Chinese President Xi Jinping (Photo: Getty Images)
CHINA’S MOST POWERFUL leader since Mao Zedong, Xi Jinping, was duly handed a third successive five-year presidential term at the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) 20th National Congress recently.
How should India—and the rest of the world—deal with an all-powerful, third-term Xi? There are three key issues that emerged from the CCP’s National Congress.
One, reunification of Taiwan is central to Chinese foreign policy. Xi warned that China would “take all measures necessary” against “interference by outside forces.” He added: “We will continue to strive for peaceful reunification. But we will never promise to renounce the use of force.”
This aggressive intent raises the stakes in the geopolitical contest between Beijing and Washington. The Joe Biden administration was expected to be more accommodating towards China than the Donald Trump presidency which imposed tough trade curbs on China. But Biden has turned out to be a China hawk. Far from reversing trade sanctions on Beijing, the US has doubled down on them.
On October 14, 2022, Washington aimed a bazooka at China’s semiconductor industry by ordering all US passport holders working in China’s chip industry to choose between losing their US citizenship and quitting their jobs, onshore or offshore, with Chinese semiconductor firms.
One tech analyst likened the order to a nuclear tech option that could cripple China’s semiconductor industry which relies heavily on US design and fabrication expertise.
The second key issue to emerge from Xi’s crowning was that the crackdown on corruption will continue. In the decade he has been in power, Xi has exiled or jailed thousands of provincial and central leaders on charges of bribery. This has been welcomed by ordinary people used to harassment by corrupt local officials.
What has stoked dissent though are the rolling zero- Covid lockdowns across the country. Poor vaccination numbers among the elderly and ineffective locally produced vaccines have seen Covid infections rise in China in cascading waves. At the CCP’s National Congress, however, Xi praised his zero-Covid policy, which he said placed “people ahead of the economy”.
The slowing economy was the third key issue to emerge from the National Congress. In an unprecedented move, the country’s National Bureau of Statistics announced on October 17 that it was delaying the release of GDP and other economic data for the quarter ending September 30, 2022. It gave no reasons for the unusual delay.
The US will need India’s cooperation more than ever, given Xi’s truculence, to help police the Indo-Pacific. This will further antagonise China, which in the early days of Xi’s reign tried to persuade India from moving into Washington’s orbit
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While Xi told the 2,300-plus delegates gathered at the National Congress that China’s economy was robust, analysts expect GDP growth to slow to 2.7 per cent in 2022- 23, the lowest in decades.
What conclusions should Indian policymakers draw from Xi’s coronation in Beijing? First, that the US will need India’s cooperation more than ever, given Xi’s truculence, to help police the Indo-Pacific. This will further antagonise China, which in the early days of Xi’s reign, tried to persuade India from moving into Washington’s orbit.
The Modi-Xi summit in September 2014, where the two leaders sat on a swing overlooking the Sabarmati riverfront in Ahmedabad, was Xi’s attempt to assess first-hand India’s newly elected prime minister.
Modi, too, wanted to maintain a non-confrontational relationship with Beijing. The informal Wuhan and Mahabalipuram summits gave the two leaders an opportunity to reset India- China relations. But China’s aggression was never far from the surface. Even at the first Modi-Xi meeting in 2014 in Ahmedabad, troops from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) crossed into Arunachal Pradesh to muddy the mood.
The Ladakh intrusion made Beijing’s intent clear: it had decided that the Wuhan spirit was dead. If India could not be cajoled into distancing itself from Washington, the gloves would come off. That was the genesis of China salami-slicing Indian territory along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in 2020.
By then though, Modi had read Xi correctly. The standoff, despite some disengagement, is now in its 30th month with India standing firm.
Going forward, the global battlelines are drawn. On one side is the US-led West and middle-level democracies like Australia, Japan and South Korea. On the other side is the developing China-Russia axis.
India has wisely committed itself to neither. While leaning towards the US-led West and other democracies, it has kept ties with Moscow open.
A third-term Xi will be weaker than he imagines. Hobbled by a slowing economy, an ageing workforce, rolling Covid lockdowns, confrontation with the West over trade and Taiwan, and internal dissent bubbling just under the surface, Xi’s best days could be behind him.