Xi’s hidden agenda
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
The G20 summit in New Delhi, which brought presidents, prime ministers and monarchs together, was a high point in Indian diplomacy at a time when rival China is grappling with multiple crises, from a dramatic economic downturn to growing domestic discontent. The summit’s adoption of a 37-page consensus document outlining the roadmap for a more sustainable and peaceful global future underscored India’s burgeoning economic and geopolitical clout.
Few had expected the summit to be a success, given the international divisiveness. The war in Ukraine has created a deep divide between the West and the Sino-Russian bloc. There is also a Western clash with a rising Global South. But by bridging global divides, India helped build consensus.
The rising international profile of the world’s largest democracy comes at a time when India is positioning itself as a potential mediator between the West and Russia. There is also growing Western recognition that India is well placed to serve as a key counterweight to communist China’s neo-imperial ambitions.
A fully agreed joint communiqué was not the only achievement of the summit. The real value of any G20 summit lies not in the pious commitments that world leaders make (which are rarely honoured) but as a venue for bilateral, trilateral or even quadrilateral meetings between the various heads of state or government. The New Delhi summit was no exception.
The discussions on the margins of the summit led to the announcement of an ambitious US-led plan to build a rail and shipping corridor linking India with the Middle East and Europe.
As part of the US approach to counter China’s decade-old Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) through alternative arrangements, the corridor proposal was portrayed by American President Joe Biden as a “real big deal” that would link Middle East countries by railway and connect them to India and Europe through port interconnections, thus helping the flow of energy and trade, including by slashing shipping times and costs. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for his part, called the proposal “a big connectivity initiative” that would permit “future generations to dream bigger”.
The construction of new permanent military structures appears designed to consolidate China’s existing territorial control and deter any Indian operation to regain lost territory. But the hectic construction activity also appears aimed at a broader strategic mission—to stop India from opening another front against China when Xi decides to move against Taiwan
To be sure, the corridor initiative was not the only plan to counter the BRI that emerged from the summit. The US won the summit’s endorsement for reshaping and scaling up multilateral development banks like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) by significantly boosting their lending capacities. This would help counter China’s predatory lending practices by providing an alternative means of financing for infrastructure and development projects.
China’s lending binge has made it the world’s largest sovereign creditor to developing countries. Almost every Chinese loan issued in the last decade has included a secrecy clause compelling the borrowing country not to disclose the loan’s terms—or even the loan’s existence. Many African, Asian and Latin American countries have become ensnared in a debt trap, leaving them highly vulnerable to Chinese pressure to pursue policies that advance China’s economic and geopolitical interests. According to one study, the loan contracts give China “broad latitude to cancel loans or accelerate repayment if it disagrees with a borrower’s policies”.
XI’S ABSENCE WAS CHINA’S LOSS
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s absence at the G20 summit drew international attention to China’s military and political tensions with India. The two demographic giants have been locked in a 41-month-long military standoff triggered by China’s stealth territorial intrusions into Ladakh in April 2020.
With Chinese forces massed along the Indian border, it would have been odd for Xi to visit New Delhi without taking the initiative to defuse the border confrontation with India. In the tense border crisis, India has more than matched China’s forward deployment of forces. Consequently, tens of thousands of troops on each side have been facing off along the Indo-Tibetan border.
By deciding to skip the G20 summit, Xi may have done India a favour. It would have been particularly galling to India had Xi visited New Delhi even as China’s border aggression continued.
The only way to end the military standoff is through a deal to implement a sequential process of disengagement, de-escalation and de-induction of rival forces. But no deal can emerge unless the aggressor state is willing to settle matters.
One would have expected the Indian invitation to Xi to attend the G20 summit to catalyse efforts to defuse the dangerous border confrontation. After all, the risk of the military standoff escalating to intense bloody clashes or even a limited border war can no longer be discounted, given the largescale forward military deployments by both sides.
Military-to-military talks were held at different levels a few weeks before the G20 and BRICS summits. Indian media reports on the talks suggested that there was some forward movement to help defuse the border crisis in a gradual manner.
But, at the political level, Xi’s regime appeared to recoil from concluding a deal with India. This was apparent from the failure of the Xi-Modi talks on the sidelines of the BRICS summit in Johannesburg to achieve any progress towards ending the military standoff.
Indeed, as if to underline its hardline stance, Beijing issued a statement that undiplomatically claimed that the meeting in Johannesburg took place at Modi’s “request”, a claim India said was untrue.
Xi’s absence at the G20 Summit drew international attention to China’s military and political tensions with India. By deciding to skip the G20 Summit, Xi may have done India a favour. It would have been particularly galling to India had Xi visited New Delhi even as China’s border aggression continued
The condescension inherent in that statement was apparent from its implicit advice to India to put up with China’s April 2020 land grabs in Ladakh so that the two countries can “handle properly the border issue” and stabilise their relations. Indeed, by regurgitating the same position that Beijing has held for over three years, the statement signalled that China was unwilling to climb down to some extent to help end the military standoff with India that is now in its fourth year.
The plain fact is that Xi has been wearing his intransigence on his sleeve. He created the border crisis by ordering the stealthy territorial encroachments on key borderlands of Ladakh. And now he refuses to reach a compromise settlement with India to end the border confrontation.
Simply put, the ball remains in China’s court.
However, in ordering the intrusions into Ladakh, Xi seriously miscalculated that China would be able to impose the changed territorial status quo on India as a fait accompli, without inviting a robust Indian military response. By locking horns with China even at the risk of sparking a full-scale war, India is openly challenging Chinese power and capability in a way that no other country has done in this century.
Embarrassed by the strong Indian military challenge, Xi’s regime has sought to exert greater pressure on India by deploying more Chinese forces in offensive positions, by constructing new warfare infrastructure along the frontier, and by mounting infowar and psychological operations against India.
All that, however, risks making a permanent enemy of India. This runs counter to China’s own long-term interests.
It is apparent that Xi is caught in a military crisis of his own making. His efforts to compel India to buckle have come a cropper.
Meanwhile, Xi’s regime has stepped up its buildup of military infrastructure and capabilities across the entire frontier with India, from the Aksai Chin plateau and the Uttarakhand-Tibet border to the Sikkim-Tibet and Arunachal-Tibet frontier. It is engaged in the frenzied construction of new permanent military structures as if it were preparing for war. Its construction activities are compelling India to focus on expanding its own military infrastructure along the Himalayan frontier.
The key question is: What are the strategic and military objectives driving China’s frenetic construction activity along the India frontier?
The construction of new permanent military structures appears designed to consolidate China’s existing territorial control, aggressively assert its claims to other Indian territories, and deter any Indian operation to regain lost territory.
But the hectic construction activity also appears aimed at a broader strategic mission—to stop India from opening another front against China when Xi decides to move against Taiwan.
Just as China invaded India in 1962 during the US-Soviet Cuban Missile Crisis, a Taiwan attack could offer India a historic opportunity to settle the Himalayan border. China may be seeking to constrict such an Indian option by creating new warfare infrastructure on its side of the India frontier, including boring tunnels and shafts in mountainsides to set up reinforced troop shelters and command positions as well as underground weapons storage facilities.
In any event, by digging in for the long haul and creating a ‘hot’ border, China is doubling down on a more aggressive strategy against India. There seems little prospect of a return to the status quo ante along the frontier, even if a deal of sorts was reached in future to ease military tensions.
In ordering the intrusions into Ladakh, Xi seriously miscalculated that China would be able to impose the changed territorial status quo on India as a fait accompli, without inviting a robust Indian military response. By locking horns with China even at the risk of sparking a full-scale war, India is openly challenging Chinese power and capability in a way that no other country has done in this century
A MORE DANGEROUS CHINA?
The dilemma that Xi faces is how to resolve the India border crisis without losing face, especially at a time when China is facing mounting challenges at home and abroad. The external challenges extend far beyond India.
The fact is that, under Xi, China is turning into its own worst enemy. It is picking geostrategic fights with all of the world’s other major powers except Russia. This is possibly unprecedented in modern world history.
Xi, for his part, has shown an increasing appetite for taking major risks, as the South and East China Seas, the Himalayas, and Hong Kong show. He is willing to ruthlessly run roughshod over international law and norms.
Through his aggressive revisionism, Xi has counterproductively set in motion trends in the Indo-Pacific region that seem antithetical to China’s long-term interests.
Australia has abandoned hedging and joined the AUKUS alliance against China. India is being driven closer to the US even as it seeks to maintain its strategic autonomy. Japan has been shaken out of its complacency by China’s pursuit of Asian hegemony. And people in Taiwan are increasingly embracing a Taiwanese identity distinct from that of China.
Xi’s foreign policy is an outgrowth of his domestic despotism. Under Xi’s leadership, the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has established an Orwellian techno-totalitarian surveillance state that seeks to bend reality to the illusions that it propagates. Egged on by state propaganda, Chinese nationalism has become feverish and vitriolic.
Yet, Xi’s domestic challenges are getting acute, from a remarkable economic downturn to a battered public trust in the party’s ability to manage the country. China is grappling with worsening macroeconomic conditions and falling investor confidence. Add to that picture high youth unemployment and an ageing workforce.
Unless reversed, the economic slump over time is likely to undermine regime stability and constrain China’s geopolitical ambitions. The economic slowdown is already undercutting the Communist Party’s rationale for monopolising power—that only it can deliver rapid growth.
Biden, calling a stagnant China a “ticking time bomb”, warned recently, “When bad folks have problems, they do bad things.” In a reminder of that, Beijing released a new national map late last month showing inside China vast swaths of Indian land and the territories of several other neighbours, including tiny Bhutan.
The map, which drew protests from several neighbouring countries, illustrates the “bad things” Beijing is willing to do. One can expect more “bad things” from Beijing.
As China’s economic and geopolitical fortunes sink, the risks to Taiwan and India from an aggressive China are bound to increase. India thus has to be on its guard. Just as Mao Zedong invaded India in 1962 after his disastrous great leap forward initiative, Xi’s growing troubles could tempt him
to launch a military adventure against India to help restore his standing at home and abroad
The party and the regime are now packed with men loyal to Xi. The tightening grip of a dictator without checks and balances, and with yes men around him, represents a major Chinese weakness because it is likely to spawn more miscalculations. It could even lead to a ruinous miscalculation.
That risk is heightened by the fact that Xi seems to be in a hurry to achieve what he calls the “Chinese dream”—that is, achieve China’s global pre-eminence.
With a demographic crisis deepening, economic growth stalled, and the global environment becoming increasingly unfavourable to China, Xi seems to have concluded that China has a narrow window of strategic opportunity to shape the international order in its favour. So, his appetite for risk has perceptibly grown.
In this light, as China’s economic and geopolitical fortunes sink, the risks to Taiwan and India from an aggressive China are bound to increase.
India thus has to be on its guard. Just as Mao Zedong invaded India in 1962 after his disastrous Great Leap Forward initiative created a manmade famine that killed countless millions of Chinese, Xi’s growing troubles could tempt him to launch a military adventure against India to help restore his standing at home and abroad.
When Mao launched his war against India, his mission, as his premier put it, was to “teach India a lesson”. Xi may be itching to teach India another lesson in order to cut it down to size and open the path to Chinese hegemony in Asia.
In military terms, defence generally has a significant advantage over offence because it is easier to protect and hold than to advance, destroy and seize. This is particularly true about mountain warfare. In mountainous terrain, the defending force can defeat an attacking force much larger than its own.
With one of the world’s largest and most experienced mountain warfare armies, India is well placed, even without fully matching China’s military capabilities, to effectively defend itself against any Chinese aggression.
The key is not to be taken by surprise again. India failed to foresee the 2020 Chinese aggression coming largely because its foreign policy was focused on befriending China. Despite the 2017 Chinese capture of almost the entire Doklam plateau, India allowed the “Wuhan spirit” and “Chennai connect” lullabies—like the old Hindi-Chini bhai bhai pitch—to lull it into complacency. The result is that, for more than three years, India has been locked in a costly and dangerous military standoff with China, after losing access to some strategic borderlands in Ladakh that it traditionally patrolled.
Deception, stealth and surprise have long been the key elements in China’s warfare strategy. If India were to be taken unawares again, it would prove extremely costly for it because any Chinese military adventure would likely seek to leave India humiliated. But if India anticipates and effectively resists an attack, China will get a bloody nose.