The 12th round of corps commander-level talks between the militaries of India and China recently concluded with a joint statement carrying the usual homilies about enhancing mutual understanding and resolving the remaining disputes along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh. It is to be noted that no concrete forward movement has been visible in the unfinished disengagement process which has stalled since Indian and Chinese troops pulled back in the Pangong Tso area in February this year. True, discussions on other friction points – Gogra, Hot Springs and Depsang Plains – continue and plans are afoot to establish a buffer zone in one of the friction points. But on this too China’s approval is awaited. As I have mentioned in my previous articles, India is in for the long haul as the Chinese are unlikely to give up their military-strategic advantages accrued through ingress into Indian territory and its boosted military infrastructure along the LAC.
Several theories have been put forward about why China adopts an aggressive posture towards India at the LAC while continuing to pitch for peace and cooperation between the two countries. These range from China asserting itself as the No.1 power in Asia to Beijing’s desire to keep New Delhi off balance and remind it of the consequences of moving closer to the West. As with many things in international relations, the truth is multifaceted involving several factors. Hence, all current theories regarding China’s foreign policy-military posture contain a kernel of truth. But none of them can claim to be the definitive truth.
So yes, China does not want India to get too close to the West and Beijing has indeed embarked on high-pitched nationalist rhetoric. But my addition to the truth is that China under the leadership of President Xi Jinping has been trying to rejuvenate the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and prolong its life span. True, this assessment might seem odd. In fact, many would argue that the CCP seems the strongest ever today. But the reality is that when Xi took over as party general secretary and President in 2012-13, he inherited a CCP that had become vast with multiple centres of power. While this was a natural consequence of three decades of China’s economic opening up and meteoric GDP growth, it was also putting a strain on internal party unity. CCP leaders govern through internal consensus. But what happens when ideas about what that consensus is start to diverge?
And with different party-state power centres presiding over their respective gigantic fiefdoms, the CCP risked being pulled apart from within. Xi understood this very well and hence embarked on a massive drive to cleanse the elements within the party-start system that no longer put the party’s ideology and interests above theirs. This was the real motivation behind Xi’s massive anti-corruption drive, as well as his decision to change China’s constitution in 2018 reinforcing the leadership of the party over all levers of the Chinese state.
All of these internal changes have been couched in the rhetoric of nationalism. As is the case everywhere, nationalism is the best cover to undertake deep structural political changes because it allows you to brand those who oppose them as traitors or anti-national. What has this got to do with India-China border issues? Well, Xi’s nationalist turn means China has to project assertiveness in its neighbourhood and make good on historical claims. Hence, China has been particularly aggressive in pushing its historical claims in the South and East China Seas as well as along its boundary with India. While South China Sea is an easy target for China today because it has the world’s largest navy and the ability to build artificial islands – therefore scoring easy political and strategic wins here — with India it is Tibet that is the crucial factor.
Xi knows that one of the CCP’s main vulnerabilities is the relationship of the ethnic minorities with the Chinese state. When the People’s Republic of China was formed, the Chinese state had promised the ethnic minorities freedoms to preserve their culture and way of life. However, over the decades the notion of functional autonomy for the minorities was gradually eroded. Additionally, the Chinese state has been willing to pour billions of dollars into ethnic minority provinces like Tibet to integrate these with the nation. But there was one problem. No matter how much money Beijing spent on Tibet, Xinjiang or Inner Mongolia, it could not change the hearts and minds of the ethnic minorities. And as long as this was the case, Xi in Beijing could not finish his project of reinforcing the authority of the party over all of China and ridding the CCP of unworthy elements.
Plus, by allowing even a semblance of autonomy for Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia, Xi believes he is leaving an opportunity for those within the party who may be secretly against his policies to trouble him through these provinces. In fact, the same logic holds true for foreign actors who too may use these ethnic minority provinces to hit back against Beijing’s aggression. China now dealing with the Taliban shows precisely this apprehension Beijing has in Xinjiang insofar as the threat of foreign stimulus for insurgency in that province is concerned. Similarly, the US has made it clear that it will back Tibetan aspirations and rights while India, of course, hosts the Dalai Lama and a substantial Tibetan community.
Therefore, China’s aggression along the border with India is a message to both New Delhi and Washington not to use Tibet as a tool to get back at Beijing. It is also part of Xi’s centralisation project that seeks to firmly integrate Tibet with the PRC by making Tibetan culture subservient to the Chinese state. This was the intent behind Xi’s recent visit to Tibet to mark the 70th anniversary of Tibet’s so-called peaceful liberation. Add to this the fact that China is now encouraging recruitment of Tibetans in its People’s Liberation Army, and it is amply clear what Xi’s message is: Tibet can forget about autonomy or any special privileges and must integrate fully with the Chinese state. This is crucial to the preservation and integrity of the CCP. And all of this will be achieved under the cover of aggressive Chinese nationalism so other countries must beware. But Xi must not forget the old Chinese saying, “wu(4)ji(2)bi(4)fan(3)” meaning when things reach an extreme they can only move in the opposite direction.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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