China’s Riddles: Why Beijing has been giving differing explanations for its LAC deployment

Earlier this week foreign minister S Jaishankar had said that China had given India as many as five differing explanations for the heavy troop deployment along the Line of Actual Control. A few days later, he said that India was being tested in the LAC standoff and refused to give a timeline for disengagement. Taken together, Jaishankar’s two statements reinforce what I have been saying about the India-China standoff over the past several months. The Chinese troop mobilisation and incursions into the Indian side of the LAC are actually primarily designed for elite Chinese politics. The strategic gains that China makes by effectively pushing the LAC westwards in certain areas are secondary.

For, as I have written before, Chinese President Xi Jinping is trying to shepherd in significant socio-economic changes in China. And this involves rewriting the basic social contract the Chinese Communist Party has with the Chinese people. Since the 1980s this social contract has entailed delivering high economic growth in exchange for complete loyalty to the party. But this policy had a flawed assumption that market economics which were being ushered in could be insulated from political liberalisation. The party learnt about this the hard way during the 1989 students’ uprising and the Tiananmen incident. Subsequently, the party under Jiang Zemin launched a massive patriotic education campaign to anchor the market reforms. In other words, the aim of this campaign was to create a patriotic citizenry that would never question the rule of the party.

However, as China’s market reforms continued and economic growth reached meteoric heights, Chinese citizens became richer, travelled abroad more than ever before, and were exposed to international education and ideas. This again engendered alternative views within the party-state system accompanying new power centres and factions. And just as Xi was nominated as the general-secretary of the party and the new President in 2012, a plot was discovered within the party which aimed to overturn that nomination. Readers of Chinese elite politics will know what I am talking about.

This convinced Xi that China’s meteoric economic growth had engendered dangerous levels of corruption within the party, which in turn had created powerful anti-party unity elements. Therefore, in Xi’s view the party was in danger of imploding from within as there were too many power centres and factions endangering party unity. And these alternative views had to be stubbed out, and the legitimacy and authority of the party reinforced. Everything that Xi has been doing is aimed at this goal.

Coming back to the India-China border standoff, again the Chinese aim here is to show that only the party leadership can achieve strategic gains for China. In other words, only Xi’s command and direction can make China strong so all sections of Chinese society, polity and economy should rally around him unquestioningly. Thus, Xi’s nationalist rhetoric around the ‘Great China Dream’ is nothing but an attempt to rewrite China’s social contract by replacing economic growth with nationalism. Under Xi, nationalism will supposedly make China great, not economic growth – the latter won’t return to the dizzying heights of the previous decade in China anyway.

The secondary but real strategic gains that China makes through its LAC manoeuvres, on the other hand, involve gaining leverage over India as the US seeks to push back against Beijing’s foreign policy assertiveness. If that pushback gains further momentum, China can approach India and offer resolution of the LAC issue to get New Delhi to break rank with Washington. And if the pushback fizzles out, China can hold on to its current LAC position and drain India’s resources through prolonged deployment in very difficult circumstances. In either case, the idea is to keep India off-balance, which explains the five differing Chinese explanations Jaishankar was referring to. This is indeed a tricky test for India.




Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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