Rise of a paranoid superpower: Xi Jinping’s China is making costly strategic blunders in pursuit of greatness

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China has alienated regional players and given rise to a renewed push for Asian multilateralism underwritten by the US.

In the rise of China, we might be witnessing the emergence of a paranoid superpower. It is increasingly clear that paranoia — both as an internal disorder and a trigger for (exaggerated) external threat perception — is driving China’s grand strategy. The Communist Party of China — more so under general secretary Xi Jinping — is acting out of paranoia as its chief stimulus as Xi goes about pursuing his China Dream of fulfilling the ‘Two Centennial Goals’ of making China “moderately prosperous” by 2021 (CPC’s centenary) and overtaking the United States as the globe’s primary hegemon by 2049 (100th anniversary of the People’s Republic).

The CPC is obsessed with avoiding the mistakes that brought about the downfall of USSR. Supreme leader Xi and a generation of party leaders have minutely studied, learnt and internalised lessons from Soviet Russia’s collapse that ranged from blaming Mikhail Gorbachev’s twin reform gambits of glasnost and perestroika to noting the mistakes made by a corrupted, bloated and incompetent Soviet Communist Party that failed to tighten political control and mitigate the challenges thrown by the rise of nationalist impulses in areas under USSR from Ukraine to Azerbaijan. And those lessons have been studiously implemented by the CPC.

As the author and China hand James Palmer notes in Foreign Policy, China’s semantic adjustment turned the official meaning of Minzu, the Chinese term for non-ethnic-Han groups, from “nationalities” to “ethnic minorities”, and Deng Xiaoping simultaneously launched the mighty reform push. But, as Palmer points out, these efforts went hand in hand with a conviction that reformers and their misguided belief in liberalism were as much to blame for Soviet collapse, and absolutely everything was a giant US-led conspiracy. The USSR crumbled — or so goes the lesson — because it became open, loosened its grip over politics and polity.

“This idea has now received official stamp from the very top of Beijing’s leadership, and one can see it reverberating through the new wave of paranoia about foreign influence, reassertion of party power, and hostility to civil society… The Soviet fall, once seen at least in part as a result of the Communist Party’s own failings, has become reinterpreted as a deliberate US plot and a moral failure to hold the line against Western influence,” writes Palmer.

This paranoia guides and informs every step that Xi takes, be it the brutal repression of Uighur minority, the annihilation of their Muslim identity or the purge of his political opponents under the pretext of corruption.

Xi’s decision to initiate one of the most ruthless political purges in China’s history where, according to a BBC study, more than 170 ministers and deputy minister-level officials were sacked and/or jailed including 35 members of the CPC’s all-powerful central committee in a throwback to the Mao Zedong era, was guided by a motive to install loyalists in key positions so that Xi can retain absolute control over the party and state.

The move to expel challengers, entrench further his power and retain total control is motivated by Xi’s belief that a consensus-based rule — as his predecessors Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin had practised — will make him vulnerable to machinations from political rivals within the party and restrict his authority.

This paranoia can be traced in Xi’s writings. In a column for Qiushi, the key CPC publication, Xi wrote in 2017: “As the world’s largest party, no external force can defeat us, and only we can defeat ourselves… We should stay alert to the ubiquitous factors that could weaken our Party’s pioneering nature and contaminate our Party’s purity… If we don’t take strict precautions and correct them in time… small problems will grow into big ones, minor slips will escalate into an irreversible landslide, probably even leading to a broader and subversive catastrophe.” (as translated by Anna Fifield in Washington Post).

The manifestation of this paranoia is external as it is internal. Xi and the CPC remain convinced that the US wants to balance and contain its rise, constrict it by fanning pro-democracy sentiments and challenge the ‘One China’ policy. Beijing’s actions are swayed by insecurity based on that fear. China blames the US for “influencing” the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, accuses Washington of instigating and sponsoring Taiwan’s defiance, and it has noted with concern American (mostly botched) efforts at regime change in post-second World War history, a phenomenon that most recently played out in Venezuela without success.

This has heightened Xi’s (and the party’s fears) to the extent that China believes a proactive, interventionist, in-your-face foreign policy — driven by a revanchist obsession with reassembling the Middle Kingdom’s imperial empire over the land and sea through military and non-military means — along with the relentless accumulation of economic and hard power are prerequisite to achieving the China Dream. In keeping the party and the society focused on achieving that goal, fear (whether real or imagined) is a useful tool.

Fear creates enemies and makes space for the CPC to assume control over public life. As Samantha Hoffman, China analyst and researcher had said at the US Congressional testimony on China in 2018, “the party leadership uses anxiety to shore up loyalty within the party and to convince Chinese society of its need for the party’s protection. Anxiety is a tool. Whether it is real or manufactured, or for the party’s internal consumption or the public’s, is almost irrelevant. There must always be an enemy to create anxiety.”

The CPC needs the west and its political system as the ‘other’ to operate in opposition to it, and paranoia remains the overwhelming driving force that binds the party, the state and society. However, if paranoia is a convenient tool towards making the Middle Kingdom (Zhongguo) “fully prosperous and strong” (fuqiang) and earn its rightful place as the epicentre of the world, it may also work as a counterbalance, forcing China to make choices that — while dramatically resetting the global balance of power — may lead to strategic blunders.

A popular discourse among analysts identifies China, as scholar Tanvi Madan satirises, as a 10-feet tall hegemon that never makes a strategic or tactical miscalculation, thinks eight steps ahead and plays six-dimensional chess. This argument also measures China’s rise with respect to the relative geopolitical decline of the US.

However, in the last six months alone of the new decade — and amid a raging, global pandemic that originated in Wuhan — Xi’s China has undertaken a series of coercive steps and has gone into geopolitical jousting with almost all its neighbours and regional actors. The goal of a regional hegemon and a presumptive superpower should be creating conditions that aid its rise, not cause impediments in the path through abrasive overreach.

China, however, has been busy intimidating India, changing the status quo along the LAC in Ladakh and killing Indian soldiers to mark the first combat fatalities among the two nations in 45 years, subjecting Australia to humiliation, economic coercion and sophisticated cyberattacks, sinking fishing boats and bullying Vietnam in South China Sea, directing a survey ship in Hanoi’s resource-rich exclusive economic zone, sending its coast-guard vessels near Japan-controlled Senkaku islands and harassing Japanese fishing boats, forcing Indonesia to reject China’s illegal nine-dash-line and offer for “talks on overlapping claims in South China Sea”, sending a giant survey ship off the Malaysian coast to harass a Malaysian oil exploration vessel, reorganising and tightening administrative control over Paracel and Spratly Islands groups to reject Taiwan, Philippines and Vietnam’s claims over the South China Sea territories crucial for trade flow, sending surveillance vessels in Indian Ocean to keep an eye on Indian naval movements, flying bomber jets into Taiwan’s airspace eight times in less than two weeks, and slapping a draconian national security law on Hong Kong to quell pro-democracy protests, reneging on the “one country, two systems” promise.

This naked bullying behaviour has consequences, even though China may like to believe that the ability of these regional actors in balancing against China is constrained by their economic dependence on Beijing. China has alienated regional players and given rise to a renewed push for Asian multilateralism underwritten by the US.

Take Australia, for instance, whose prosperity has been driven to a large extent by the rise of China — its biggest trading partner. Canberra has shown that standing up to a bully is not an impossible task and China enjoys no veto over its foreign policy.

At the risk of causing damage to its core economic interests, more so in tackling a nation that weaponises trade to achieve geopolitical objectives, Australia has led the call for an inquiry into the source of COVID-19 (enraging China), kept Huawei out of its 5G rollout and maintained a close strategic partnership with the US. It has also recently stitched a comprehensive strategic partnership with India — one among nine pacts that cover a vast array of space between closer maritime security, logistics cooperation, defence interoperability to critical minerals, cyber-security, technology, science and research and critical supply chains.

The closer amalgam of two Indo-Pacific democracies confronts China’s naval ambitions, diversifies dependence and builds flexibility against China, and it isn’t surprising to note that the development has triggered a strong reaction from its state media.

The strategic accord with Australia marks the fifth CSP collaboration that India has struck with Indo-Pacific democracies — following on similar deals with the US, Japan, Indonesia and Vietnam  — and it is an indication of how China’s aggression is shaping the security architecture of Indo-Pacific.

If India is collaborating more, willing to enter into institutional engagements and productive alignments with Indo-Pacific middle powers, China must get the credit for forcing India out of its ennui. Beijing’s decision to antagonise India by occupying its territory along the undemarcated LAC on Himalayan terrain in Ladakh, inflicting murderous violence in the Galwan Valley on Indian troops by violating all the mechanisms and protocols for maintaining peace and tranquillity at the border, at a time when New Delhi is struggling to contain the spread of the pandemic, is a particularly myopic decision for which China will repent at leisure.

As former Indian ambassador to China Gautam Bambawale has said, for a minor tactical gain on the ground, China has “lost India” and forced New Delhi into fundamentally reassessing its China policy.

And like many of Xi’s actions, this latest misadventure too is borne out of paranoia. China’s suspicion of India’s strategic posture and its cultural prejudice against India may have also played a part in Beijing’s latest escalation of friction, which by some accounts was sanctioned by the head of China’s western theatre command Zhao Zongqui as a way of “teaching India a lesson”.

Beijing’s pedagogic war against India is rooted in a willful misinterpretation of India’s recent efforts to ramp up border infrastructure, and it is based on an odd paranoia that India was trying to leverage China’s vulnerability and make territorial gains along the contested LAC at a time when Beijing was wrestling with the pandemic, as Chinese analyst Yun Sun points out in China’s Strategic Assessment of Ladakh Clash in War on the Rocks.

This is as preposterous an excuse for triggering a mischievous skirmish as any but the author deciphers Beijing’s act as a preemptive step to stop India from achieving equilibrium in border infrastructure, otherwise “all the things China fought for in the 1962 war would have been in vain.”

Closely aligned to this logic is China’s grave insecurity over a closer strategic embrace between the US and India — which in Beijing’s case has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. China’s scepticism of India’s strategic neutrality under Narendra Modi government gave way to profound suspicion with the unfolding of Donald Trump’s Indo-Pacific policy that placed India at the front and centre of US effort to balance China in the region.

According to Yun Sun in China’s Strategic Assessment of India for War on the Rocks, US factor became the most important exogenous factor in China’s policy toward India post-Doklam, and Beijing increasingly came round to the view that American strategic support “offered in material and diplomatic terms have already emboldened New Delhi to pursue risky policies vis-à-vis Pakistan in addition to a more assertive negotiating posture towards China” to go with the “destabilizing effect of Modi’s foreign policy.”

China’s distrust of India’s strategic ambiguity and assessment of the Modi Doctrine — China reckons risk-taking and practicability of Indian diplomacy has risen under Modi — gave rise to a set of actions that pushed India closer to the US and in effect confirmed those suspicions, leading China to believe that even India’s internal decision such as removal of Article 370 was a shift in India’s external posture endorsed by the US.

Driven by this miscalculation, a paranoid China sought to teach India a lesson knowing well that it will alienate India still more, but since China never considered India anything more than a US lackey — a phenomenon that Swapan Dasgupta notes has endured in Chinese popular and strategic culture — this was never considered to be a risky strategy.

As long as the hustle in the Himalayas was restricted to force posturing and light hand-to-hand combat, both countries could have taken in its stride and continued with the architecture that so far been successful in holding fragile peace. However, the violent clash in Galwan that killed 20 Indian soldiers presents a watershed moment in Sino-Indian ties. It demands a complete upending of the existing arrangements and a reevaluation of India’s China strategy.

There are indications that such a break may already be under way. Be it strategic, political or public, a pushback against China is evident at various levels of Indian polity. There is a new steel in India’s official statements that makes it clear that the “conduct of Chinese forces this year has been in complete disregard of all mutually agreed norms” and rejects China’s unjustified and untenable territorial claims. India’s external affairs minister has made it explicit that China’s unprecedented actions “will have a serious impact on the bilateral relationship.”

India’s man in Beijing, Vikram Misri, has set aside diplomatic niceties and has been unequivocal in condemning Chinese actions, warning that “there should be a realisation on the Chinese side that there is no gain in trying to alter the status quo on the ground especially by resorting to force … that will not just damage the peace and tranquillity that existed on the border but it can have ripples and repercussions in the broader bilateral relationship.”

The China hands among India’s retired bureaucrats and diplomats have all predicted a tectonic shift in bilateral ties, and a coincidental shift (though subtle) in India’s security posture is already evident. Professor Anit Mukherjee S Rajaratnam School of International Studies notes that “China’s actions counterproductive as they push India into the camp of those powers with shared apprehensions about China. This feeling would be strongest among members of the Indian military who are pushing for greater cooperation with Western powers.” Media reports indicate India’s allies are pitching in with arms and ammunitions. France will send across additional Rafale jets, Israel will deliver an air defence system, US is pitching in with precision artillery rounds and IMINT while Russia, India’s largest defence supplier, has “pledged urgent delivery of weapons”, according to Economic Times.

Meanwhile, India and Japan have conducted their naval exercise in the Indian Ocean to “promote mutual understanding”, which though routine is nevertheless meant as a signalling exercise. As Vice-Admiral Pradeep Chauhan, director-general of the National Maritime Foundation, was quoted as saying in Hindustan Times, “We need to be proximate with our friends and the Chinese know there is a direct ladder of escalation between Japan and the United States.”

Amid all these signallings, recently retired US diplomat Alice Wells has called for India to “invest in quad” than pursuing BRIC/RIC meetings, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has notified a shift and three US aircraft super-carrier groups have arrived in the Pacific Ocean, the first time in three years.

On the economic front, India on Monday announced a ban on 59 Chinese apps including some wildly popular ones for “stealing user data” and posing a threat to India’s sovereignty and integrity. The timing and significance of the move is not lost on anyone, and that it comes just a day before the third round of talks between Indian and Chinese military is an even greater signal.

Simultaneously, India will check power equipment from China malware, may bar private telecom players too from using Chinese gear. It is also not a coincidence that Chinese imports have remained stuck at key Indian ports since 22 June. As it happens, Huawei’s chances of being a part of India’s 5G backbone — a position that the Chinese telecom giant was keen on — now look bleak.

At a political level, the Centre has stressed on reducing dependence on Chinese imports to correct the trade imbalance and become more self-reliant, some states such as Maharashtra and Bihar have cancelled or postponed mega infrastructure projects involving Chinese firms while there has been an unprecedented public pushback against Chinese goods and imports.

It remains to be seen if this momentum is sustained (and it isn’t to say that Indian economy will magically and abruptly decouple itself from China) but the signalling offers a panoramic view of the retaliatory options that India hold against China.

China has similarly opened fronts against Canada and Sweden by kidnapping their citizens — in Canada’s case indulging in hostage-diplomacy like a terrorist organization or a thuggish state — and show its ugly, obnoxious face. China’s ‘wolf warrior’ diplomats are meanwhile picking up squabbles around the globe, insulting host nations and letting the world know that anyone defying China’s inevitable rise or calling into question its loutish behaviour both at home and abroad will be punished.

As China rips the script of ‘peaceful rise’ into shreds, it is also forcing nations into strategic reversals — as the Philippines recently did — and helping middle powers coalesce towards a balancing behaviour. China would know that India’s civilisational world view has space for peaceful coexistence but not submissive behaviour as a Middle Kingdom’s tributary. Beijing has probably bitten off more than it can chew.

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