Worldview with Suhasini Haidar | China’s Communist Party Congress | Why should India pay a...

Worldview with Suhasini Haidar | China’s Communist Party Congress | Why should India pay attention?

In this episode of Worldview, we take a deep dive into China’s 20th Party Congress. And as Xi Jinping secures a third term , what will his plans for the future entail for the world and India in particular?  

As China’s 20th party congress gives Xi Jinping an unprecedented third term, what will his plans for the future entail Will China’s fighting spirit mean more conflict in the region?

The 20th Party Congress is significant for a number of reasons which is why there was such international attention given to it:

1. The first time in more than thirty years that the CPC has re-elected a General Secretary for a third term. In 2018, Xi Jinping had dispensed with the term limit of 2 terms or 10 years, and this could mean that the 69 year old leader could remain China’s leader for the next decade or more, particularly as he outlined his vision for China in 2035. More than anything, the Xi Jinping thought -of a new era of Socialism with Chinese characteristics- of a more muscular aggressive fighting China appears to have discarded the Deng Xiaoping thought of ‘keep a low profile, build your strength, bide your time, not taking the lead’.

2. The fact that Premier Li Keqiang is stepping down and no successor is being identified also points to the fact that the Chinese Politburo, the most powerful body will largely be filled with Xi’s men (there is at present only one woman in the 25 member Politburo at present and none in the 7 member Politburo Standing Committee), and few challengers to his policies. Xi has also done away with the more electoral version of choosing party delegates through “straw polls”, and now picks them by what he calls a system of “democratic recommendation”.

3. This is the first CPC since the Covid Pandemic, and even as the congress got under way, Beijing was under several lockdowns, as Covid numbers quadrupled. Unlike most other countries which are building immunity to Covid – Xi Jinping has enforced a very strict Zero Covid policy. The other impact is on the global economy, with China’s own stated goal of 5.5% growth seeming difficult this year- as China grapples with lockdowns, stock market crashes and a property market slump. Remember China makes up nearly a fifth of global GDP today.

4. For India, this was an important Congress to watch, as it came amidst the LAC standoff, and although Xi Jinping said he wanted to build closer ties with the neighbourhood, the event began with a video clip of the clashes in Galwan in 2020 with the Indian Army where atleast 20 Indian soldiers were killed and China has admitted to four of its soldiers being killed. The fact that China rakes up this footage, and that the PLA commander at Galwan Qi Fabao was among the 2,296 CPC delegates present is significant.

5. The world also watched the Congress closely for signs of future conflicts. This CPC came amidst the Russian war in Ukraine and follows the recent big military exercises and tensions over Taiwan, and worries about Xi Jinping’s plans to annex or reunify Taiwan. This week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned that China has accelerated its plans to take over Taiwan, while the US Navy Chief warned it could be as early as next year. In his speech, Xi Jinping promised a fully modernised and restructured PLA by 2027, and repeatedly spoke about China’s defence of its territorial boundaries.

The Hindu’s Beijing correspondent Ananth Krishnan has been covering the CPC, and earlier I spoke to him about the outcomes of the congress. In an interview with Suhasini Haidar, he spoke about  Xi Jinping’s speech and the economic situation in China.

Q / Q. What Xi Jinping said on Taiwan

A / Here at the Party Congress there has not been a new declaration on Taiwan but a reiteration of China’s stand at the highest levels of course Xi Jinping opening the Congress with China wanted a peaceful settlement but it would not renounce to use of force I think that’s a strong statement that we saw and it was also a message to the US as much it was for Taiwan Though US was not mentioned per se the fact they mentioned interference from external factors it underlined the focus the Xi Jinping and the Communist Party has been putting on the Taiwan question But at the same time I don’t think any observers expect China to take any major steps at least in the near future. The language at the 20th CPC suggested the same rather than any significant departure 

Q / Q. We also saw a special mention of Galwan at the opening day- and honours for the PLA commander? How does this fit in with efforts to conclude India China talks on the LAC standoff, and what does India need to watch out for?

A / One of the sorts of curious tensions in China’s approach to neighbourhood in the Xi era has been, on the one hand, to focus on neighbourhood diplomacy, especially for the BRI and on the other, it is very clear that China sees redline very hard approach to territory and sovereignty The fact that the Galwan Valley Commander chief was chosen among the 2296 delegation from all over China The fact that he was one of the 300 PLA delegates even though obviously he is not of high ranks of the usual party delegates I think it is very important for not only domestically China but also externally. I think in recent days in the lead-up to the CPC there has been a reference to the Galwan valley clash in two different Communist Party videos that were produced. I think there is a clear sign the approch in LAC is there to stay in Xi Jinping era The fact that China under Xi Jinping has increasingly framed, what poor territorial differences between India and China as issues of sovereignty for China, that kind of implies to some level that there’s a there’s a reduced space as Beijing sees it at least for negotiation and managing the boundary peacefully by both sides and a unilateralism, in fact and how China is approaching these obviously has been reflected, in the LAC in the last two years, of course, there has been disengagement now and five of the seven friction areas. It has taken such a long time, for this engagement to be reached. And I think that even in the remaining two friction areas, and I’m sure conducts on the negotiations are going to be difficult. And more than that, it’s hard to see right now how there’s going to be beyond that any de-escalation in the induction of the forces that China has put forward, given the focus on how much they’ve been emphasising the boundary and safeguarding boundaries one would assume, uh, that this sort of approach is going to be here to stay.

Q /  A third term for Xi Jinping is a given, but what does this break from the past – the first leader to not step down after two terms since the 1990s mean for China? With comparisons to Mao Zedong is Xi Jinping thought now considered the successor to Mao political thought?

A / As usually is the case with party Congress in China, the composition of the next leadership of the next five years of the Politburo standing committee is a closely kept secret. What we do know and expect is that the next lineup for the next five years is going to be Xi Jinping. This means that he is going to be even more in control and command over policy, including economic policy, in the next five years. Also, we don’t expect a successor to be named. Those who had joined the Politburo standing committee are likely to be old enough that they can serve another five-year term, but not be around for the next 10-15 years as would be required of a successor. That is of course intended so that Xi Jinping is very clear that he alone is going to be the focus at the top of the communist party for the next five years. The biggest consequence of this is that the really stable succession mechanism working for the last 30 years is now uncertain. No one quite knows how things are going to work after Xi Jinping. That’s a huge question mark in terms of political stability in China.

Q / How much is China’s economic slowdown, particularly since the Covid crisis began, a worry at the Congress, if at all, and is there any pushback to President Xi’s governance over this?

A / It is clear that the economy is the single biggest question on everyone’s minds at the party congress- In the second quarter, China’s economy grew by just 0.4%. That’s the official numbers. Unofficially, many people would say that the economy probably contracted. The third quarter GDP figures that were due this week have been delayed, which is quite unprecedented. This only furthers concern about the state of China’s economy. All Chinese officials have said that it was better than expected, though the numbers haven’t come out. There’s no question that the zero Covid regime has had a huge impact, and has repressed business sentiments. There’s a lot of uncertainty in terms of policy which brings with it lockdowns. In Beijing, there is still an intense mass testing requirement. People have to test every 72 hours to get access to public transport, shopping malls or hospitals. President Xi Jinping, in his opening speech to the party congress, defended the zero Covid policy saying that it save lives.

India has to look at the China challenge from three aspects:

1. Bilateral ties including the Military standoff at the Line of Actual Control

2. The maritime sphere, where the Chinese navy is increasingly making its presence felt, and India, the net regional security provider in the Indian Ocean Region, is part of arrangements like the Quad, has Indo Pacific partnerships with the EU and UK as well.

3. And India’s own neighbourhood, or SAARC region, where Chinese investment, and Chinese loans particularly through the BRI are changing the geopolitical landscape as well. India’s pushback in countries like Nepal Maldives Bangladesh and Sri Lanka has been about providing more sustainable financial support, and is now exploring partnerships with Japan and the US for co-financing projects.

4. In addition- Increasingly at the multilateral sphere, India faces the China challenge. Despite being a part of BRICS and SCO with China, New Delhi has faced Chinese opposition to its quest for a place in the UN Security Council, and even on something like terrorist designations- China has blocked 5 Indian attempts in the past 4 months to list designated terrorists at the UNSC.

At a speech this week External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar spelt out India’s current perspective on ties with China- in a twitter thread:

He said:

1. India deals with China bilaterally, and not through the prism of a 3rd party

2. The old era of self restraint appears to be over for India, not just China

3. Peace and tranquility in the border areas remains the basis for normal relations. (He didn’t however mention a reversion to pre April 2020 troop positions at the LAC)

4. India must be prepared to compete in the neighbourhood

5. Finally he said that Establishing a modus vivendi (a new basis for dialogue) between India and China after 2020 is not easy. Yet, it is a task that cannot be set aside, and can only be achieved on the basis of mutual respect, mutual sensitivity and mutual interest.

Clearly, the 20 th party congress’s reaffirmation of Xi Jinping and his more aggressive tone towards the world and particularly to India is going to be an enduring challenge for New Delhi. While there is a chance that PM Modi and President Xi Jinping, who are both expected to attend the G-20 summit in Bali next month, while Xi is expected to visit India for the SCO summit and G-20 summit next year, will have opportunities to mend their relationship that has fallen from the heights of Wuhan and Mamallapuram- trust between the two countries will take a much longer time, and can only begin when the standoff at the LAC is resolved.

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