Xi Jinping’s China and the Contradictory India Narrative

Xi Jinping as President of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) for a third term is revelatory of a systemic process within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), of ‘electing’ an individual already ‘selected’ after an entrenched ‘manipulation’ and ‘co-option’ has been arranged to give impression of functional regularity and ‘legal sanctity’ to the once in five years CCP Congress. Is it a politics with Chinese characteristics? What, then, are the multifarious interpretations, analyses, and opinions on outcomes after the 20th National Congress of the CCP, held in Beijing from October 16–22 this year?

India, as China’s largest geographical southern neighbor, has views on China, its single party system, personality centric ritualism, economic progress, pandemic influenced societal/economic regress, and, the centrality of CPC mechanisms fomenting strategic underpinnings to dominate Asia. Given the geographical, historical, philosophical, cultural, societal and political differences, China’s centralized civilizational spread is an anathema to what India stands for.

Who is Xi Jinping?

Xi Jinping is politically supreme in China as attested by the recently concluded 20th Party Congress. To India, Xi Jinping is an anachronism of sorts. Interpreting, tweaking and reinforcing the overwhelming centrality of the CCP to everything in China, he represents a newer ‘digital age’ Mao Zedong! Xi Jinping’s speeches reflect an earnestness to preach the future of the party as seminal to global stability with China being the template.

Xi’s speeches tend to emphasize the manufacturing growth of past few decades, creating pathways of new economic growth to be determined by technology with digitalization being a key determinant, and all this to be guided by the CCP, thereby ensuring that what is preached is practiced with the veneer of socialism. Not surprisingly, the CCP constitution has been amended to include ‘Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’, officially stamping his slogans as socialist imprimatur for millions of party members. His political behavior is reflective of being ‘The Absolute’ in China.

Considered a ‘princeling’,  太子黨 (Tai zi dang), being son of Xi Zhongxun, a grandee of earlier decades within the ‘party’, Xi Jinping has been crafted, made, and nurtured by milieu of forced mannerisms and etiquette, evolving through unchallenged political supremacy. He replicates temperament of his early years, when theology of the CCP was doctrinal Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (GPCR), decided by the whims and fancies of an individual and constructed by his cronies, with disastrous consequences.

The seven member Politburo of the Standing Committee of the CCP comprises in-party favorites and partisans, who have stood by Xi Jinping during current health and economic imbroglios. Quiescence at home, is what Xi Jinping prefers, at a time when China poses statistical and security challenges to the United States, as supplanting the latter becomes the paramount factor and not just a transactional economic variable.

China’s economy is poised to becoming the world’s largest this decade. Xi Jinping will be at the helm when this statistical position is achieved. To New Delhi, constant tensions with China are to be witnessed at every political and administrative level, as both countries keep talking about the boundary dispute, making it interminable ballast to a underprepared bilateral.

View from India

The political spectrum in India is dominated by narratives celebrating past civilizational glories influencing contemporary times as determinants. Controlling the pandemic, maintaining democratic temperament, and, deepening economic progress with the ‘market’ as ballast, is what constitutes governance today. The democratic template is internally witness to comprehensive power structure re-alignments with overwhelming power displays through the electoral process and newer interpretations of universal adult franchise, endorsing power holders and wielders alike.

As domestic economy steadies itself after the pandemic, adverse statistical indicators reveal spending by government to be more than income, creating a fiscal cul de sac for policy makers. China comes here as an indicator of where India’s exports fall short, after decades of stasis, when it comes to external trade. With bilateral trade in 2021 exceeding USD 125 billion, India has a trade deficit with China with its exports at a mere USD 29 billion. This deficit is expected to have increased in 2022, and China is estimated to have a trade surplus exceeding USD 100 billion. Exports from India are very basic, a commentary on where domestic manufacturing is.

In economic terms, India presents itself motivated as ‘development state’ not blending categories of vacuous ideology from earlier age in history. China, is different, with four decades of economic progress, highlighted as political triumph. It is here that, Beijing, has strummed together international financial architecture, advancing aims with political messages, of Asia going beyond Japanese (Asian Development Bank), and Western financial institutions (World Bank and International Monetary Fund). Beijing prefers countries in Asia and Africa to accept its financial institutions like Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), China Silk Road Fund and several other funding institutions. These ‘investment’ initiatives have strategic foreign policy goals of making China central to future of economic largesse and technology to borrowers, hence creating ‘clientalist states.’

The resources involved are not something India has, and wisely stays away from. China, was not happy with India’s not participating in its ‘One Belt One Road’ Initiative, which was rightly interpreted by New Delhi as ‘economic colonialism with Chinese characteristics’ and takeover of Indian Ocean maritime sphere by a UNSC member, disregarding UNCLOS and interntional norms.

Global hesitancies about China’s behavior have largely glossed over the increased bilateral tensions of Asia’s largest neighbors. The flexibility and quiet resolve displayed by India in the Doklam, Galwan and Tawang crises, revealed a hitherto new facet of Indian foreign policy decision-making – quietiude with ballast. New Delhi gave a cool response to belligerent provocation from Beijing clamoring for a conflict that in any case was not metastasizing. Beijing painted itself as an actor/spoiler with irrational capabilities not behooving a member of the P5. Domestic factors may have conditioned Beijing’s crude rhetoric—a legacy of the Cultural Revolution perhaps—and bullying that impressed none save the captive audience at home clamoring for some muscle flexing by the ‘superpower’ of tomorrow. 

Sophistication in handling foreign policy crises was not expected from the Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government with an advisor, Ajit Doval, who as a retired senior police officer broke the ceiling of becoming NSA. Most of his predecessors were from India’s elite foreign service cadre. That an NSA with a background in internal security could manage the stress of facing up to a churlish and crass adversary like China with whom India has a testy relationship in the best of times was a revelation to many at home and of interest to watchers of the China-India equation abroad.

China’s comments through state-controlled domestic media and its strangely comical interpretations were an amusing diversion, with state-controlled views polishing the gloss in favor of China. However, China’s response made the quiet aplomb and sheer effectiveness of New Delhi all the more remarkable, in calling China’s bluff and also teaching Beijing what diplomacy entails beyond GPCR-style slogans in a different epoch. Beijing’s limitation is that it still characterizes Indian foreign policy as being Nehruvian while in reality the Doklam, Galwan and Tawang episodes brought light to many, the Maoist sloganeering in Chinese Foreign Policy. Nehru indeed left a stamp on India’s foreign policy, but that is now fading with every passing year and change in government—a prospect beyond the arrested and captive imagination of those inhabiting Zhongnanhai!

Prevailing Perception

To India, the world is unequal in its power distribution and differential accountability. China is illustrative of discrepancies in procedures and statements not in synchrony. Creating Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) to jointly discuss and eliminate terrorism from region, the SCO has become forum not defining terrorism with China prefering look other way, when a couple of member states are official hosts to groups speaking language of violence and mayhem. Hence, to India, deciphering Xi Jinping includes using UN as a metaphor for power being used without consent and limited deliberations. Doesn’t this violate UN Charter?

For India, not being member of UNSC gnaws world’s most populous democracy. Presence of those not adhering to democratic compass and stymieing security issues of global import like terrorism and climate change, is discomfiting. Conflict in Ukraine is illustration of how the UNSC has belittled iself. India understands global institutions to be legitimate structures of long standing acceptance and visibility. This is where the United Nations (UN) stands supreme and is primus inter pares (‘first among equals’). What about all the multilateral institutions and other embellishments within the UN?

The WHO delayed response to global pandemic from China, as it is funded quite substantially by Beijing. This opinion is critical in tone as it laments the becoming of a multilateral institution and its subsidiary organisations with gravitas, akin to a toothless tiger. As entire South Asia, Middle East, Southeast Asia, Africa and South American population is left out of the UN Security Council, the UN is representative of just a few, pontificating about rest. The ongoing conflict in Ukraine has reduced the stature of the UN and the G20 may be future successor to the World War II relic. While India is willing to play a larger role, isn’t it P5 that comes in between?

India differs from China in portraying institutional inconsistencies, beginning with the UN. Weaknesses of international organisations has trickled to frayed bilateralism, with China-India relations an example. A serious concern is whether the UN as a template originating at the end of World War II is in tune with the dynamics of today, or still stuck in a post-War hangover. Where is Xi Jinping’s China in all this? Asia’s future is not unilateral: it has to be multipolar. India does have many a perspective to make all of us secure with intermingled prosperity. This calls for a fresh debate.