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In centenary backdrop, this is no hand of peace

An atmosphere of unpredictability prevails as regards India-China relations, even as China embarks on its 100th anniversary celebrations of the foundation of the Communist Party of China (CPC). Memories of the bloodiest clash in recent decades that occurred in the Galwan Heights in June last year, are still vivid in India’s memory. The situation in Eastern Ladakh currently remains tense. After some progress in talks over troop disengagement in the vicinity of Pangong Tso Lake and the Kailash ranges, matters have since reached a stalemate. Meanwhile, there is new information on China’s manoeuvres in the border regions across Ladakh. China is reportedly raising new militia units comprising local Tibetan youth, to be deployed in Eastern Ladakh, for both high altitude warfare and surveillance. India has, meanwhile, been expressing its concern to China about the continuing ‘close up deployments’, which has only produced a strong verbal riposte from China.

All this has left an indelible imprint on the state of relations between the two Asian giants, who share a several thousand kilometre land border. Answers to the question as to why China chose to attack Indian positions in Ladakh, without any provocation, causing the death of a platoon of soldiers belonging to the Bihar Regiment, are still not forthcoming. An answer needs to be found before a reset in India-China relations can take place.

 

Global concerns

India’s concerns about China are grounded in reality. Other nations today have, however, begun expressing concern about the threat posed by China to the existing world order. During the past month, both the G-7 and North Atlantic Treaty Organization, have criticised China for its military ambitions and the threat it posed to world peace. China is, however, unlikely to be deterred by any of this, and its mindset is best revealed by its actions in the South and East China Seas, its treatment of its Uighur Muslim minority, and its actions in Hong Kong.

A lesser nation might be deterred by the kind of criticism that China faces today, but it does not seem to impact China. Moreover, and notwithstanding the hype surrounding India’s membership of the Quad and the role assigned to it by the United States and the other western powers in the Indo-Pacific, to think that this may have rattled China, compelling it to indulge in actions that verge on the erratic would be a mistake. China could be expected to have fully catered for all such eventualities.

Going back into the past

We may, hence, need to look elsewhere to find a proper explanation for China’s behaviour vis-à-vis India, and also elsewhere. Delving into China’s recent past, and examining periods when it possibly acted in a similar erratic manner, may provide some clues. In the late 1950s and 1960s, China’s then Chairman, Mao Tse Tung/Mao Zedong, when finding himself in a difficult situation on account of his ill-conceived policies and programmes (history tells us that Mao confronted one of the worst famines in history on account of his misadventure of the Great Leap Forward Movement) rather than accepting his mistake and retracing his steps, embarked on his campaign to attack India, in spite of the close friendship that existed at the time between the two countries.

 

Later, it was surmised, that Mao’s actions were intended partly to divert attention from China’s internal turmoils at the time, and possibly more important, to counter the dissidents who existed within the CPC, and who were critical of Mao’s autocratic attitude and his ill-conceived policies. Other instances of this kind exist and can be quoted: Deng Xiaoping’s behaviour following the Tiananmen Square movement in the 1980s, is an excellent example.

A leader in a hurry

Xi Jinping is seen today as a Mao clone, someone who seeks to achieve the same kind of dominance over the CPC as the latter. Like Mao, he is a man in a hurry, seeking to consolidate his power and achieve a pre-eminence of the kind enjoyed by Chinese Emperors in the past. He has assiduously attempted to accelerate the pace at which China expects to overtake the U.S. as the world’s number one super power which, however, seems to be stalling for a variety of reasons. China’s attempt, under Mr. Xi, to become the world’s most powerful military is also nowhere in sight.

 

On the other hand, China’s misadventure in the Ladakh heights in June last year, exposed certain shortfalls with regard to mechanisation of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), diminishing the latter’s hopes of becoming fully mechanised by the time the PLA celebrates its Centenary in 2027. Much of the blame for both situations is being attributed to Mr. Xi. Given the extent of concentration of power in his hands, this is leading many in the Party to question Mr. Xi’s claims to omniscience.

Apart from this, several of Mr. Xi’s other ideas have run into difficulties. His plans to remake the global order on terms favourable to the CPC seem to have gone awry. The Chinese economy — though performing better than most other world economies — is showing signs of slowing down. Mr. Xi had been betting on technological prowess and economic heft to achieve the kind of geo-political transformation that he wished for, but this is clearly not happening at present.

Most important, and despite having accumulated so much power, Mr. Xi seems to be finding it difficult to push through his ‘new socialist ideology with Chinese characteristics’ (through which he hoped to demarcate himself from his immediate predecessors like Hu Jintao) and is intended to be his lasting legacy.

 

There are some clues

Undoubtedly, therefore, Mr. Xi is finding himself in a difficult situation, including within the Party. There is an old Chinese proverb that says “the wind sweeping through the tower heralds a storm rising in the mountain” and this, perhaps, provides a clue to Mr. Xi’s, and Chinese, behaviour in the recent period. The extent of inner-party tensions is little known to the world outside, given the opacity of Chinese society, but the existence of dissidence or dissension within the CPC is no secret, however.

While it is generally believed that the CPC is a monolith entity, the reality is otherwise. In the 100 years of its existence, the CPC is known to have gone through several transformations, many of an ideational nature, leading to serious upheavals. Deep fissures have existed, and perhaps, still exist, within the party, though the extent may not be known outside. What is generally seen is that during such periods, China’s attitude often borders on the erratic. The question is whether something of this nature is occurring at present inside the CPC and China.

Also read | Xi hails ‘national rejuvenation’ on CPC centenary

It is tempting to think that history is again being repeated, and China’s recent erratic behaviour is largely due to growing inner-party criticism of Mr. Xi’s policies and actions, rather than due to extraneous factors. The Ladakh adventure (or misadventure) could well have been a misguided attempt by Mr. Xi to demonstrate to his opponents within the CPC that he is well and truly in command. One could also anticipate that this could well be a prelude to a limited purge of dissenters within the highest echelons of the CPC.

An accumulation of problems does produce in closed societies (such as China) a ‘pressure cooker’ syndrome, where the safety valve is often in the hands of the leadership. If the latter is precariously poised, and out of sync with reality, it leads to erratic behaviour. What may be aggravating Chinese leadership concerns at this time also is that the world is seemingly tilting towards India at this juncture, regarding it as more sophisticated, diplomatically, and more flexible, ideologically, compared to an increasingly obdurate China. Within the CPC itself, there are reportedly quite a few who prefer ‘peaceful coexistence’ to sustain peace, as compared to Mr. Xi’s more muscular approaches.

 

India needs to be on guard

A final thought. It is worth remembering that Mr. Xi is one of the few world leaders known to have made a study of Goethe’s works, including Faust. Not only that, some of Mr. Xi’s actions, such as modelling himself on Mao and a practising advocate of Maoism 2.0 — despite the humiliation both he and his father suffered at the hands of Mao prior to, and during the Cultural Revolution — tend to make him out to be something of a Faustian character. Was Mr. Xi, through his aggressive behaviour in Ladakh, and notwithstanding the warm relations that he is known to have with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, preparing the ground for a ‘Faustian Bargain’. If so, Mr. Xi has made yet another serious miscalculation, not only about the ground situation but also the mood of the nation and its leadership. This could cost him dear. What all this suggests is that ‘peace is not at hand’, and that India should expect, and prepare for, more situations of this kind, with many more provocations coming from China.

M.K. Narayanan is a former National Security Adviser and a former Governor of West Bengal


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Printable version | Sep 20, 2021 5:52:28 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/in-centenary-backdrop-this-is-no-hand-of-peace/article35108613.ece

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