Beyond The Himalayan Barrier: The Chinese Question (Part II) – Analysis

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In the first part this paper, it was sought to analyze Chinese perceptions, possibilities of a new world order centered on China, and its military and naval aspirations. In this part of the analysis, the role of the Chinese in the growth of communist regimes based on their own perception as torch bearers of Communism after the fall of socialist Russia has been examined.

Within this conundrum, the role played by the secret service in China has been examined. To further their designs the Chinese have adopted rather successfully cyber warfare; cyber threats seem to be a key ingredient of their strategic play. Further the correlation of spreading Islamic fundamentalism and China, and how it is likely to affect India has also been dealt with in this part. China happens to be at a critical juncture where two transitions coincide, the transition of modernization and the transition from planned economy to market economy. Both transitions are inundated with contradictions and are highly vulnerable to the outbreak of conflicts. Being so intertwined they further enlarge the urban-countryside, regional, wealth and ethnic disparities; all are possible turmoil spark points, if treated unskillfully. This in turn provides tremendous scope for the turmoil and conflict to spill over into neighboring countries such as India.

China’s Role in Growth of Communist Regimes

China‘s rise has seen an outburst of nationalism, driven from two different directions: top-down and bottom-up. From the top, the Communist state has launched an extensive propaganda campaign of education in patriotism since the 1990s to ensure loyalty in a population otherwise subject to domestic discontent. From the bottom, nationalism erupts in mass demonstrations, like the protests against NATO in May 1999 and Japan in early 2005.

Chinese nationalism has thus become one of the most important domestic forces behind Chinese foreign policy, including China‘s approaches toward Asian regionalism in general and the world at large. It both motivates and constrains China‘s participation in regional cooperation. China has embraced a more multilateral strategy to achieve three nationalist goals: (1) to create a stable and peaceful peripheral environment for economic growth and political stability, on which the political legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party now depends; (2) to suppress ethnic nationalism among the minorities in its border areas and maintain its frontier security and prosperity; and (3) to enhance its position with other countries, especially major powers such as Japan, US and India.

The increasing assertiveness of popular nationalism poses a daunting challenge to the Communist state, which has tried to maintain political stability and its monopoly of power for rapid economic development. Nationalism has thus become a double-edged sword; it is both a means for the government to legitimize its rule and a means for the Chinese people to judge the performance of the state. The Chinese government has based its legitimacy on its ability to provide political stability and economic prosperity, including a peaceful, stable, and friendly periphery. As a part of an effort since the early 1980s, Chinese leaders have devised a regional policy known as periphery policy (zhoubian zhengce). In making the periphery policy, however, Chinese leaders have been tested by the contradiction between bilateralism and multilateralism. Historically, China has been wary of participating in multilateral institutions because of its concerns about the possible erosion of state sovereignty or exploitation by foreign countries to restrict China‘s actions. The post Cold War era, however, has witnessed the rise of multilateralism in international and regional affairs, creating more and more pressure on China‘s traditional diplomacy.

Many of China‘s smaller neighbors have preferred to deal with China in multilateral settings because China‘s market potential, military capability, and enormous size threaten smaller Asian states. China‘s conduct of relations with them on a bilateral basis could put them at a disadvantage and raise their suspicions that Beijing might seek to exploit divisions among them to assert influence. Coping with China in a multilateral setting not only gives them the power of collective bargaining but also enhances their security by embedding China in a web of multilateral structure. A recent example of China’s disdain for multilateralism was its instantaneous and extreme reaction to the judgement by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague in the dispute of the South China Sea.

This power of collective bargaining is particularly important with an increasingly powerful China, which has maintained assertive positions on its territorial and sovereignty claims on land and at sea and has not hesitated to flex its military muscles to reinforce these positions. China‘s neighbors are therefore better situated if they can deal with China in collective bargaining institutions like the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). Going by this premise, India would do well to leverage its responsible membership in these fora.

As communist regimes collapsed in the late 1980s, the defeat of the communist parties seemed complete. These were the same regimes that had shown no regard for basic civic rights, had strategically planned the economies into negative growth rates, and had displayed a remarkable propensity for corruption and self-enrichment. Over forty years of oppression had left the people with memories that were as bitter as they were vivid, and the popular uprisings of 1989 fought to remove the parties from power. The first demand voiced by the masses of demonstrators in the streets was that the communist stranglehold on the economy and the polity finally end. The democratic breakthroughs of 1989 thus bade farewell to regimes widely despised by their own citizens. Few predicted that the successors to these parties would survive in the democratic political system, much less thrive.

As the new regimes took over, the communist parties were forced to exit from power and governance. They were no longer allowed to organize in the workplace their assets were expropriated, and they were forced to relinquish their auxiliary organizations. It seemed simply a matter of time before these parties would be swept away into the “dustbin of history.” Yet all communist parties survived democracy and the regime transition that began in 1988–89, and all remained politically active afterwards. Several of the successor parties have even won free elections, returning to govern.

These parties regenerated based on learning from their communist allies in China by transforming their appeals, garnering broad support, and enforcing discipline and professionalism in their parliamentary behavior. Key Chinese communist organizational practices of policy reform and negotiation with the opposition affected the paths these parties would take and spurred the pursuit of regeneration. These parties thus redeemed the communist past by making amends for the most disgraceful elements of their history and by cashing in on their elite resources to remake themselves into successful democratic competitors and governors.

Relevance for India: External policies of advancement within the communist party promote elite pragmatism and technical know-how; experience with policy innovation has led the elites to realize the need for party transformation and centralization. Policy implementation and negotiation with the opposition promotes the formulation of responsive programs, new dimensions of competition, and effective electoral campaigns. These precepts are not only in the public domain, they are actively being taught and propagated by the communist masters in mainland China to cadres in various countries, including India. The communist threat does not so much come from the parties already in mainstream Indian politics (though the lessons may well be of much use to them too), but the same teachings spreading to Maoist and Naxalite cadres. These are on the threshold of entering mainstream politics owing to their large and popular support bases among the marginalized classes. The support from their mentors in China would make this transition easier and more successful.

Intelligence and Promoting the Communist Dream: China’s Secret Service

Kang Sheng is credited for the development of the Chinese secret service (as it is known today) around the time of Mao’s rise. From humble beginnings, the Chinese Secret Service moved to being a key segment of Mao’s and Deng’s China and gradually grew to dominate its foreign policy and decision making. Following the Gulf War with Saddam Hussein, Chinese military intelligence was tasked by Jiang Zemin to reorganize and prepare for the future high-tech war. A new Qingbaobu military intelligence network was formed; its prime targets included copying the Russian MIR space station, building a sea power commensurate to the best that either the US or Russia could muster, buying an aircraft carrier, stealing secrets of French and US missiles and high-tech transfers from Japan and Korea. The intelligence service was responsible for providing immense support to communist cadres in Asia, especially in India. Following 9/11 in the US, the Chinese decided to help the US chase Islamists; a war was organized against the Uighurs of Xinjiang. At the same time surreptitious help was provided to the Afghan Taliban through links with Pakistani services. This was widely recognized as the Chinese contribution to the covert war against Indian interests.

In its newest avatar, the Chinese secret service was used to ensure a trouble free Olympics, as well as keeping an eye on Uighur and Tibetan dissidents. In a bid to move forward with technology across the globe, cyber space is now the latest frontier for the Chinese. As far back as 2009-10, the US FBI estimated that the Chinese Army had developed a network of over 30,000 Chinese military cyber spies, plus 150,000 private-sector computer experts, whose mission was to steal military and technological secrets from countries that China perceived as potential threats, namely US, Japan and India. Since 2003, this special network of the Chinese Army was tasked to cause mischief in government and financial services.

China’s goal is to have the world’s premier “informationized armed forces” by 2020. Chinese hackers are adept at implanting malicious computer code, and in 2009 companies in diverse industries such as oil and gas, banking, aerospace, and telecommunications encountered costly and at times debilitating problems with Chinese-implanted malware.

Chen Yonglin, a Chinese diplomat who defected in Australia provided the valuable knowledge that Chinese embassies across the globe control and use the Chinese Student and Scholar Associations (CSSA) for ulterior motives such as spying. More evidence of this embassy control over students and journalists has surfaced lately. Thousands of young Chinese live abroad and are organized in groups like students’ associations which are linked to the Chinese embassies through the cultural affairs department. What is considered as normal (Chinese people wanting to keep a link with their homeland) is used by China to pass orders to Chinese Diaspora abroad and use these individuals for spying activities.

Relevance for India: One of China’s most effective weapons is a continuation of what was originally dubbed as Titan Rain; it is a Chinese scanner program that probes defense and high-tech industrial computer networks thousands of times a minute looking for vulnerabilities. The Chinese military hackers enter without any keystroke errors leaving no digital fingerprints, and create a clean backdoor exit in under 20 minutes.

These feats were considered possible only for military/ civilian spy agencies of very few governments and perhaps, still not possible by Indian agencies. These attacks are proliferating against Indian networks, as has been seen by the recent reports of hacking of Indian defense networks, identifiable as attacks originating from China. Although the barrage of attacks may at times appear random, it is part of a strategy to fully flush out military telecommunications and to understand and to intercept intelligence being gathered by Indian agencies.

Islamic Fundamentalism and China

Islam has been a practiced religion in China from as early as the 7th century. Some 20 million plus followers of Islam today live in China. Among the 56 ethnic groups recognized by China, 10 follow Islam. These have among them the Uighurs, Tajiks, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Tatars, and some Tibetans and Mongolians also. Apart from cultural, ethnic and social links with China, they also share common links and interests with people of the same ethnicity across Central Asia and Eastern Europe.

With cultural and religious bonds stretching across borders, it is but natural that these people also get sucked into issues of ethnicity and conflict that their brethren face in Asia and Europe. Till the erstwhile USSR controlled its ethnic minorities with an iron hand, conflicts were largely relegated to their own domestic spheres and the world knew little of what was going on. After the break up of USSR, these ethnic minorities now form the majority in their respective countries and growing dissidence is seen to the tough policies of the Chinese state against religion/ ethnicity.

To further complicate the issue, Islamic fundamentalism has seen a rapid proliferation following the events in Iraq and Afghanistan. These have now spread across borders as a general issue of discrimination against the followers of Islam and as a Clash of Civilizations. The rise of the Al-Qaeda, followed by the Islamic State are indicative of the proliferation of extremism and fundamentalism within Islam. The Chinese too face the same issues with their own minorities, especially the Uighurs.

What was so far handled as a domestic issue, now finds sympathizers among the same ethnic people in other countries. This naturally gives rise to proliferation of weapons for armed uprising as also the spread of political thought. However the Chinese still insist on these issues being within their domestic space and have handled it with the same high handedness that was witnessed in case of the Tibetan question. Naturally, the conflict threatens to spiral out of control in times to come, with the growing cohesion that fundamentalists have exhibited. On the other hand, China has had no compunction in using Islamic fundamentalism as an extension of its state policy in waging a covert war against India. The support provided to the Pakistanis and by association to the Taliban, via their Pakistani interlocutors, is evidence of the duplicity followed by the Chinese.

Relevance for India: The prospect of turmoil among the ethnic minorities in China spilling over into India is very real. Indian Muslims, especially from the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir have historically shared close ties with the very ethnic groups that are rearing their heads in China. To that effect any state policy aimed at controlling or subjugating them would be seen as a common enemy; this further gets compounded by the spread of such extreme/ fundamental thought across borders. On the other hand, continued support to the Pakistani military establishment gives another dimension to this threat. Pakistan has been either providing direct support for these extremist groups or acting as conduits for instruments of Chinese state and secret service policies. In either scenario, the Indian establishment is under a very real threat.

In addition to the potential religious and separatist problems within India, China is concerned with India’s involvement in aggravating similar problems inside its own borders. India’s provision of sanctuary in 1959 to the Dalai Lama is still a contentious issue for China because he continues to be politically active in exile, along with approximately 150,000 other Tibetans living in India. These Tibetans carry out activities seen as dissidence by the Chinese, directly threatening the stability of Tibet and endangering China’s security in its southwest region. The sense of calm and camaraderie portrayed currently in writings in China regarding India seems to be more China’s self proclaimed charm offensive than any real outlook on peace with India; veritably, the calm before the storm!


Today’s friendly overtones do not erase the unresolved issues and historical resentment between the countries. Rather, they are indicative of the threat China perceives from India as a competitor for vital resources and international influence, as a destabilizing influence on its western border, and as a conventional military and nuclear power. The rapidly heating up competition for vital resources between China and India, along with its impact on policies of the US and on the economic scenario, is dealt with in Part III of this analysis.

Amitabh Hoskote

Amitabh Hoskote is a Strategic and Defense Professional and Scholar with varied experience in Combat, Defense Management, research in Security & Defense oriented issues, crises management, strategy planning & execution. With a Masters and PHD in Development and Conflict Studies, Finance and Economics, he has been an Honorary Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, a leading Strategy Think Tank in India and writes regularly for the Eurasia Review on issues of geopolitical importance.

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