Xi Jinping is aiming at China taking on the mantle of the world’s pre-eminent power, displacing the United States, before he completes a third five-year term.
Xi Jinping comes from a privileged family that has seen both rough as well as good times. Unlike the assertive and brash children of some of the Chinese Communist Party leaders lower down the leadership ladder, Xi’s daughter Mingxe is quiet and courteous, refusing to partake 24/7 of the pomp and privilege of her father’s high office, while his wife Peng Liyuan is herself a well-known singer of motivational and patriotic songs, which are usually sung by her in a military setting. From his early years close to high authority, such as his affinity with China’s longest serving Defence Minister, Lin Biao, the current General Secretary of the CCP has placed the military at the centre of his statecraft.
This distinguishes him from Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin, who put commerce above everything else, or Hu Jintao, who placed a high value (and spent lavishly) on securing goodwill across the world. Soft power was given priority by Hu, even as he took steps to increase the domestic component of hi-tech fields of endeavour, a task enthusiastically embraced by his successor, Xi. Since 2012, “soft power booster budgets” have been cut and those cadres engaged in “goodwill” missions and tasks have been downgraded. In the time of Xi, an ounce of hard power is worth a pound of soft power. For Xi, as for his idol Mao Zedong, what counts is raw power and its exercise. He is clearly a believer in the adage that if an opponent is in a weaker position, it is irrelevant where that person’s heart and mind is, for he will be forced into doing what is wanted of him. This goes for groups and countries as well.
Even the “friendly face” of the PRC, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, is voluble during conversations that his country is 100% right in whatever its leadership says or does, and so discussions need to centre around the sole point of how quickly and smoothly the other side acknowledges such an obvious fact. What counts in the Xi model of governance is facts on the ground, not talks about talks or meetings about meetings.
While Indian public opinion saw the Moscow meeting of Defence Minister Rajnath Singh with his PRC counterpart as routine diplomatic courtesy, the Chinese side saw it as a sign of weakness, and promptly stiffened their stance. Such an approach is the opposite of the situation in India, where international talks are given high priority and even visible failures (in terms of getting more than was given away) such as Tashkent or Shimla or the Tibet talks (from Nehru to Vajpayee) are seen as successes, a judgement made purely on the basis of optics. Indeed, optics seems to be the only result that policymakers in India have taken seriously in several situations.
The removal of the two-term limit by PRC President Xi Jinping has been taken as an indication that the CCP General Secretary would like to remain in office until the close of his life. However, the fact is different: Xi Jinping is aiming at China taking on the mantle of the world’s pre-eminent power, displacing the United States, before he completes a third five-year term. This would act as a force multiplier accelerating China’s lead over the US, the way its pivotal role in global commerce and geopolitics has assisted the US in maintaining its position within the global order. Once the milestone of global primacy is crossed, and it is regarded as axiomatic by his team that Xi’s leadership is crucial to such a success, it is likely that the current General Secretary, President and Chairman of the Central Military Commission will follow the example of Deng Xiaoping and take on an honorific title, such as Chairman of the CCP, handing over the General Secretaryship and other posts to trusted associates, although not to the same individual. India and the US are the two countries which figure prominently in the calculations of the team that has been gathered around Xi, individuals seen as the “best and the brightest” that the CCP has to offer. The question is whether they will ensure the success of Xi’s plans, or be responsible for a failure, much as the “best and the brightest” US policymakers in the Lyndon Johnson Cabinet were over Vietnam. The projections of Team Xi for both the big democracies are less than rosy.
The US is seen as having potentially irreversible fault lines based on race, religion and income, which is expected to consume that country in internal strife on an increasing scale. While Joe Biden is preferred by Beijing to Donald Trump in the 3 November 2020 Presidential polls, the latter too is seen as vulnerable because of a “Two-Front” situation. The two fronts are (a) duels with the PRC combined with tensions with multiple countries, and (b) internal fissures created by those around President Trump seeking to impose on the US the same societal structure as was prevalent in the 1950s and in finance as was prevalent towards the close of the 19th century. The Supreme Court in particular is regarded as promising from the viewpoint of engendering chaos, in view of the fact that several of the justices are in effect charter members of the revivalist wing of the Republican Party and are visibly loyal in their verdicts to its tenets. Such a display of judicial partisanship is in the service of an effort to reverse the course of history, most importantly the effort by Stephen Miller and others filled with nostalgia for the segregationist past.
The main objective of immigration and “justice” policies is to reverse the steady increase in the non-white population, which is a factor that is deeply upsetting to such individuals. The selection of Kamala Harris as the running mate of Joe Biden has given oxygen to the efforts of such elements out of fear that Biden may, for reasons of health, have to hand over the keys to the White House to a non-white and this not long after the first non-white President of the US was sworn in for two terms. Should the Democratic Party prevail in the 3 November contest, including in the House of Representatives and the Senate, there is likely to be a growing conflict between the Executive and a Judicial branch honeycombed with closet revivalists by the Trump administration. Their power would increase with the likely nomination of another Republican ideologue to replace Associate Justice Ruth Ginsburg on the Supreme Court before the team chosen by the 3 November election gets sworn in.
An intensive effort is under way within the US to map for the CCP leadership the faultlines in US society and how they are developing. Or can be developed, a task in which China’s key ally Russia has been assigned to play the lead role on behalf of the common interests of the Sino-Russian alliance. At the same time, packages of misinformation that claim to show that Moscow and Beijing are working not seamlessly together (as is the case) but at cross purposes are being constantly tossed out to credulous policymakers in countries that are identified as hostile to a situation where China replaces the US as the centre of gravity of the international order. As a consequence, there are several policymakers in the US, the EU and India who believe that there is substantial daylight between the strategic ambitions and actions of Putin and Xi. The reality is that both wish to see the end of US primacy, ensure a fissured EU, and a weak congeries of South Asian and Southeast Asian states. Both Moscow and Beijing give an appearance of acting separately and on different sides, when in reality they are synchronising policy (often covertly) to bring about the geopolitical shifts desired by both.
<strong>SEPARATING THE U.S. AND INDIA</strong>
Both Beijing and Moscow regard it as crucial to keep the US and India strategically separate from each other, and the manner in which pro-Pakistan elements have embedded themselves within the Biden campaign has given Putin and Xi hope that a Biden White House would adopt a hectoring and unfriendly tone towards the Modi government. What is causing anxiety is the fact that Barack Obama, who seems close to Joe Biden, tossed away earlier US policy towards Narendra Modi within minutes of the latter winning the 2014 polls and becoming the second BJP Prime Minister of India.
A Washington-Delhi pairing as close as the Moscow-Beijing partnership would present an immense obstacle to the global designs of the Sino-Russian alliance, and extraordinary effort is being made by both capitals to ensure that this not take place. This campaign is active in Washington as well, where a whispering campaign has been launched even through improbable channels that India wants to be a “free rider” and is moreover “unreliable and quirky” as a partner. Thus far, this campaign has prevented the US Congress from going ahead with additional legislation designed to make India in law an ally of the US on par with any other country, including treaty allies. A bevy of voices are opposing this on the Hill, most of whom are unaware of the foreign link to their advocacy.
At the same time, several channels are being used in Delhi to convey a similar impression of unreliability about the US. Thus far, neither has Australia been invited to the Malabar exercises by India nor has BECA been signed. Keeping the US and India apart is a high priority and thus far, the strategy seems to have delivered results. Within the Biden camp in particular are several individuals who are in close contact with the Pakistan embassy, and during such visits, they “accidentally” meet diplomats from the country that is acknowledged as the single biggest threat to US interests by the Pentagon and the national security system. The close coordination between the Chinese and Pakistan embassies in numerous capitals is no secret. The usefulness of Pakistan in ensuring a covert bridge between Beijing and Washington, this time mostly in matters relating to the US Congress and to elements of the Republican and Democratic parties, is far from over.
<strong>MODI’S CREDIBILITY CORE TO STABILITY</strong>
Just as the US is regarded as being close to getting tipped into a societal war on a scale that will dwarf the unrest of the 1960s whoever wins on 3 November, India is calculated as being potentially vulnerable to a similar meltdown of public confidence and order. It has been factored in that the continuing credibility of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is key to ensuring a popular level of hope in the future as would prevent mass civil unrest across India. Efforts are ongoing to damage this credibility, and a military setback on the border is seen as the most effective way of bringing down the level of confidence of his people in the leadership of PM Modi. This would be on top of the economic hardship of the recent past. More than in the South China Sea or across the Taiwan Straits, it is the Himalayan massif that is likely to witness a kinetic effort by the PLA. This would be designed to shatter the image and confidence of India. The calculation is that such a setback would discredit those in the US and within the EU who are pushing for a more robust alliance with India. It would also eliminate any confidence within ASEAN that they can rely on India as a counterforce to an expansionist China. Clearly, interesting times are planned for the world’s largest democracy in terms of population.
The nightmare for President Xi Jinping is a military defeat at the hands of a country that is being constantly derided in state media as a paper tiger. Should the General Secretary’s Himalayan adventure end in catastrophe for the PLA, the impact on his leadership would be immediate. Given the governance structure of China, such a meltdown at the core would have a Chernobyl-style impact on the Chinese Communist Party, and a consequent weakening of the CCP’s hold on the people. This would lead to unrest in the PRC (and subsequently in Russia) on a scale that would dwarf whatever takes place in the US and India, even assuming some success in the Sino-Russian “Mission Meltdown” of the world’s two most consequential democracies. Those in the US and India who seek to “prevent war” seem to be unaware that the conflict has already started, and will end only with the defeat of one side over the other.
<em>(This article was originally published in The Sunday Guardian)</em>.