Party Congress over, understanding the China puzzle

It appears, red lines apart, that the priority for Xi Jinping and the CCP is not to embark on new conflicts but on how best to protect the ideological purity and integrity of the Party

December 01, 2022 12:16 am | Updated 01:26 pm IST

China’s President Xi Jinping

China’s President Xi Jinping | Photo Credit: AP

In recent weeks, world leaders have put out dire warnings on the import of certain events. The 20th Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), that was held in October 2022, is among the more prominent of these events. Depending on individual predilections, countries in the region have been stating their own views on current developments. Meanwhile, the jury is still out on what is to be expected.

References to the unpredictable nature of the global situation, and that in the Indo-Pacific in particular, are not new. What is possibly adding grist to this are certain recent assertions by Chinese President Xi Jinping following the Party Congress. His démarche to his Generals, made in the Joint Operations Command Centre of the Central Military Commission, “to enhance troop training and combat preparedness” has attracted much attention. Mr. Xi also warned of “dangerous storms ahead” and about external ‘interference’ in Taiwan. All this seemed to convince the West that China is preparing to go to war over Taiwan. Meanwhile, Japan is understood to have already decided to double its defence budget to 2% of its GDP.

Statements by western leaders, including the Joint Declaration following the recent G20 Summit in Indonesia, have not helped to douse fears about an imminent conflict. Elliptical statements, viz., that “it was essential to uphold international law and the multilateral system, as today’s era must not be of war” have only increased such concerns. Likewise, a stalemate in the recent Biden-Xi talks, have added to existing concerns, with Mr. Xi reiterating that Taiwan “was the first red line” that must not be crossed, and Mr. Biden telling Mr. Xi that the U.S. would enhance its security position in Asia.

Clues after a careful reading

Hence, it has become important to read the tea leaves correctly. Worth considering again is whether the 20th Party Congress deliberations provide some clues to China’s current thought processes and, more importantly, whether China is indeed preparing for a major conflict aiming at world conquest.

A careful reading of the Congress confirms only that under Mr. Xi, it is ideology that drives policy most of the time. Also, that it reinforces Mr. Xi’s Marxist inspired belief that ‘history is irreversibly on China’s side’. Mr. Xi’s view on ‘historical materialism’ again, is indicative of the general thrust of his thought processes. By itself it does not connote that Mr. Xi is preparing for war or readying himself for a major conflict.

China has indeed become more doctrinaire. The Party Congress confirms this. A shift to Marxist orthodoxy in the political realm, but perhaps less so in the area of economic policy, does mark a retreat from the Deng era of ‘caution and risk aversion’. References made to changes in the ‘international balance of forces’ and that China has entered the ‘leading ranks of the world’ must be read against this backdrop.

Mr. Xi’s deepest political convictions, as evident from the discussions at the Congress, appear to be on preventing the ideological decay of the CCP and avoiding the kind of situation that led to the collapse of Soviet Communism. Safeguarding the Party from pernicious ideas creeping into the system and ensuring that the West did not succeed in fomenting ‘ideological divisions within China’ appear to be the prime concern. The objective, it would seem, is to turn the CCP into the ‘highest church of a revitalised secular faith’ and the main citadel of Chinese Communist Orthodoxy. If this reading is correct, then the priority for Mr. Xi and the CCP at present is not embarking on new conflicts but on protecting the ideological purity and integrity of the Party. This notwithstanding, China has certain clear red lines which cannot be breached; and if this were to happen, it would lead to a major conflict.

There is, moreover, no hard evidence that China is about to embark on a series of steps towards what it perceives as a ‘more just’ world. Though asserting that China today is much more powerful than it ever was, there is nowhere any clear evidence that China is about to use this power to change the course of history. On the other hand, it could be surmised that under the cloak of ‘evaluating international circumstances through the prism of dialectical analysis’, China may want to assess the situation and the circumstances before embarking on a conflict, including against strategic entities such as the Quad and AUKUS, both of which are seen to be intrinsically hostile to China’s growing role and authority across the Pacific region.

All this only points to the need for a better understanding of China’s real intentions. This is a need to avoid past mistakes, such as those in the 1950s — when the West seems to have overestimated China’s capabilities, as also those made by India in the late 1950s, when it failed to correctly read China and Chinese intentions. No two situations are identical, however, and while the West might still exult at the success it achieved in bringing down the Soviet Union at the end of the 20th century, there are many other aspects today.

And several refinements may be needed to apply this to present conditions. Also, a belief that military and economic strengths automatically translate into a conflict matrix, may need more refinements.

What it means for India

All this has a great deal of relevance for India and its policymakers. Neither the deliberations in the Party Congress nor any of the post-Congress fulminations by China’s leaders, appear directed at India. Repeated charges by western sources about China’s designs on countries in the Indo-Pacific, hence, should not provoke India into taking any rash steps, as both situations and events tend to change rapidly. For instance, after a constant barrage of charges against China of having aggressive designs on Taiwan, the latest turn of events is that Mr. Biden has implied that the situation has not changed for the worse, and that there is no ‘new Cold War in the offing’, involving the U.S. and China. Subsequently, the U.S. Defence Secretary and his Chinese counterpart have held meetings in Cambodia. The media readout of the talks has been that they were ‘productive and professional’ and ‘that competition does not lead to conflict’.

For India, border incursions are, no doubt, a continuing cause for concern. Undoubtedly, the incursions are not random, and tend to rise and fall, but, ipso facto, they should not be mistaken as precursors to war. The situation at present does not merit the view that India is about to face a wider conflict in the Himalayas. A careful study of the border hotspots indicates that China’s concerns are largely regarding Aksai Chin; its importance, in China’s eyes, lies in its proximity to China’s Tibet and Xinjiang.

This does not mean that relations between China and India will remain smooth, as their conflict is more civilisational than territorial in nature. India’s growing closeness to the U.S. and the West certainly irks China, and as is evident from the Party Congress deliberations, China sees the U.S.-led West as its principal antagonist. Hence, China’s excessive concerns about strategic entities such as the Quad, as also about other common approaches that give an impression of closer strategic alignment between India and the U.S. or India and the West. These will be perceived as indicative of hostile intentions towards China. The recent flurry of statements between Indian and western leaders on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in Cambodia, the ASEAN Heads of States meeting also in Cambodia, and the G-20 Summit in Indonesia, can, for instance, be expected to add grist to China’s suspicion of a strengthening of the coalition of forces ranged against it. Notwithstanding its claims about being stronger than ever before, China thus continues to nurse serious concerns about its strategic vulnerabilities.

M.K. Narayanan is a former Director, Intelligence Bureau, a former National Security Adviser and a former Governor of West Bengal

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