Syed Ata Hasnain | After CPC congress, will Xi be rigid or flexible at LAC?

The Asian Age.  | Syed Ata Hasnain

Opinion, Columnists

China has shown some flexibility and dynamism in its policy in dealing with India

China's trade with India continues, and much to China’s favour, but on the strategic front it wishes to keep pursuing a policy of projection of both military and diplomatic domination. (Photo: AP)

The much-awaited twentieth congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) was in session last week, drawing eyeballs and all other attention too. Indian strategic analyses on the subject extended into the realm of many issues, from Ukraine to the Indo-Pacific, extending into the personality cult of Xi Jinping and how every other word spoken needed to be interpreted. Most considered it too early to second guess or find meaningful inputs on what the final impact would be on Sino-Indian relations and in particular at the turbulent borders.

Interestingly, India’s external affairs minister S. Jaishankar followed a diplomatic tack quite different from the ones of the past. Preceding and through part of the proceedings of the 20th congress, he continued communicating on the issue of the boundary and on Sino-Indian ties in general. “Peace and tranquillity in the border areas clearly remains the basis for normal relations. From time to time, this has been mischievously conflated with the sorting out of the boundary question”, he said in one such projection. During the CPC’s nineteenth congress in 2017, in the immediate post-Doklam situation, there was reluctance, hesitation and a general trepidation on how the situation after the 72- day standoff would be. A much higher level of strategic confidence marks Mr Jaishankar’s approach, but to get an India-focused analysis at this stage we need to examine a few more issues.

The presence of the commander of the PLA troops at Galwan, Qi Fabao, among the party’s 2,296 delegates from around the country, was projected and a clip of the clash was shown too. The reminder about the Galwan clash appeared to be aimed at the delegates with intent to convey that it was not just Taiwan which is the front but that China had other challenges too. Qi Bao’s presence was a message that China values war- fighting capabilities and militarism, something Xi Jinping also referred to in his speech.  However, in the world of militarism and conventional war-fighting, it is becoming quite evident that the apparent mismatch of capability and capacity may not always be the deciding element of final outcomes. For Xi Jinping, Taiwan is definitely a priority — physical occupation, integration and securing against all blowback will be perceived by him as his legacy. He has time on his hands but cannot risk failure; hence, this could take even more time. The Line of Actual Control with India is something different. Some very well-informed Indian analysts suggest that Xi would be open to resolving the boundary issue with India amicably now that he could be in a position of total dominance. That would free up China of all encumbrances with respect to the focus it could give to Taiwan and the Pacific theatre in general, where the next physical confrontations are possible with the United States and its allies and partners. By removing India from the potential players of the Indo-Pacific’s pro-US and anti-China bloc, Xi Jinping could hope for some kind of Indian neutrality, as it has happened in the Ukraine situation. However, this appears wishful thinking. China is witnessing an India on the rise, much more confident, strategically more autonomous and sure of its geopolitical options. The LAC remains one area where a simmering dispute would keep India militarily committed and remain forced to commit more resources. There is one truism about the situation here. China’s technical and economic domination in the context of India may be high, but to win a war and display “wolf warrior” diplomacy as a means of coercion to force India to toe the line may be a highly risky proposition.

China has shown some flexibility and dynamism in its policy in dealing with India. A two-track or perhaps multi-track policy may be its best option. Trade continues, and much to China’s favour, but on the strategic front it wishes to keep pursuing a policy of projection of both military and diplomatic domination. There is unlikely to be any leeway in this as China would not wish to see an Indian surge in confidence in dealing with contingencies. However, the truth remains that it has triggered an Indian military strategic transformational process which will see New Delhi militarily far better prepared to defend its northern borders and possibly become capable of even projecting power. In due course, the future will also see better maritime capability and a generational improvement in other vistas like cyber, information, space and drones. What China will wish to pursue is the maintenance of a capability gap for as long as possible, knowing fully well that it will eventually be closed. If it hopes that India will create great turbulence within its economy by attempting to rapidly close that gap, it could be unrealistic.

In reality, the situation playing out due to the war in Ukraine, wherein India’s moral and diplomatic support is sought by the Western powers, besides denial of energy linkages to Russia, is the broad idea that China should be following for its Indo-Pacific policy; keeping India on its side and safeguarding its south. However, there would always be hesitation due to the lack of trust, something deeply missing from the Sino-Indian relationship from the early days.

China finds it convenient to engage with India through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which in the current state of things finds itself upgraded in strategic terms. With Iran stepping into the SCO and Turkey making a beeline towards it, China perhaps wishes to give the Eurasian zone greater primacy to help outreach for its influence. As the United States speaks of the Quad for the Indo-Pacific, China could launch reverse influence and outreach to the areas of Eastern Europe.

The 20th Congress of the CPC was more about personalities and less about vision. In terms of timelines, Xi Jinping has apparently advanced everything to his lifetime; that is perhaps 15 years from now. Among the issues that will remain alive are — the future policy on pandemic management, Taiwan, the Belt and Road Initiative, slower economic growth and the strategic challenges of the Indo-Pacific posed by the US competitiveness. In both a direct and indirect way, India figures in all — peripherally or otherwise. We have to learn to live with China and the impact of all these in different avatars; after  all, we can hardly change or choose our  neighbours.