Politburo Standing Committee. Li Qiang is widely expected to take over as Prime Minister from Li Keqiang, who was unceremoniously dropped from the standing committee. Mr. Xi’s words while introducing the new leadership — that they would not be daunted by ‘high winds, choppy waters and even dangerous storms’ — reflected the prevailing mood at the Congress.
‘Core’ status reinforced
The outcome can be summed up in the following words — maintaining the Party’s grip on power trumps all other considerations. Mr. Xi’s ‘core’ status has been further reinforced, and he is now set to eclipse Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin, placing him next only to Mao. Mr. Xi’s Thought on ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’ will be the Chinese Communist Party/Communist Party of China (CCP)’s guiding philosophy for the future. National security would be the key factor dictating all aspects of governance.
A common theme that permeated the proceedings was affirmation of the CCP’s historical mission. There was only a single narrative, crafted in a manner that extolled Mr. Xi’s role in revitalisation of the CCP, further enhancing his cult status. Unequivocally rejected was an earlier Xi thesis of a ‘Community of Common Destiny’ which has been replaced by the belief that international public opinion was currently anti-China and also included an incitement to overthrow the existing Communist regime. To counter such disruptive philosophies, it had become necessary for the CCP to emphasise ideological coherence and internal discipline. This would help to avoid the danger of a ‘Soviet style collapse’ caused by ideological laxity, corruption, divisions within the party and attempts by outsiders to foment unrest.
In the realm of geo-politics, the Congress declared that the objective is to effectively reduce the authority and the power of the United States. This was especially true of China’s neighbourhood, essentially the Indo-Pacific. Also to be eschewed by China were the vague and contradictory goals of the past, made at a time when China sought to make rapid progress in several directions.
Implicit in the proceedings was the belief that China was being deliberately denied access, and the ability, to import certain vital technological items, and in this regard, of being a victim of major international conspiracies. Earlier pragmatism was replaced by concerns about western pressures to derail China’s progress.
The Party Congress is indicative of the fact that Mr. Xi is much more than a mere party ‘restorer’, and that he adheres to the belief that the CCP’s role is central to Chinese society and critical to determining China’s role in world affairs. Belief in the CCP’s historical mission was crucial to avoid the kind of catastrophic mistakes made by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, leading to its demise .
In terms of China’s world view, the Party Congress reiterated that the goal is to make China a modern socialist power by 2035, boost per capita income to middle income levels, and modernise the armed forces. By 2049, the 100th anniversary of the Peoples’ Republic of China, China is determined to lead the world in terms of composite national strength and international influence.
It was also evident that Mr. Xi enjoys wide, if not overwhelming, support within the Party elite, enabling him to infuse a renewed sense of purpose alongside tightening of controls over it. While many Chinese do not want to set the clock back, there are quite a few, however, who resent Mr. Xi’s overweening emphasis on the criticality of the Communist Party in every sphere, as also disruption of the traditional power structure. Hence, it may not be all plain sailing in the period ahead.
Implications for the world
What does the Party Congress herald for the world, including India? Notwithstanding the repeated use of certain words such as security and military, what China is likely to do in the post-Party Congress period remains an enigma. Mr. Xi today exercises more power and authority, is perhaps better positioned in the hierarchy than anyone before, and is supported by a cabal of leaders who have no independent base. He has unfettered authority — Head of the Party, Head of the State and Chairman, Central Military Commission. The issue is about how he proposes to use this in the five years ahead.
Conventional wisdom would be that Mr. Xi would flex his muscles almost immediately, to achieve certain predetermined ends. Nevertheless, given Mr. Xi’s makeup and background, one should not expect him to act irrationally. Mr. Xi is a Maoist in a certain sense but he is no Mao, and is unlikely to indulge in the kind of errors committed by Mao such as The Great Leap Forward and the break-up with the Soviet Union. His target is to make China Great again by 2049. Hence, he is likely to act with more than a degree of caution, avoiding taking actions in haste and upsetting the target of achieving greatness by 2049. China has many peaks to conquer in the next 25 years before it achieves greatness, and Mr. Xi’s calculation would be not to endanger the 2049 target by taking premature action or through his grandstanding.
Hence, one can expect that notwithstanding the level of rhetoric and assertions that this is a dangerous phase, China is unlikely to take any premature step to take over Taiwan, and thereby risk a wider conflict with the U.S. and the rest of the world at this point. Mr. Xi is far more likely to devote attention to internal matters within China, since unity within the Communist Party remains ephemeral; while dissent has been stamped out for the present, more consolidation would be necessary.
The state of China’s economy is also likely to be a matter of prime concern to the Party leadership, including Mr. Xi. Dealing with the clouds on the horizon, including efforts to isolate China and the imposition of new restrictions on trade, especially China’s access to leading technologies such as semi-conductor technology, available elsewhere in the world would have higher priority. Consequently, one might well see China stepping back from its present confrontational posture with the U.S. and several other countries, and adopting a more conciliatory approach in the near future. There are, of course, certain red lines — any attempt at provocation within the ‘First Island Chain’, or encouraging Taiwan to seek independence or break away from China — are certain to lead to a conflict, irrespective of how it would adversely affect China’s 2049 plans and objectives.
For Japan and India
While China may adopt a more benign attitude towards much of the rest of the world, India and Japan will figure at the top of the list of countries on China’s agenda with which a confrontation is possible, to ensure that they acknowledge China’s leadership in Asia. In India’s case, while further skirmishes between the two countries along the several thousand kilometres of the undefined land border is to be expected, China is unlikely to embark on an open conflict with it anywhere else in the Indian Ocean region. This could alter, if India were to pursue a more aggressive policy in support of the West’s ‘open seas policy’ in waters in China’s vicinity.
India is, however, likely to be a principal target of Chinese wrath in the next few years. As India’s economic fortunes steadily improve even as China’s declines, the perceptional conflict will become more intense. Moreover, if India is seen as a major recipient of western technology, the kind being denied to China, China would make it a point to use its economic, rather than military muscle, to deter India’s progress. For China to achieve greatness by 2049, subduing India economically, and reducing its image in the eyes of the world would be critically important.
M.K. Narayanan is a former Director, Intelligence Bureau, a former National Security Adviser and a former Governor of West Bengal