India should be wary of ‘King Xi’

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India should be wary of ‘King Xi’

An all-powerful People’s Liberation Army packed with loyalists can create adverse situations along the Line of Actual Control with India in disputed pockets

Both China’s Supreme Leader Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have claimed victory over Doklam. It is part of a gentleman’s agreement cobbled together on August 28 not to contradict each other over Doklam. The disengagement at Doklam was just a tactical pause to allow Xi to hold the Bimstec summit and then be crowned King Xi at the 19th Party Congress. Coercion and a strategy of presenting a fait accompli did not work against Bhutan thanks to India but it did in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea due to non-intervention by a declining US which is supposed to be the net security provider for the region. Xi, declared mentor and core leader, and heaped with titles and honorifics that will fill a page, and his thoughts and principles for ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era’ enshrined in the constitution by name, will return with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in strength soon; not necessarily to Doklam but elsewhere along the disputed border due to the centrality that China assigns to what it considers its territorial integrity.

It is only a matter of time before Xi’s portrait adorns Tiananmen Square and his visage replaces Mao Tse-tung’s on Chinese banknotes. The cult of personality could well supersede the cult of the party. Still, in the restructuring of the governing and decision-making architecture it was not all Xi’s way. The Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), the highest leadership council which was expected to change in size neither rose to nine nor dropped to five but stayed at seven members. There were surprises — chiefly, the omission of the rising star and Xi ally, the 57-year old Chen Miner, who was expected to perform a pole vault rising from Central Committee to PSC. Some other Xi favourites were also excluded — including Wang Qishan, the crusader for Xi’s anti-corruption campaign. In the final line up, two nominees each were former Presidents’ (Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin) men, leaving two Xi loyalists and, including Xi, making the Great Seven. With no successor in sight, it could be Chairman Xi for life.

Unlike the PSC, Xi was able to stack the reduced Central Military Commission (CMC), from 10 to six members, with his favourite Generals. Two prominent men dealing with India have been promoted. General Zhao Zonqi, Western Army Commander responsible for the entire India front, was elevated to the Central Committee. The seasoned diplomat and Special Representative for border talks with India, Yang Jeichi, was elevated to the 25-member politburo. The CMC, which is headed by Xi, is led by Gen Xu Qiliang and includes other reformers like Li Zuocheng who will head the joint staff department.  It seems Xi had little difficulty in reconstituting the officer corps by inclusion of persons with a zeal for reform and loyalty to him and removing those who did not qualify through the process of ‘economic reform’, a euphemism for corruption charges.

Border intrusions like Depsang, Chumar and Doklam — the first two linked to state visits of top leaders — and the history of uncertain civil-military relations in China have prompted Xi to recover and retain tight control over the PLA, iterating it as the armed wing of the Chinese Communist Party and making loyalty to the party essential to ensure that the power flowing from the barrel of the gun is duly authorised. The People’s Daily carried full page advertisements about loyalty of the PLA to the Chinese Communist Party. A clear separation of power and its control and use is being attempted by Xi. He embarked on military reforms and has purged the officer corps, especially at higher command levels, appointing as many as 135 generals of his choice. 60 Generals were relieved and nearly 5,000 officers punished. Macro and micro reforms were undertaken. The reformed military departments like General Staff, Logistics, Equipment and Political were placed directly under the CMC. The seven military regions are restructured as five theatre commands consisting of 13 group armies with five group armies disbanded. The focus of realigning the PLA is on modernisation and streamlining — by 2020, incorporating joint commands; by 2035, ensuring an info-technology based PLA and by 2050, a world — class military.

China watchers say that Xi does not have a grand strategy for resurrecting China’s ancient power which is described as the China dream of rejuvenation — Making China Great Again. So far, China has amassed economic wealth through double-digit growth for the last three decades and has a GDP of $12 trillion and will likely overtake US economy in size by 2025. Xi realises that China is a wealthy country which needs a strong Army which is combat-ready. The PLA lacks combat experience — the last war it fought was with Vietnam in 1979 with only two officers now in the CMC having fought as company commanders then. The challenge is to match US prowess in military technology, though China’s feats in technology and innovation are pretty impressive especially in space, aviation, cyberwar, UAV and sub-surface capabilities.

Xi in his three-and-a-half-hour-long speech at the party congress with Jiang Zemin seated on his left yawning and counting time, said China was not a threat to any country. The question remains whether China’s peaceful rise — hide your strength; bide your time — is over now given an assertive and ambitious global strategy. Despite the US’s inward-looking policy and declining profile, it will not yield easily to a rising China. The Greek General Thucydides said as established power will resist a rising power — the growth of the power of Athens and the alarm which this inspired in Sparta made war inevitable. In 5th century BC there were no nuclear weapons as the ultimate deterrent. China’s dream of a unipolar Asia has revived the US-Japan-India-Australia Quadrilateral, killed in 2007 by Australia. Beijing’s envoy to Washington, Cui Tiankai, has warned against attempts to contain China through sale of US military hardware to India or the formation of an ‘exclusive club in the Indo-Pacific region’. India has to weigh up the utility of strategic fence-sitting with the likely un-peaceful posturing by PLA. Should New Delhi consider a strategic alignment not an alliance? As US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said recently, China while rising alongside India, has done so less responsibly, at times undermining the international rule-based order.

India should quietly shift the focus of its military modernisation programme from the Pakistani threat and prepare to counter China, which is rapidly constructing military-civil infrastructure. Doklam was on terrain highly advantageous to India. PLA can create adverse situations along the LAC in disputed pockets where it will present a fait accompli. While India can sometimes prevent an intrusion, it does not have the resources to vacate aggression.

(The writer is a retired Major General of the Indian Army and founder member of the Defence Planning Staff, currently the revamped Integrated Defence Staff)

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