What the Chi­nese pres­i­dent’s vi­sion for a more na­tion­al­is­tic and in­ter­na­tion­ally proac­tive Bei­jing will mean for In­dia and the world

India Today - - STATES - By Ananth Kr­ish­nan

‘IN­FOR­MAL SUM­MITS’, for much of China’s re­cent diplo­matic his­tory, were an oxy­moron. Not since the days of Mao and Nixon have Chi­nese lead­ers en­gaged with their foreign coun­ter­parts with­out all the trap­pings and for­mal rit­u­als that Com­mu­nist China in­her­ited from its im­pe­rial past. No un­scripted chit-chat here.

But In­dia is no longer deal­ing with the old China. In Oc­to­ber last year, Xi Jin­ping was ef­fec­tively coro­nated pres­i­dent for life, by hav­ing his name writ­ten into the Party Con­sti­tu­tion. In March, this was for­malised when pres­i­den­tial term lim­its were abol­ished as Xi be­gan his sec­ond term in a po­si­tion of un­ques­tioned strength.

The Wuhan sum­mit be­tween Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi and Xi is the clear­est in­di­ca­tor yet of how the Chi­nese pres­i­dent is tak­ing com­plete—and ex­traor­di­nar­ily per­son­alised—con­trol of China’s foreign pol­icy and shat­ter­ing past pro­to­col. By do­ing so, Xi is im­plic­itly tak­ing own­er­ship of China’s over­seas en­gage­ment—the re­wards and risks—a re­spon­si­bil­ity shared in the past by the pres­i­dent, premier and the Polit­buro Stand­ing Com­mit­tee. (Xi’s pre­de­ces­sor, Hu Jin­tao, was a stick­ler for pro­to­col and rarely di­rectly en­gaged with In­dia’s prime min­is­ters, which he left to his premier.)

“We are look­ing at a sit­u­a­tion where the coun­try, na­tion, state and party rise and fall with Xi,” says Xie Yan­mei, se­nior China pol­icy an­a­lyst at Gavekal Re­search in Bei­jing. And that is only part of the shift. More sig­nif­i­cantly, Bei­jing ap­pears will­ing to play a greater role in shap­ing global in­sti­tu­tions, tak­ing a lead in me­di­at­ing in in­ter­na­tional dis­putes and push­ing China’s au­thor­i­tar­ian cap­i­tal­ist model abroad as the so­lu­tion for the world.

The Xi doc­trine, ex­perts and diplo­mats in Bei­jing say, will present a marked shift in China’s global role. For the past three decades, China’s lead­er­ship has stressed what it calls the coun­try’s ‘peace­ful rise’ as its abid­ing doc­trine for en­gag­ing with the world. Tak­ing off on for­mer leader Deng Xiaop­ing’s maxim of ‘bid­ing time, hid­ing bright­ness’, it framed China’s en­gage­ment as es­sen­tially cau­tious and as a fol­lower, rather than as shaper, of the US-led world or­der.

THAT, HOW­EVER, isn’t Xi’s vi­sion, which is closely tied to his pop­ulist do­mes­tic agenda. A grow­ing in­ter­na­tional pro­file for China—what Xi calls the “great re­ju­ve­na­tion of the Chi­nese na­tion”— cou­pled with a bet­ter life for peo­ple at home—or the ‘Chi­nese dream’ as Xi’s cam­paign frames it—is at the heart of how he plans to bol­ster the Com­mu­nist Party of China’s (CPC) le­git­i­macy at home. “Xi un­der­stands that so far, le­git­i­macy has been trans­ac­tional in na­ture and es­sen­tially per­for­mance le­git­i­macy for the party,” adds Xie,

the an­a­lyst, con­tin­gent on it de­liv­er­ing high growth rates. The good times, Xi knows, can­not last for­ever. “He wants a more vis­ceral faith, both in him and the party. And in­ter­na­tional pres­tige for China is part of his vi­sion.” And, per­haps, pres­tige for Xi as well.

What Bei­jing’s man­darins like to call Xi’s new ‘proac­tive’ ap­proach is about far more than per­son­al­ity and pro­to­col: it is al­ready over­turn­ing long-held foun­da­tional prin­ci­ples of Chi­nese di­plo­macy, from ‘non-in­ter­fer­ence’ in in­ter­na­tional dis­putes to not op­er­at­ing foreign mil­i­tary bases. China has al­ready opened its first base in Dji­bouti, over­look­ing the In­dian Ocean, and more are on the way—Gwadar in Pak­istan, the Sey­chelles and per­haps even Van­u­atu in the Pa­cific.

Re­gard­less of Wuhan’s out­comes, In­dia re­mains wary of China’s deep­en­ing re­gional in­flu­ence, pri­mar­ily through the Belt and Road Ini­tia­tive (BRI), which Xi sees as not only a ve­hi­cle to deepen China’s clout but as hold­ing do­mes­tic value in show­cas­ing his coun­try’s emer­gence. “The BRI is es­sen­tially a fes­ti­val of val­i­da­tion for China,” says Kerry Brown, pro­fes­sor and di­rec­tor of the Lau China In­sti­tute at King’s Col­lege, Lon­don. “At home, it is of­fer­ing an emo­tion­ally in­tox­i­cat­ing mes­sage, of China on its own terms con­quer­ing moder­nity.”

It is also the plat­form for Xi to ri­val the US—both in pre­sent­ing the al­ter­na­tive of a dif­fer­ent kind of su­per­power, and in cham­pi­oning its view of glob­al­i­sa­tion as a con­trast to ‘Amer­ica First’ iso­la­tion­ism. Xi has given the green light for a more con­certed push to spread ‘the China model’ over­seas, pri­mar­ily through BRI. At the Oc­to­ber Party Congress in Bei­jing, Xi said the China model pro­vides “a new op­tion for other coun­tries and na­tions who want to speed up their de­vel­op­ment” and “of­fers Chi­nese wis­dom and a Chi­nese ap­proach to solv­ing the prob­lems fac­ing mankind”.

“Abroad, China doesn’t want to be a power like the US—it knows the risks,” says Brown. “It wants to be a sta­tus su­per­power and re­ceive val­i­da­tion, but with a fo­cus on what it needs—re­sources and mar­kets.”

How­ever, with ris­ing in­flu­ence comes grow­ing de­mands. Gone is the avowed Chi­nese diplo­matic prin­ci­ple of ‘non-in­ter­fer­ence’—one of the tenets of ‘Panchsheel’ that In­dia, China and Myanmar prop­a­gated in the 1950s for the de­vel­op­ing world. This has al­ready been ev­i­dent from Afghanista­n to South Su­dan and Myanmar, where Bei­jing has stepped in to play the role of po­lit­i­cal me­di­a­tor, un­der­pinned by its deep eco­nomic in­ter­ests in all three cases. Pak­istan is emerg­ing as a test case for Xi in how far Bei­jing is pre­pared to in­ter­vene when ma­jor in­ter­ests are at stake. It’s clear Bei­jing has the ap­petite to do so po­lit­i­cally and take sides, even if it isn’t do­ing so mil­i­tar­ily just yet, mind­ful of both its lim­i­ta­tions and risks.

China is plan­ning $50 bil­lion worth of projects through the China-Pak­istan Eco­nomic Cor­ri­dor (CPEC). CPEC is a huge qual­i­ta­tive and quan­ti­ta­tive shift in China-Pak­istan ties and will see China in­volv­ing it­self in al­most ev­ery as­pect of the Pak­istani econ­omy—what some crit­ics have called an eco­nomic coloni­sa­tion. The high stakes mean Bei­jing will now be an ac­tive player do­mes­ti­cally as well, and per­haps go only so far in its rap­proche­ment with In­dia.

“CPEC ne­ces­si­tates even more deal­ings with even more ac­tors across Pak­istan, and these deal­ings are be­com­ing more and more lo­calised,” says An­drew Small of the Ger­man Mar­shall Fund and au­thor of The China Pak­istan Axis. “Bei­jing is aware that deal­ing with the cen­tral gov­ern­ment alone is in­ad­e­quate.” In Afghanista­n as well, China’s role has changed from be­ing a mere provider of in­fra­struc­ture to a key po­lit­i­cal

player, even host­ing talks in China be­tween the Tal­iban and the Afghan gov­ern­ment.

In­dia, for its part, has emerged as among the most vo­cal crit­ics of the BRI. But the fact is the BRI has been largely wel­comed in Asia, given the wide­spread need for fi­nanc­ing, es­pe­cially for in­fra­struc­ture projects, and the lack of an al­ter­na­tive.

But Xi’s project has not been with­out bumps. An April study by Ja­pan’s Nikkei on BRI projects in In­done­sia, Sri Lanka, Kaza­khstan, Bangladesh, Poland, Laos and Pak­istan found se­ri­ous de­lays, in­clud­ing in a $6 bil­lion rail­way in In­done­sia and in projects in Kaza­khstan and Bangladesh. Ris­ing debt in Sri Lanka, the Mal­dives and Laos have left fu­ture ini­tia­tives in the bal­ance, and have to some de­gree val­i­dated In­dia’s stand.

Con­cerns in many host coun­tries are ris­ing over fi­nanc­ing costs, debt and a lack of trans­parency. After all, part of the ‘China ap­proach’ is also do­ing busi­ness with regimes in the shad­ows, with lit­tle thought given to bring­ing on board lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties. Hence, the protests by lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties in Myanmar against the My­it­sone Dam and in Ham­ban­tota in Sri Lanka.

WHETHER OR NOT China’s di­plo­macy is nim­ble enough to ad­dress these risks re­mains un­clear. Xi is cer­tainly at­tempt­ing to do so, ev­i­dent in his over­haul of China’s diplo­matic es­tab­lish­ment. At the Na­tional Peo­ple’s Congress in March, Xi pushed through a ma­jor re­struc­tur­ing of the Party-State, which will see CPC or­gans take on an ac­tive role when ear­lier, they func­tioned in the back­ground. Xi has set up a new Party-led Cen­tral Foreign Af­fairs Com­mis­sion—along with new com­mit­tees on na­tional se­cu­rity, eco­nomic is­sues and re­forms—that will give the CPC the lead­ing role in di­plo­macy, as op­posed to the foreign min­istry. He also an­nounced a new Chi­nese aid agency to give more heft to over­seas projects. Xi will chair the com­mis­sion while it will be di­rected by Polit­buro mem­ber and for­mer top diplo­mat Yang Jiechi.

“Making the cen­tral author­ity more ca­pa­ble is a key in­stru­ment for Xi to achieve his vi­sion for the coun­try,” says an­a­lyst Xie Yan­mei. “The bot­tom line is all in­sti­tu­tions are sub­or­di­nate to the party, and there will no longer be any com­pet­ing cen­tres with their own author­ity.” For Xi, suc­cess in push­ing his vi­sion will boost the party’s le­git­i­macy at home, and raise China’s pro­file abroad. Fail­ure, on the other hand, will rest squarely on him, given his con­cen­tra­tion of power. The stakes can­not be higher.

CHAIR­MAN FOR LIFE Xi Jin­ping at the Na­tional Peo­ple’s Congress on March 20

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