The Chinese Communist Party’s decision to abolish term limits on the presidency, thereby allowing Xi Jinping to stay on in power beyond 2023 when his second term ends, has formalised Xi in the position of the most powerful Chinese leader in modern history after Mao Zedong. In a world that has been growing increasingly apprehensive of Xi’s and China’s hegemonic tendencies, this is bound to be viewed as a scary development fraught with heightened Chinese expansionism.
In these times, territorial conquest is rare but neo-colonialism is not. The manner in which China today controls the Maldives with its president Abdulla Yameen beholden and subservient to Xi Jinping, steeped as his country is in deep debts to Beijing, is today’s style of colonialism. The same would apply to Pakistan which is sinking under heavy debts to China, and Sri Lanka which faces a similar indebtedness with little ability to discharge debts.
Xi is an ultra nationalist and can be highly ruthless in his pursuit of what he perceives to be China’s interest. His foreign policy is designed to further China’s interests and to build the country up as a super power.
Whichever country comes in his path of hegemony becomes a rival in his eyes as India has in recent times. In India, we cannot but be alarmed at his apparent attempts to encircle this country with hostile nations as reflected in the ‘string of pearls’ hypothesis touted in a US department of defence report a few years ago. The ultimate aim is to gain control over the sea lanes to deny a burgeoning possible challenger, like India, easy access to the seas especially in the event of a tense military standoff.
The ‘string of pearls’ is indeed a geopolitical theory on potential Chinese intentions in the Indian Ocean region. It refers to the network of Chinese military and commercial facilities and relationships along its sea lines of communication. The sea lines run through several major maritime choke points such as the Strait of Mandeb, the Strait of Malacca, the Strait of Hormuz, and the Lombok Strait as well as other strategic maritime centres in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Maldives, and Somalia.
China’s foray into Doklam in Bhutan on India’s border was a bid to test the waters while staking claim to territory which is under India’s protection. That the Chinese troops finally withdrew from a faceoff with Indian soldiers was a tactical retreat which could escalate again in the foreseeable future. Another bone of contention is the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh which China claims is its territory even as India insists it is an integral part of India.
Modern-day China, especially in the last couple of years under Xi Jinping, is also a major headache for countries in South-East Asia which have territorial and maritime disputes with China. China’s sweeping claims of sovereignty over the South China Sea—and the sea’s alleged 11 billion barrels of untapped oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas—have antagonised competing claimants Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, Taiwan, Indonesia, and the Philippines.
The Americans, who have always stood for freedom of navigation, have been making it clear that they would not tolerate Chinese control over the South China Sea but there is an element of uncertainty over how far they would be prepared to go against China in the event of Beijing threatening the freedom of the seas. Under President Donald Trump, they are too obsessed with immediate self-interest to think beyond a point of the interests of other players who have a stake in the region and whose sovereignty may be threatened.
Just as Xi’s predecessor Deng Xiaoping presided over China’s economic rise, Xi has raised China’s profile in global geopolitics. He has pursued a more assertive foreign policy in China’s neighbourhood. At the same time, he has launched massive infrastructure programmes across the world as part of the Belt and Road Initiative.
It was during Deng’s time that the party introduced the term limit. Two of Xi’s immediate predecessors stepped down after their second term, having groomed the next generation of leaders, including Xi. The motivation of Xi now is to take China back to the days of personality cults with a cult being built around him.
Under a more powerful Xi, India has much to be wary of China. The Doklam issue is only one of a clutch of Xi initiatives that India has to worry about. China’s heightened activity in the Indian Ocean region, India’s opposition to Xi’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) and growing closeness of Maldives and Pakistan with China, are other alerts for India. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is going to be a bone of contention with India for a long time because it will pass through Indian-occupied Kashmir and establishes a short-cut for China to the high seas where it can challenge cargo ships of nations including India.
While India needs to be wary of China with a strong dictator at the helm, this country has come a long way since 1962 to have to feel submissive. It would be foolhardy for Beijing to launch a military misadventure. Today, apart from being militarily strong, India has strategic tie-ups with the US, Japan and Australia which would stand her in good stead. It is incumbent on India to stand up to China for any excesses that it may commit. There cannot be any buckling under pressure. The freedom of navigation should brook no compromise.
The author is a political commentator and columnist. He has authored four books.