Xi Jinping is facing an internal leadership crisis at home, besides global humiliation to its ‘Asian Giant’ status.

 

China’s anti-India armed aggression at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) is understood. The roots of this angry posture of the Dragon on the India-China border are in the worsening of diplomatic ties between Beijing and Washington DC. And India isn’t the only one caught in the cross-fire. What Beijing is doing to quell the unrest in Hong Kong and voices of dissent in Taiwan or what it is doing to “forcibly complete the occupation of Tibet” is nothing new and “unwarranted” for many India-China watchers.

In fact, history has many similar years and incidents to show that Beijing’s top leadership has been forced to put pressure on “smaller nations”, partly because of pressure back home and to demonstrate the might of the Dragon and its unending quest to be next only to the then global superpower, if not the top in the world.

Mao Zedong, the founder of the Chinese Republic, initiated the “Great Leap Forward” in 1958 to surpass Great Britain in industrial production within 15 years. It didn’t happen as desired and resulted in the largest man-made starvation period in human history, killing about 30-40 million people. Mao faced a backlash at home and a big jolt to his leadership status, eventually diverting the same on an armed aggression against India in 1962. Not many know that by 1961, Mao was virtually out of power and in retreat and hence he forced a war, which he claimed was “China’s rightful retaliation against India’s three years of armed intrusion” between 1958 and 1961. At the beginning of 1962, tension was increasing on the Indo-China border and the rest is history.

Come 2020, Beijing’s dream to rule the world and stand only next to the United States is “far-fetched”, at least, in the current geo-political situation, and given the anti-China bloc President Donald Trump has been able to manage despite all odds against him at home during the Covid-19 pandemic. Germany, Britain and Australia are snapping ties with Beijing and rearranging diplomatic relations with the upcoming G7 meeting in mind, frustrating China further. More frustration as Britain reconsiders its “love” for China’s Huawei.

Sources say that President Xi Jinping is facing an internal leadership crisis and criticism at home, besides the worst global humiliation to its “Asian Giant” status. Somewhere the big dream is not getting realised and the rumblings at the recent CCP meeting in Beijing last month echoed a retaliatory note against the Chinese President. For many China and Indo-US affairs experts, more aggression from Beijing is on the anvil.

Michael Kugelman, South Asia expert and Associate Director at the Woodrow Wilson Center, told The Sunday Guardian: “We are seeing China is sending a message of strength and resolve at a moment when it is under fire in the court of global public opinion. It has a need to push back given that it has been put on the defensive by a response to the coronavirus pandemic that many key global capitals deem to be wholly ineffective at best and downright dangerous at worse, with the idea that Chinese inaction at home early on enabled the virus to become a global pandemic. To be sure, Beijing has sought to compensate by positioning itself as a leader in the global response to the pandemic, particularly through medical assistance and convening efforts. But this hasn’t taken the heat off China. Hence its decision to ramp up its muscular actions and bellicose rhetoric to show that it’s still strong and capable.”

Another Asia expert and India specialist, Aparna Pande of Hudson Institute cites the history of Chinese leadership, which has been forced to take the “aggression route to divert criticism and threat to their personal status, internally and externally.”

Pande says: “To the layperson, China’s aggressiveness may appear unusual but to China-watchers, there is a pattern. Whenever the CCP and China’s top leaders face internal challenges, they seek for ways to reinforce their domestic legitimacy and international prestige. China has come under massive international scrutiny and criticism for the Covid-19 pandemic, its economy is hurting, and at a time like this social tensions rise…If we go back in history, in 1962, Mao was facing an internal crisis after the Cultural Revolution, there were tensions with the Soviets and the US and ‘teaching India a lesson’ was the way to building international prestige and rebuilding domestic legitimacy.”

But the aggression may put China to a bigger risk, agree experts. “One big strategic risk for Beijing is that such behaviour could alienate the countries that have been on the fence about which great power, Washington or Beijing, they want to side with. Beijing has plenty of good friends, but there are countries—especially in Southeast Asia—that have courted US military support while simultaneously seeking Beijing’s economic cooperation. For Asian democracies that resent China’s provocations, they may be more inclined to distance themselves from Chinese support,” says Kugelman, who was quick to add, “the same countries worrying about China’s increasingly muscular rhetoric and actions also fear that Trump’s America—with its unilateralism and withdrawal from the world—wouldn’t be much better.”

In theory, there’s an opportunity for Washington to seize during this precarious moment for China. And yet, the negative perceptions of the Trump administration around the world may mean the US will squander this opportunity. Pande is frank in prescribing a counter to China: “An economically strong, politically stable, socially integrated and militarily powerful India is a potential rival to China in Asia. Also, the stronger alliances and partnerships India has with countries in Asia and the West, the less likely China is to push India. That is why China supports Pakistan, and has sought to play each of India’s neighbours against India. That is also what China’s border policy has been over the years but especially since 2017: grab as much Indian territory as it can and also attempt to prevent India from building its infrastructure.”

Pande adds that if India focuses on building its capacity and boosting its relations with allies like the US, Japan, Australia and ASEAN, China will not succeed, but if India is complacent, then China will keep gaining.

It is also that China will never own the corona crisis and the reasons are many, one being the large scale investments in the Border and Road Initiative. Pande says, “China has built a strong economy, is an integral part of the global trading and supply chain system. Through OBOR/BRI, China has also built a debt-trap relationship with many countries around the world. Thus, unlike the Soviet Union, China, even if its economy slows down, will still be a power to reckon with.”

Kugelman also cautions those who think that this is the doom for the Dragon. “China’s economy may take a hit from corona virus-induced slowdowns, but it’s too powerful to be down for the count. If some countries withdraw from deals with China and become more hesitant to take on Chinese loans that would have reputational impacts for Beijing, but not lasting economic ones. Also, let’s be clear that China is too important, both strategically and economically, for the world to retreat from it en masse. Beijing will find plenty of nations and markets willing to engage.”

The experts are sceptical if China will lose global support for long. But there is still a counter to China’s growing aggression. Kugelman says: “The world may be unhappy with China, but it’s unwilling to disengage economically from Beijing. China’s economy is too powerful for that. And given the world’s lack of clarity about the US role overseas and its unhappiness with Trump’s policies, China’s salience and importance grows even more—and the stakes of ignoring or not engaging with Beijing are amplified.” Pande elaborates the point: “China has built a dependent relationship with countries all over the world, from Europe and the US to Latin America, Australia and Japan. China is the top trading partner of almost every country, in almost every region. The question is not, is China strong? But rather, are other countries going to partner to prevent a China-led world order or will each do its own thing?”