With Xi Jinping emerging as the "President for life" in China, a new political order is taking shape in India’s most important neighbour. Gone is the reticence of yore in proclaiming that China will bide its time

by Harsh V Pant

The new leadership is keen on China projecting power not merely in its immediate vicinity but also far from the nation’s shores. The old order that Deng Xiaoping had so carefully nurtured to protect the Middle Kingdom from the insecurities of one-man rule and all that comes with it has been consigned to the dustbin. And in its place, a highly centralised, hierarchical and authoritarian political order has emerged with Xi Jinping at its very core.

New Era

Xi began his second term as head of the party and military last October at the end of a once-every-five-years party congress. His real source of authority emanates from him being the CPC’s General Secretary — a post that has no term limit — as well as being the head of the powerful Central Military Commission. His political doctrine, “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”, is now part of the amended constitution.

After the National People’s Congress voted overwhelmingly in favour of a constitutional amendment last week which gives Xi the right to remain in office indefinitely, Chinese President Xi Jinping is now officially the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. The National People’s Congress has also appointed close Xi ally Wang Qishan, who was previously in charge of corruption investigations in China, to the largely ceremonial post of vice-president.

Large-scale changes in the governmental structures are also in the offing with the Congress passing them in line with Xi’s priorities which include cracking down on corruption, stabilising the economy and environmental protection. These new initiatives and restructuring will include setting up a powerful new financial regulator as well as a super ministry to deal with the environment. This reorganisation will see the number of ministerial-level bodies getting reduced by eight.

A new Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission is being set up to address growing concerns around financial risk and bad debt. On the foreign policy front, a new international development cooperation agency will now prioritise how China spends its tens of billions of dollars in overseas assistance, including the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative.

The world is now looking at a much more confident China which is sure of its political helmsmanship. While a new reality is dawning in the West that for all the hopes that it had about democracy in China, it is more authoritarian today than it was a few years ago. The liberal fallacy of democracy riding on the coattails of economic liberalisation has been belied and it is not readily evident if a West which is completely mired in its own internal dysfunctionalities has the ability and the willingness to match Chinese ambitions.

Domestic Drama

The leader of the pack, the US, is so distracted by the Trump-induced domestic drama that it has little time to carve out a coherent strategy vis-à-vis Beijing despite blowing hot and cold. And so the challenge for a country like India is going to be even more severe in the coming years.

Unfortunately, we are also giving signs of growing incoherence in our China policy precisely at a time when coherence is most needed. Discouraging government officials from attending a planned public event titled "Thank You India" being organised in New Delhi on April 1, 2018, and then publicising it has been a public relations disaster without it being clear how this will firm up ties with India.

Chinese Threat

In the Maldives, New Delhi decided that asserting its interests would be tantamount to provoking the Chinese, so we have taken a step back, letting China roll all over us. And a think tank in Delhi has been asked to postpone an annual conference just because its deliberations may annoy the Chinese. China’s response too has been predictable.

Its foreign minister Wang Yi have resorted to usual clichés by suggesting that it was time for the Chinese dragon and Indian elephant to dance together rather than fight each other. “The Chinese dragon and the Indian elephant must not fight each other but dance with each other. If China and India are united, one plus one will not equal two but 11,” was his mantra. Use of such clichés often implies exactly the opposite that there is no hope in the bilateral ties at all.

By ignoring Beijing’s threat, Indian policymakers over the last two decades not only exacerbated the trust deficit with China but have also made it virtually impossible to stand up to China even on issues which are vitally important to India.

The power differential between the two has grown at an alarming rate. It cannot be rectified in a few years’ time but the way our defence procurement and strategic thinking is evolving makes it amply clear that few in the policy establishment have an interest in getting this right.

New Delhi has no choice but to deftly manage Sino-Indian relations. Pandering to Chinese concerns, real and imagined, did not result in a change in Chinese behaviour in the past, and it won’t help today.