As of now, Xi Jinping seems to be in a very strong position to have his way.
By H. H. S. Viswanathan
The Doklam standoff between the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forces and the Indian army is now over a month and is the longest in recent years. It may be worthwhile to speculate the reasons and the timing of the PLA action. The questions that arise are “why now?” and at “what level was the decision taken?” Most border infringements are the actions by over-enthusiastic local commanders. But the length of the standoff and the full backing of it by the PLA forces could indicate that it has the blessings of higher authorities. In any case, PLA infringements — small or big — are usually within the overall Chinese policy which has three elements.
- Consolidate the position where there is PLA control by upgrading infrastructure and building permanent assets,
- Where both Indian and Chinese troops patrol at different times, follow a “salami slice” approach of slowly creeping in and staying put, and
- Where Indians have a stronger position, have occasional provocations to test the waters.
The media coverage of the incident on both sides, particularly the belligerent positions taken by the Chinese now, make it difficult for them to have a compromise without a loss of face. Foreign Secretary Jaishankar’s comments (intentional or otherwise) to a question at an event in Singapore provided a small opening for the Chinese. He said “it is not the first time that it (Sino-Indian border dispute) has happened. How do you handle it is a test of our maturity. I see no reason, having handled so many situations in the past, that we will not handle this.” He added that “the two countries must not allow differences to become disputes.” The Chinese could have used this to tone down their rhetoric and allow the issue to cool down for the time being even if they did not intend to withdraw from their positions. But it was not to be and Beijing, instead, rebuffed the opening. China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman Geng Shuang said that “this is different from the frictions of the past in the undefined sections of the border.”
There was speculation that the Chinese action was to teach India a lesson for not joining Xi Jinping’s pet project, the OBOR (One Belt One Road). India declined the invitation to attend the Belt and Road Forum Summit held in Beijing in May 2017, citing sovereignty issues over the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor which runs through Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. This argument to connect Doklam with OBOR seems farfetched because the Chinese government cannot expect India to change its mind because of such crude tactics. It could, on the other hand, harden India’s position.
They could be building up a small lobby of China sympathisers which, at present, does not seem to be significant. The message from the stand off to Bhutan could be that China would be prepared to swap disputed territories with Bhutan like the Doklam plateau for some territories in north Bhutan. It is, of course, well known that China has had many initiatives towards Bhutan in the recent past. Some Bhutanese youth receive scholarships to study in China. The wife of the Chinese Ambassador in New Delhi visited Thimpu recently and met with the King and Queen Mother ostensibly to discuss Buddhism.
Why is the timing of the incident not so propitious for Xi Jinping? For two reasons.
The first is the next BRICS Summit to be held in Xiamen (China) in September this year. China, as the host, would naturally like to make it a big success and another feather in Xi’s cap. As it is, the original hype for BRICS has gradually come down due to various reasons. Over the past few BRICS Summits, the world has seen the same ideas being repeated again and again. Of course, the establishment of the New Development Bank (INDB) and the Contingency Reserve Arrangement (CRA), and that too in a very short time, was undoubtedly a major achievement. But the contradictions and the strategic competition within BRICS have increased over the years, partly also due to various international developments. The contradiction and competition is more pronounced among China, India and Russia. There seems to be also a variance in the world view of these three. Given all these factors, it would take a lot of effort for the host country to project the Xiamen Summit as a runaway success. The current India-China standoff certainly will not help in this endeavour.
The second important event is the 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC), a very significant occasion that happens once in five years to set the course for the party and the country for the next ten years. A new Politburo and Politburo Standing Committee would be put in place. As of now, Xi Jinping seems to be in a very strong position to have his way. Ever since he took over as the General Secretary of the Party in 2012 and became President in 2013, he has been systematically consolidating his position. Under the anti-corruption drive, which seemed very popular with the common folk, he managed to sideline many of his rivals. The latest is the removal of the Governor of Chongqing, Sun Zhengcai. Five of the current members of the Politburo Standing Committee will have to quit at the Congress because of age limits. Only Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang will go on to the new Standing Committee. Reports indicate that Xi is making sure that the new members would be his proteges, mainly from the so called ‘Princelings’ meaning the sons/grandsons/nephews etc of erstwhile senior party leaders.
Some say that Xi may break with tradition and have a third term after 2022. The elevation of his position to “core leader” last year seems to be a step in that direction. These may be speculations, but there is no doubt about the ambitious nature of Xi. All these could be at risk if the Doklam standoff gets out of hand and China is faced with a situation of a loss of face. Any escalation from Xi’s point of view would be to ensure China’s dominance. But this is not a certainty. Even a limited skirmish can be blown up by the media. So, is the shrill rhetoric of the government controlled media in China counterproductive? The higher the rhetoric, the more difficult it would be for China to arrive at a compromise. It is also worth mentioning here that in the past two standoffs which lasted for a long time — one in Nathu La in 1967 and the other in Sumdorong Chu in 1986-87 — China did not have very favourable results.
Taking into consideration all the above factors the best course of action would be:
- To tone down the rhetoric and slowly take the issue away from the limelight, and
- Follow it up with talks to defuse the tension and arrive at some kind of compromise, even if it is temporary.
But, as of now this seems impossible with China insisting on the withdrawal of Indian troops before they begin to negotiate. India will not be able to accept this pre-condition.