Xi Jinping assumed the position of the President of the People’s Republic of China during the 12th National People’s Congress in March 2013. Within the Chinese political system, the president derives his powers and authority from the concurrent posts of the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the Chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission (CMC), both of which, Xi was already holding before becoming President in 2013. Though the Chinese Presidency is largely a ceremonial office, the constitutional limit on the presidency for two-terms meant that Xi would have had to give it up in 2023. The limitation on presidential tenure was introduced by Deng Xiaoping to present concentration of power in the hands of one leader. Notwithstanding the limits imposed by the historical constitutional amendment during the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, enthroned Xi Jinping as a lifelong Chinese president and permanent leader, with unchallenged political and military control. Near totalitarian control of the world’s major economic and military power is a major geostrategic development of global aspirations.
The amendment, also incorporated Xi Jinping’s Thought on “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”,1 in the charter of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), an advisory body of the CPC,2 implying thereby that Xi’s ideas are central to the future of the Chinese development and progress. In the three-and-a-half-hour-long speech during his coronation, President Xi outlined his dream for China, meant to be achieved through ‘great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’ by 2049, the centenary of the establishment of the PRC. Since Xi’s ascent to power in 2013, China under him has been exercising political and economic influence in a manner that all the regional powers, including India, accommodate its ever-rising ambitions. China is appearing unrivalled in Asia and beyond due to its military and economic capacity, aware that no country single-handedly has the influence to prevent its progression. It is investing heavily in the maritime domain, promoting stronger bilateral and multilateral security arrangements, pursuing greater economic integration and promoting regional connectivity in order to achieve its ambitions. Chinese are investing heavily in infrastructure and proposing grand trade propositions in the region to influence the regional politics in its favour armed at changing regional hegemony in Indo-Pacific.
Over the last few years, China has undertaken different initiatives that act as stimuli to its coherent Asia-Pacific strategy. For example, it took the lead to establish the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), introduce the Silk Road Fund (SRF) under the Belt-Road Initiative (BRI), and has assisted in the establishment of the New Development Bank (NDB) under BRICS. Xi’s ‘new era’ strategy entails the continuation, evolution and implementation of his multi-layered and multi-prolonged foreign policy moves, including the Belt and Road Initiative over the coming decade, which bear far reaching consequences for India.
In the reign of a long-serving Xi, we’re further going to see an extension of the Chinese attempt of setting the global rules in accordance with its own value system. China is rapidly providing its ‘economic growth model’ as an inspiration to many developing countries and at the same time, offering Chinese investment as expedient means to attain financial resources and capital. Asian countries are interested in the Chinese growth model and are looking forward to accessing Chinese markets, technology, and capital to support their own developmental projects. It is apparent that in order to achieve its aim of becoming a global economic powerhouse, China is leveraging geo-economic tools to achieve geostrategic objectives. It is pursuing a strategy of ‘predatory economics’ in most of the developing countries and trying to convert them in Chinese ‘tributaries’; under the pretext of development in the bargain saddling them with unsustainably high debts to China. Take Pakistan as an example whose foreign exchange reserves have dropped from $18 billion in April 2017 to $10 billion in May 2018. Pakistani officials hoped to avoid forex crisis by borrowing from China, which will save the nation from borrowing from IMF.
China’s gradual control of the Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka is another example of one country which has had to arrive at some sort of one-sided concessional agreement with China wherein it ceded a 99-year lease-based control of its port because it could not pay off Chinese debts.3 Sri Lankan government is asking for Indo-Japanese assistance to overcome the criticism faced due to the country’s reliance on extensive Chinese loans for infrastructure development.4 To counter the increased influence of Chinese economics and military in the neighborhood, India will need to build its capacity and capability in the military and economic domains, while timely implementing the promises that it makes to its neighbors and reassuring them towards the Indian goal of Security and Growth for all in the region (SAGAR).
The unbridled nationalism and expansive sovereignty claims of China during Xi’s tenure has been worrisome for China watchers. He has emphasized that he will not compromise on matters of territorial integrity and national sovereignty. Under Xi, China has broadened its ‘core interests’ and asserted sovereignty claims contrary to the international law and treated the arbitral award against its actions in the South China Sea with contempt. Despite facing stiff opposition from other countries, China has already transformed many disputed islands in the South China Sea into its secure military out-posts. Having already acquired a dominant position in the South China Sea, Beijing has decisively begun to shift its focus to the Indian Ocean. Chinese mounting activities in the maritime domain is paving the way for Beijing’s inexorable ascendance over the region. India needs to work with other countries to limit China’s dominance with regard to port infrastructure and maritime commerce in the India Ocean.
Soon after Xi assumed power in 2013, he pushed forward his pet project, the ‘One Belt One Road initiative’, now renamed the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI). Xi’s BRI aims to build China’s global connectivity to make it to the center of all human activity, thereby seeking the rejuvenation of China’s ancient dream of being the “middle kingdom”.5 Beijing’s official narrative to promote the BRI is in terms of economic prosperity throughout the Indo-Pacific region and Europe and claims that “China’s development is not designed to pose a threat to any country”.6 China’s geopolitical influence and economic capabilities are sobering many regional countries in the region to join the initiative. The BRI initiative has strategic implications that China can leverage for its political gains. With developments accredited to the BRI, China has officially entered India’s ‘traditional sphere of influence’. Officially declining to be a part of the BRI, India is closely watching every move of this Chinese project because it is wary of the security implications, especially the projected “Maritime Silk Road” as part of the BRI in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
India has continuously opposed the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as it passes through the disputed territory of Gilgit-Baltistan in the Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, challenging its sovereignty and territorial integrity.7 The 1300 km corridor connects Xinjiang, China to the Gwadar port, Pakistan. With an existing presence in Chittagong port (Bangladesh), Hambantota port (Sri Lanka), Port Sudan (Sudan), Maldives, Seychelles and Somalia, a control of Gwadar port establishes Chinese dominance in the Indian Ocean. The Chinese maritime investments in the Indian Ocean maritime periphery suggest a dual-use, furthering both infrastructural advancements and military operations. Chinese submarines have been spotted in the Indian Ocean since 2013 and there have been two deployments alternately- a conventional submarine and a nuclear propelled submarine.8 Chinese have insisted that it is for anti-piracy operations, but India finds this to be rather an odd task for submarines.
Xi’s extended presidency will also have implications on the boundary negotiations between India and China. The recent military face-offs between China and India at Depsang, Demchok, and Doklam have taken place during Xi’s rule. Xi’s continuation into a third term would mean a strong and institutionalised authoritarian regime with the full backing of the People’s Liberation Army and the Communist Party of China over the next decade. It indicates a unified leadership in the times to come, further implying the soft coercion policy attempting to sell a tactical advantage on the boundary issue. Xi’s message to the People’s Liberation Army at the 19th Congress of CPC was “to become a modern fighting force by 2035, the world’s best military force by 2050 and intensify its combat readiness by focusing on how to win wars”.9 In his newly appointed cabinet during the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, Xi has retained General Zhao Zongqi in the Central Committee, the commander of the PLA’s Western Theatre Command (with responsibility for the entire border with India) and the Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi, who acts as the special representative for the border talks with New Delhi, was elevated to the Politburo. Though many would argue, that dialogue with the same Chinese government will steadfast the border negotiation process, Chinese assertiveness and increasing sovereignty claims suggest otherwise.
To reset ties between the two nations after the Doklam standoff last year, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Xi Jinping met at an informal summit in Wuhan on April 27th-28th, 2018 and discussed a gamut of issues that concern the two nations, from the BRI project to India’s candidature for membership of Nuclear Supplier’s Group. Though the actual outcomes of this meeting will be apparent only in the months to come, breaking from the formal protocol of welcoming an Indian leader is a new type of engagement that China has established with India.
Despite the positive rhetoric, a look at their respective media releases suggest dichotomy between the two nations in some areas. For example, concerning the Sino-Indian border dispute, Indian media release read that India strived for greater mutual trust and “predictability and effectiveness in the management of border affairs”, but this was missing from the Chinese media document which simply reiterated old rhetoric of “maintaining peace and tranquillity”. While both sides emphasized on responsibility and wisdom in handling disputes and “strengthening” CBMs and communication channels, India’s statement was more explicit in “including the principle of mutual and equal security”… “to prevent incidents in border regions.”10 Similarly, while Chinese statement sought “open, inclusive, balanced and win-win economic globalisation that benefits all” and expressed to seek “protectionism” from the West, focus on “balance on trade” was missing when it came to bilateral trade with India, which is significant as India has a trade deficit of $51 billion with China as on 2016-2017.11
An extended office occupancy will help Xi to coalesce his achievements in the neighborhood and further empower those in-charge of implementing the Chinese projects. India will have to prepare itself militarily and economically to deal with the Chinese intimidation. At the same time, coalitions against China would now be steadier to counter the expected pressures from the more robust and powerful Chinese foreign and security policies. Emmanuel Macron, the French President has called for Paris-Delhi-Canberra Axis amid the Asia-Pacific tensions.12 Quadrilateral, with the combined might of the four democratic powers (US, India, Japan and Australia) is quite formidable. However, the return of the Quadrilateral initiative will only reinforce China’s attention on the Asia-Pacific region as already seen by China’s displeasure when the Trump administration proposed a Quad meeting. A statement from Beijing read that it “hopes that the summit will neither target nor damage a “third party’s interest”.13 Thus, to counter an assertive China, India does not only need to decode Xi’s strategic design and exploit windows of opportunities to counter Chinese movements but also enhance cooperation with China on all fronts, be it economic, political or military.
*Gopika Shinghal is a Research Associate at the Delhi Policy Group. She has completed her master’s degree in International Relations from King’s College London.
1. “Incorporation of Xi Jinping into Constitution conducive to national rejuvenation”, People’s Daily Online, http://en.people.cn/n3/2018/0226/c90000-9430280.html
2. “Proposed amendment to CPPCC charter unveiled”, Xinhua http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2018-03/08/c_137025376.htm
3. “How the China-backed Hambantota ort project is changing the politics of Sri Lanka”, Scroll.in https://scroll.in/article/850907/how-the-china-backed-hambantota-port-project-is-changing-the-politics-of-sri-lanka
4. “Sri Lanka Premier Wants India and Japan Cash to Balance China”, Bloomberg https://www.bloombergquint.com/global-economics/2018/03/27/sri-lanka-premier-wants-india-and-japan-cash-to-balance-china
5. Borje Ljunggren, “Under Xi, China aims to be the world’s middle kingdom”, YaleGlobal Online https://yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/under-xi-china-aims-be-worlds-middle-kingdom
6. “In Xi’s 3-Hour Long Speech, The Part that’s Relevant for India”, NDTV https://www.ndtv.com/world-news/in-xis-3-hour-long-speech-the-part-thats-relevant-for-india-1764486
7. “India will not accept project that violates its sovereignty: MEA on China’s OBOR”, The Economic Times https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/india-will-not-accept-project-that-violates-its-sovereignty-mea-on-chinas-obor/articleshow/63632894.cms
8. Shaurya Karanbir Gurung, “14 Chinese navy ships spotted in Indian Ocean, Indian Navy monitoring locations”, The Economic Times https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/14-chinese-navy-ships-spotted-in-indian-ocean-indian-navy-monitoring-locations/articleshow/61882634.cms
9. Zhao Lei “PLA to be world-class force by 2050”, ChinaDaily.com.cn http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2017-10/27/content_33756453.htm
10. For Chinese Statement, see: “China-India reach broad consensus in informal summit”, Xinhua http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2018-04/29/c_137145546.htm ;
For India’s Statement, see: “Transcript of Media Briefing by Foreign Secretary during visit of Prime Minister to China”, http://www.mea.gov.in/media-briefings.htm?dtl/29855/Transcript_of_Media_Briefing_by_Foreign_Secretary_during_visit_of_Prime_Minister_to_China_April_28_2018
11. Chaitanya Mallapur, “India’s Trade Deficit with China up Twofold In a Decade to 2016-17; Can India benefit from US- China Trade War?” Bloomberg https://www.bloombergquint.com/global-economics/2018/04/16/indias-trade-deficit-with-china-up-twofold-in-a-decade-to-2016-17-can-india-benefit-from-us-china-trade-war
12. “Macron calls for Indo-Australia Axis to Stop China” The Quint https://www.thequint.com/news/world/macron-calls-for-strategic-axis-between-india-australia-france-amid-pacific-tension
13. “Beijing reacts cautiously to US proposal for quadrilateral meeting, hopes it does not damage ‘third party interests” Firstpost https://www.firstpost.com/world/china-reacts-cautiously-to-us-proposal-for-quadrilateral-meeting-hopes-it-does-not-damage-third-party-interests-4194437.html