The 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) held in Beijing from October 16 to 22, 2022, and attended by around 2300 delegates, representing 96.7 million members of the party, had witnessed the President Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power. Xi was elevated for the third time to the helm of the Party and the State, a powerful status only enjoyed by Mao Zedong in the past. Xi who was elected as party’s General Secretary during the 18th Party Congress in 2012 and re-elected in 2017 and 2022 is likely to continue as the General Secretary and the President of the People’s Republic of China until the next Congress in 2027.
Despite the age cap of 68 years for leaders holding positions in the organisational hierarchy and the orchestrated propaganda of mounting resistance against Xi in the party, his third term and status as the ‘core’ of the party at the Party Congress was largely expected due to a confluence of factors. Over the last one decade, Xi could pursue aggressive anti-corruption programme, purging his potential rivals in the party set-up, undertake rejuvenation of the Chinese nation through friendly ties and diplomatic endeavours with other countries, and drive ahead the reform and opening-up process. Moreover, ‘Xi’s Thought’- a strategy to achieve the ‘China – Dream’ of building a great socialist society and rejuvenating China and elevating it as a central global power, effectively disseminated through writings, speeches, public statements and policy declarations had influenced large segments of the Chinese society. These measures coupled with his image as the most powerful Chinese leader of the last three decades, enabled him to put his stamp on the organisation and all-important state super structures including the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Perhaps, the ‘covid- zero policy’ and the inter-related mass upheaval and economic slow-down were the major hassles that had eclipsed his popular image. Yet, Xi stuck to such policy decisions through catchy and appealing slogans such as ‘we put people first and lives first’ (and not mere economic growth or inhuman development).
Xi demonstrated his formidable dominance over the party when the Party Congress approved a new membership list for the Central Committee from which the members to the policy-making bodies namely Polit Buro (PB) and Polit Buro Standing Committee (PSC) are selected. The PSC, the top policy-making body is filled with hardcore Xi loyalists. Of the six member PSC, only two serving members namely, Zhao Legi and Wang Huning were retained. Zhao, as the head of CPC’s anti-corruption body and the Secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline and Inspection played a significant role in the anti-graft policies of Xi, which find prominence in the future agenda of the party. Similarly, Wang Huning, an academician who floated the concept of ‘neo-authoritarianism’ (need of a strong leader to lead the nation in the correct socialist path) had a crucial role in the ideological propaganda of Xi/Party. On the other hand, the premier Li Kequiang, a protégé of Hu Jintao and a liberal leader more acceptable to the Western world and Wang Yang, a strong exponent of open market and free trade have retired from the PSC. Personal relations, political commitment, loyalty and professional competence were the key-factors in the selection of new members to the PSC.
With Xi loyalists at the helm of affairs, the CPC has given absolute power to Xi to steer the nation on the path of national rejuvenation and transforming it as a global power, thereby fulfilling the ‘China- Dream’. His tighter control over the party and the party’s blanket endorsement to his policies and programmes would enable Xi to adopt more aggressive postures on various geo-strategic issues. His transition from a moderate leader to authoritarian-ruler during the last one decade (2012-2022) was evident. Xi who made a call to the world in 2013 ‘to rally together like passengers in the same boat’ and join hands in building a new model of international relations featuring cooperation, mutual benefit, world peace, and common development, had slowly and steadily adopted aggressive-expansionist policies leading to the opening of many conflict zones in South China and East China seas. Similarly, Xi who preached ‘the right of the people to independently choose their development path’ and non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries, made a complete volte-face on the developments in Hong-Kong, Solomon Islands, etc. His promise of ‘amicable relations with neighbours’ had turned into a myth with Doklam standoff and the bitter Galwan Valley episode on the Indo-China border and conflicts with Japan, Vietnam and other countries of the Indo-Pacific. The shift in the geo-political strategy of China was more obvious in Davos where Xi, addressing the World Economic Forum-2021, interpreted the international scenario as a ‘period of turbulence and transformation’. Xi took this ‘turbulence’ as a threat to the onward march of China, as revealed during his opening address in 20th Party Congress: “Our country has entered into a period of development in which strategic opportunities, risks and challenges are concurrent and uncertainties and unforeseen factors are rising. Various ‘Black Swans’ and ‘Grey Rhinos’ events may occur at any time, we must therefore be more mindful of potential dangers, be prepared to deal with worst case scenarios and ready to withstand high winds, choppy waters, and even dangerous storms.
Xi’s speech was full of such euphemisms like ‘protectionism’, ‘fences and barriers’, ‘decoupling’, ‘unilateral sanctions’ and ‘pressure-tactics’ indicating that the strategic moves of the US or the West are the potential threats for China’s development and emergence as a global- power. The press-briefing by Ma Zhaoxu, Vice Minister from China’s Foreign Ministry, held on the side-lines of the Congress, has categorically asserted that ‘US’ policy is the biggest threat to world order’. Naturally, power-competition with US and the West would preoccupy Chinese foreign policy and geo-strategic moves. This may further lead to the strengthening of relations with Russia and other developing countries especially of the Indo-Pacific, which are in need of financial or logistical support from China. The new Global Development Initiative (GDI) and Global Security Initiative (GSI) are clear strategic moves of China in this direction.
A major fall of these moves would be the intensification of US-China strategic rivalry with flashpoints in Taiwan and the Indo-Pacific Region. Clear signals have emanated from Xi in this connection. Reiterating the stand that mainland China and Taiwan belong to one and same China, Xi warned the world in the Party Congress that China and China alone would decide how and when the national reunification with Taiwan would be finalised. Moreover, there was veiled threat from the part of the Chinese Premier that ‘China will not renounce the use of force to stop interference by outside forces and separatist movements in Taiwan’. This was a major shift from the 2013 line of Xi that ‘Chine would continue to strive for peaceful reunification’.
Equally pertinent is Xi’s strategy towards neighbouring countries or small nations in Indo-Pacific with sizeable Chinese population or economic or maritime interests. He is categorical that there would not be any compromise on China-claimed territories, which indicate that there won’t be any respite in the Indo-China border stand-off or the ongoing conflicts in the South China and East China seas. Invariably, Xi’s one of the priority is to build up armed forces that can meet any challenges, in this regard.
Over the last one decade, Xi China has been working in the direction of strengthening the armed forces and bringing them totally under the command of the party. In 2012, while addressing the enlarged meeting of Central Military Commission, he spelt out that the mission of the party is ‘to carry forward the glorious tradition of the military, traditions developed under the leadership of Mao, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao’. Besides restructuring the Armed Commands, even senior commanders holding important positions in the CMC were sacked or side-lined during the much-propagated anti-graft campaign. On the other hand, commanders who played decisive role in conflict zones and loyal to Xi were inducted into the PB and the Central Committee, as part of building People’s Armed Forces that follow party’s commands. Such moves could gain further momentum after his elevation as the Chairman of CMC in 2017. The 20th Congress has accorded top priority for the modernization of Armed forces during the next five years leading up to the People Liberation Army’s (PLA) 100th Anniversary in 2027. The modernization agenda include: strong system of strategic deterrence, increase the proportion of new domain of forces with new combat capabilities, speed up the development of un-manned, intelligent combat capabilities and promote coordinated development and application of the network information system. Xi’s call to the armed forces to acquire capabilities to win ‘local wars’ assumes great significance especially in the light of China’s strained relations with neighbouring countries, unsettled border disputes and escalation of tension/conflict with Taiwan and other Indo- Pacific neighbours.
Naturally, New Delhi and Indo-Pacific nations which oppose China’s hegemonistic and aggressive designs need to adopt proactive geo-strategic policies to tackle the challenges by Beijing. The bilateral and multilateral agreements such as ASEAN, SAARC, QUAD, AUKUS, etc. should be strengthened. The role of US is crucial in this regard. It is significant to note that in the changing geo-political power equations, US has accorded high priority to Indo-Pacific Region. The Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy focuses mainly on ‘building a balance of influence’ in the Region, obviously indicating the need to checkmate the designs of China. No doubt, the active presence of US in the region through bilateral and multilateral partnerships with the countries of the Indo-Pacific Region would act as a deterrent in checkmating the aggressive designs of China. At the same time, the mounting US-China competition or rivalry in the Region would turn Indo-Pacific a hot spot of power -balance.
K V Thomas, Senior Fellow, CPPR
Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of the Centre for Public Policy Research.