By Bhaskar Roy*
After over two month long military stand-off, the soldiers of India and China on the Doklam Plateau (claimed by Bhutan and also by China), disengaged almost simultaneously, both capitals would have heaved a huge sigh of relief.
During the face-off, the Chinese foreign ministry, the defence ministry, and Chinese official media, along with experts shouted, and even held out threats of war if Indian troops did not withdraw. Publicly, the Chinese rebuffed India’s offer of talks, holding on to their demand of withdrawal first by India. Quiet diplomacy, however, continues below the public gaze. These discussions did not take place always in New Delhi and Beijing, but also in third country meetings in places like Hong Kong and elsewhere.
The Chinese are known for their hard and protracted negotiating tactics. This time, however, time was of essence as well as substance, at least for the Chinese. India took a mature, principled position, refusing to be drawn into rhetoric and sharp exchanges, taking the wind out of the Chinese propaganda sail.
The main Indian interlocutors interfacing with their Chinese counterparts are hard boiled professionals who did not have a touch-me-not approach to Beijing. For years, if not decades, the Indian government’s approach was not to “provoke” China, brushing all Chinese misdemeanours under the carpet. It was a major mistake in 2003 to allow China to establish a Consulate General in Kolkata, hoping China would allow India to establish a Consulate General in Lhasa. Somebody read history backwards!
China needed a face saver, and India wisely gave it to them. Beijing’s domestic propaganda machinery propagated Indian troops withdrew first(August 28). New Delhi was gracious. “Face” is a very critical political issue in China, and no top leader can afford to lose face.
President Xi Jinping is also the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) and Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC). He has also had himself declared as the “Core” of the leadership, a title given to Mao Zedong posthumously. Deng Xiaoping, father of China’s modernization had it thrust upon himself because of the power struggle between the left conservatives and the more economic liberals led by Deng. Jiang Zemin, Deng’s hand-picked top leader, also had “core” title, but wore it lightly.
Xi had several challenges coming up. The BRICS summit was coming up on September 4-5, in Xiamen China. If Indian Prime Minister did not attend because of Doklam, the summit would collapse. Xi would face a political embarrassment both internally and externally. The 19th Congress of the CPC Central Committee is scheduled for October 19, where he would be questioned where he was taking China. There are several other challenges like the North Korean nuclear issue, Taiwan, South China Sea and Hong Kong among other issues.
Under such circumstances would Xi agree on a small misadventure like in Doklam? Impossible. He is too astute a leader, although no soft-liner, to risk such an incident. Xi Jinping is caught in a power struggle with the Jiang Zemin faction, and he may be slowly winning.
Jiang Zemin was instrumental in making Xi Jinping the Party chief, President and Chairman of the CMC – the Party’s top post. At the same time Jiang surrounded Xi with his own people. Of the seven Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) members, at least three – Zhang Dejiang, Lin Yangsheng and Zhang Gaoli are Jiang’s people. Xi as the number one, has the chief of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), Wang Qishang firmly on his side. Yu Zhang Sheng’s leaning is not very clear. Premier Li Keqiang is neither on Jiang’s side nor on Xi’s. A leader of the Communist Youth League (CYL) faction, he has been cut by both. Four members are set to retire at the 19th Party Congress starting October 18, because of age. Only Xi and Li will remain.
Wang Qishan has brought down more than 300 high to middle level supporters of Jiang. Xi reorganized the PLA to scatter Jiang supporters and brought down at least two of Jiang’s hand-picked top level officers, Xu Caihou and Guo Boxing, both Vice Chairmen of the CMC. But their acolytes are still serving,
The spider web has been widely damaged, but the spider (Jiang Zemin) is still alive. The battle is won, but the war is still not over. Internal challenges to Xi Jinping have been brought down from critical to red.
The external challenges are no less. The North Korean nuclear issue is threatening to boil over. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un conducted the country’s sixth and most powerful nuclear test yet, recently. Pyongyang claimed it was a thermonuclear (hydrogen) bomb. Their intermediate range and long range missiles are being test launched regularly. With US President Donald Trump threatening to destroy the Kim regime, and Kim responding in equal measure, China is almost at a tipping point. If there is a nuclear fallout China will not remain unaffected.
North Korea was, and continues to be, politically and geopolitically important to China, especially against the US-Japan alliance. Pyongyang’s programme grew under China’s nose, literally. If Beijing thought a nuclear North Korea would be a nuclear Pakistan in North East Asia, the plan has back fired badly. Japan may go nuclear, and may be followed by South Korea, in some way or the other. Beijing stands to be the biggest loser.
Relations between China and Japan are acrimonious. With the return of the DPP to power in Taiwan, relations across the Taiwan Strait have deteriorated. It is interesting and worth noting, the Chinese official daily, the Global Times, said that Wang Zaixi, the former Deputy Director of the Taiwan Affairs Office of Mainland China (the office that conducts relations with Taiwan), said in an interview that the possibility of a peaceful reunification was “slowly disappearing”, hinting that the military option was becoming relevant (Chinascope, September 6, 2017).
Did Wang Zaixi try to plant another irritant to Xi Jinping’s strategy ahead of the 19th Party Congress on behalf of the “Spider Web”? It has been done before with Taiwan, and Hong Kong has been injected with the seeds of pro-democracy to pro-independent political values.
If shots were fired in Doklam, the situation could have gone out of control along the India-China border. The Indian government was in no mood to bend, but neither was it willing to escalate the situation.
A short article by Major General Qiao Liang in the Global Times (September 12, 2017) is revealing. Titled “War must always be the last resort in disputes”, Qiao argues that even if a cause is right, “It is also not to do the right thing at any time.
He goes on to underline “Only doing the right thing at the right time is correct”. Qiao makes it very clear that China could not afford to enter into a military conflict with India at this point of time. That would only harm China.
Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream” (rejuvenation of China), making China a middle income country and his “two centuries” programme were all at stake. India was no longer a struggling poor country, but a power whose voice was being heard the world over. They are concerned about an unwritten India-US-Japan strategic conjunction, something which Beijing has worried about for years. This triangular relationship has been developing at a rather fair pace to China’s discomfort.
To note, Qiao has put the Doklam issue to the future and not off the table, for the “right time”.
Two things are pertinent to note. First, Qiao Liang is a serving Major General and serving officers are not allowed to write in the media unless cleared at a very high level. Next, the Global Times was the most aggressive and threatening during the Doklam stand-off. The editor of the newspaper would have been ordered to carry the Qiao article, changing the tone of the newspaper.
Qiao Liang generally maintains a low profile. But he is a brilliant strategic thinker, highly respected both in China and abroad.
In 1999, Qiao as a colonel, co-authored with another colonel Wang Xiangsu, the book “Unrestricted Warfare” which its American publisher subtitled as “China’s master plan to destroy America”.
The core philosophy of the book is that the weak can defeat the strong, and for that everything and every instrument can be used including terrorism. There are no boundaries.
Al Santoli, who wrote the preface of the American print, wrote that in 2002 the Washington Times reported that the US intelligence had confirmed that before the “9/11” terror attacks, China’s military provided military training to the Afghan Taliban and its Al Qaeda supporters. Some question if this was a chapter of “Unrestricted Warfare”.
In an interview with the Oriental Outlook Weekly in 2014 Qiao urged strategic patience. Getting the Diaoyu Island and the South China Sea islands were not China’s core interests now, he argued. In his view what China needed now was another 20 years of economic development (for Xi Jinping’s Chinese Dream). Then choose the right time to strike.
The way the Doklam issue was finally resolved by the Chinese points to the view of Qiao Liang. It has soft pedalled Japan a bit, been quiet on Taiwan, and a little nervous with the developments in Hong Kong.
China appears to be exercising strategic wisdom or strategic patience. India must not fall into complacency, Strike they will. The Indian government and strategists must be acutely aware of one more thing- high technology guerrilla warfare, another strategic vision of Major General Qiao Liang.
*The writer is a New Delhi based strategic analyst. He can be reached at e-mail [email protected]