Dragon's New Face
China, which already has a new party leadership since the Party Congress in November last, will be having a new state leadership from next month.
Mr Xi Jinping, who took over as the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the Chairman of its Central Military Commission (CMC) in November last, will be taking over as the State President from Mr Hu Jintao at the end of the National People’s Congress (NPC) next month. Mr Li Kekiyang will be taking over as the Prime Minister from Mr Wen Jiabao.
One does not know much about the personal leadership style of Li , but from what one had seen since November, Xi will not be a carbon copy of Hu. He is more smiling and relaxed, more forthcoming, less bureaucratic and less formal in his interactions with his colleagues and juniors.
He believes that military strength comes out of economic strength and that further developing the Chinese economy should have the primacy of attention. He also realises that China’s economic gains might be diluted if corruption is not controlled and that corruption among public servants comes not only out of greed, but also out of an unhealthy desire for status. Austerity in personal and public life is, therefore, stressed by him..
During his first visit to Guangdong after taking over, many noticed the conscious lack of ostentation in his travels and interactions. Lack of ostentation is emerging as a defining characteristic of his leadership style. It remains to be seen whether he is able to retain it as the State President.
In China, the leadership transition takes different routes in the Centre at Beijing and in the provinces. At Beijing, it takes place first in the party and then in the State. In the provinces, it often takes place first in the provincial administration and then in the Party. As a result, one can err in assessments.
In Tibet, for example, hardliners owing loyalty to Hu and his policies, have moved into new leadership positions in the administration. From this, it will be wrong to conclude that the hard-line policies of Hu will be followed by Xi too. In the provinces as in Beijing it is the party that exercises the command and control over the administration. We have to wait to see what kind of party leadership emerges in Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia before assessing whether we might see new minority policies with Xi characteristics.
Under the leaderships of Mr Jiang Zemin and Hu for nearly two decades, one had seen two constants in Chinese foreign policy-- the anxiety to keep in step with the US and the EU in economic matters sans allowing nationalistic urges to distort its economic policies and to keep testing the waters for a more assertive role in the region without needlessly provoking the US. These constants, which are adjudged by the CPC as in its national interests, are likely to continue under Xi too.
Four other constants are also likely to continue-- the strengthening of strategic and economic relations with Russia and India, keeping a wary eye on Japan and slowly expanding its interests in Pakistan. Pakistan will continue to be an important factor in China’s South Asia policy and we have to keep a wary eye on it. It will be suicidal to think that China’s interest in Pakistan will ultimately decline. It won’t.
The new Party leadership has already made it clear that there will be no dilution of its territorial sovereignty claims vis-à-vis Japan in the East China Sea, some ASEAN countries in the South China Sea and India across the Himalayan border. It will follow nuanced approaches in relation to Japan, the ASEAN countries and India. While it has not hesitated to make vigorous policy moves in relation to its claims in East and South China Sea, it has avoided a confrontational posture towards India.
China, under the new leadership, will continue to maintain peace and tranquillity across the Sino-Indian border without making any unilateral concessions in the Arunachal Pradesh sector. Keeping the issue alive without letting it become a tinder-box will be the policy.
China does not have a policy of countering India by developing a foothold in South Asia. Rather South Asian countries have a policy of countering India by inviting China to their lands. China has no policy of a necklace of pearls in the region, but the countries of the region have separately and independently been following a policy of putting a Chinese shackle on Indian hegemonistic urges. How are we going to deal with it?
It is in our interest to keep the Tibetan heart beating in this region. Decades of suppressive policy from the days Hu was posted as the party in charge for Tibet have not been able to crush the independent spirit of the Tibetan youth and monks and their desire for the return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Lhasa. The self-immolations since 2009, which have reached the figure of 99, are an indication of the total failure of the Chinese suppressive policy in the Tibetan areas. Suppressive policies towards the Uighurs in the Xinjiang province have also failed to produce results. One hears reports of stirrings of ethnic/Buddhist separatism in Inner Mongolia.
Under the leaderships of Jiang and Hu which came to power after Deng Xiao-Ping, China has emerged as a major economic and military power of the region, but the suppressive minority policies inspired and fashioned by Hu with his experience of association with Tibet have made China’s peripheral areas inhabited by ethnic, religious and cultural minorities, despite their economic development, pockets of increasing anti-Han alienation. Hu’s rigid line on talks with the representatives of His Holiness has led to an indefinite suspension of these talks.
Without more liberal and empathetic minority policies China’s periphery will continue to be its Achilles Heel. Now that Hu will no longer be there, can one expect a policy change in a positive direction? Xi has not given an indication on this subject so far either at the November Party Congress or subsequently. He seems to believe like other Han leaders that rapid economic development and integration will weaken separatist sentiments. Tibet has shown that this is unlikely to happen.
Without showing an open interest in developments in the Tibetan areas, India has to find ways of quietly working for more empathetic policies by the new Chinese leadership.
There have to be two constants in India’s relations with China. We must continue to expand and strengthen the economic bridges with China and the regional co-operation mechanisms with which both countries are associated. Secondly, taking advantage of the more nuanced Chinese attitude to India in relation to the border dispute, which is less contentious as compared to its attitude to its sovereignty disputes in the East and South China Seas, we should be exploring the possibility of mutually acceptable border adjustments in the Arunachal Pradesh Sector instead of depending on an eternal status quo.
China prefers the status quo presently because its military position in Tibet, while steadily improving, does not give it overwhelming superiority against us. It should be the objective of our military policies that China, either on its own or through its increasing presence in Pakistan, is not able to achieve such overwhelming superiority. China’s interest in the status quo and in peace and tranquillity across the Himalayan border will remain only so long as it has no asymmetric advantage over India. To deny it such an asymmetric advantage should be the aim of our quest for new dimensions of strategic relations with the US, Vietnam, Japan, and Australia. Our head-start over China in the Indian Ocean Region has to be maintained in co-operation with the US and Australia.
How to achieve a new web of strategic relationships without weakening the present momentum towards better bilateral relations is the challenge before our diplomacy and military strategists as we seek to engage the new Chinese leadership.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute for Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies.
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