By Harsh V. Pant
Chinese President Xi Jinping is now officially the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong who died more than 40 years ago after the National People’s Congress voted overwhelmingly in favour of a constitutional amendment which gives Xi the right to remain in office indefinitely. Not that there was any doubt about it but when it finally happened it seemed to be marking another red line in China’s evolution as the pre-eminent global power of our times.
It was only last month that China’s ruling Communist Party had moved a proposal to remove a constitutional clause limiting presidential service to just two terms in office. This is one of the most significant developments in global politics today given China’s growing heft in the global order.
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. This takes China back to the good old days of Mao when he was the supreme leader, deciding on the fate of millions based on his whims and fancies. Xi’s elevation also marks a significant change in Chinese political thought. Recognising the dangers of one man rule, Deng Xiaoping got the limit of two five-year presidential terms written into China’s constitution in 1982 after Mao’s death. That seems to have been put aside for now.
But let there be no doubt that this is all about Xi’s ambition. In a marathon address to the 19th party congress last October, Xi had unveiled his vision of China’s future of achieving ‘moderate’ prosperity in the next four years, and emerging as an advanced socialist nation by 2050.
Underlining that China would pursue its own path of developing “socialism with Chinese characteristics” and inviting “peoples of all countries to join China’s effort to build a common destiny for mankind and enduring peace and stability,” he was building a case for the “Beijing Consensus” as an alternative to the so-called Washington Consensus.
Like the rest of the world, India will also be affected by this change in manifold ways. New Delhi has no option but to deal pragmatically with whoever is ruling China, given the enormous stakes in Sino-Indian relations. Yet at a time when Sino-Indian bilateral ties are passing through one of their worst times, a centralising figure in China’s governing system will only complicate matters.
China has always managed to have a consistent strategic approach towards India — to contain Indian within the confines of South Asia by assisting Pakistan to balance India. It has refused to recognise New Delhi’s global aspirations and not budged an inch on key issues pertaining to Indian interests. But the growing power disparity between India and China as well as lack of any effective leverage vis-à-vis China has also meant that India has not been in any position to challenge China.
The Modi government started off promisingly by resetting the terms of engagement with China. Its principled position on the BRI has been effective in shaping the global discourse and its effective handling of last year’s Doklam crisis enhanced its stature. But there is a danger now of slipping back into the old mode of China policy where a mistaken belief that only if India can brush aside the hard issues, a semblance of normalcy will return to Sino-Indian ties.
It is a myth and especially now when Xi who remains unambiguous about his desire to make China a global superpower and has all the time and resources at his command to do so. It is highly unlikely that New Delhi can attain a win-win outcome from Beijing.
Xi’s growing authority will mean that he will double down on his efforts to militarise the Indian Ocean and expand Chinese influence in South Asia. His pet project BRI will also see a renewed focus and Indian opposition will rankle at his ambitious outreach. He will also wait to teach New Delhi a lesson for what many in China feel was a diplomatic drubbing for Beijing in Doklam. And this will happen when India goes into election mode and political bickering will attain new heights.
The Indian political class is yet to learn to speak in one voice in national security matters. How easy it is to divide the Indian polity was clear when even at the height of the Doklam crisis, the leaders of India’s main Opposition party decided to get a briefing from the Chinese Ambassador than its own government! So as Xi’s power rises to its zenith, there are many reasons to worry, but mostly it is India’s own ability to get its own house in order which should concern us the most.
This article originally appeared in DNA.