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