History is full of examples whenever the ambition of any autocrat grew beyond global tolerance, he became responsible for collapse of his regime, resulting in disaster of the country and its population, which emboldened him by mute tolerance. Today, despite facing unprecedented global anger for being the originator of novel coronavirus, the aggressiveness of the Chinese leadership on multiple fronts to suppress internal and external dissent has pushed the world against itself. Xi Jinping’s unfair adventurism for incremental encroachment to all its claim areas in continental and maritime domain, at a time when other countries are suffering from most dangerous pandemic of the century, with death toll rising every day, is amounting to inhuman aggression, junking all morals, international conventions, rules, treaties and forcing the world to reluctantly react against his regime.
Xi started his term by dreamselling that all rural Chinese living below the poverty line would no more be poor by 2020. Internationally he projected himself as the crusader for world peace and climate change, insurer of international order (Despite junking the ruling of PCA and violating UNCLOS), with a resolve to push through Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to fulfil Chinese dream of rejuvenation after century of humiliation. He indirectly declared himself as tallest leader on the planet. The manner he got himself re-elected for second term and did everything possible to make himself great, under the banner of ‘Making China Great’. He seems to assume that the world will accept him as the tallest autocratic leader, as Chinese people accepted him, without worthwhile checks and balances. Post 19th Congress of CPC, enshrinement of Xi Jumping’s thoughts and ideas like BRI in the Chinese constitution, resulted into his self-achievement of a parallel status to Mao Zedong in China. He has been on a title grabbing spree holding over 12 top class appointments in China including Commander in Chief of Joint Battle Command of PLA, reorganizing CMC as its Chairman, with his loyalists holding top hierarchy, to rein PLA for him. His anticorruption drive was most popular amongst masses seeing powerful people in jail, besides systematically eliminating the entire dissenting elements and all his possible competitors through this drive.
The Boiling Pot
He took over in 2012 with 7.9 percent GDP growth and led China to economic downslide thereafter. With failing BRI, mishandling of COVID-19, there is no worthwhile achievement to his credit except that he managed to eliminate dissenting elements better than others. His critiques in CPC feel that his real achievements do not match his elevation to the status of Mao, which has created some disgruntled elements/lobbies. They are still under check from his comprehensive surveillance, because disagreeing with Xi ‘The Core’ is antinational, leading to jail. By placing watchdog body ‘National Supervisory Commission’ above law Xi has indicated that dissent has no place in “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” and adequate ‘Revolutionary Tampering’ will be resorted to quell dissent. In fact Xi is pushing his country to a state where there is only one leader and everyone else is a worker. It is quite clear to Xi Jinping and CPC, that so long he delivers economically, the people will tolerate his autocracy, and his opponents will be quiet. So long CPC ensures economic progress and the people of China get a decent life, they will continue with forced praises of Xi Jinping. Xi’s loyalists hold every key appointment in China including chiefs of State-Owned Enterprises (SOE’s), which are surviving on bank loans. When his regime stops delivering economically, the democratic winds will start flowing from Hong Kong and Taiwan, and the educated youth may not tolerate the autocratic system of Xi Jinping, having no worthwhile grievance redressal mechanism. After all China is third most popular educational hub, with largest number of PhD’s in the world, where population understands the entire power play. They cannot be assumed to be quiet forever. The biggest threat to China comes from within. The legal system stands hostage to party leadership justifies the boiling pot theory.
Making China overaggressive
Some of his actions like laying restrictions on religious practices and forced abortions for Uyghurs’ in Xinjiang, use of force in trying to prevent democratic thoughts and National Security Law for Hongkong, forcing Christians to replace Jesus Christ photos by Xi Jinping’s photo to avail government benefits, may be too risky as it may break the internal cohesion of China. Xi’s efforts like forcing students to read Xi’s thoughts (Equivalent of Mao Redbook) can be seen as an effort to change societal fabric do not go very well in China of New era with educated population. The strict censorship of media and internet, and electronic isolation of thoughts indicates attempt to bring societal changes to minimize unrests/disagreements. The viability of “Implosion theory” is feared to be a reality by a totalitarian regime; hence a dose of nationalism to be nurtured through external aggression playing a victim card supported by propaganda suits Xi Jinping’s hold on power.
China got over the pandemic cycle of novel coronavirus earlier than other major countries including India, while all its strategic contenders are still busy combating Covid-19. China has unfairly used it as an opportunity to assert itself on multiple fronts, including India China land borders to scrumptiously encroach some area not supposed to be held as per the mutually agreed CBMs, where both sides were free to patrol. This is a sequel to Chinese adventurism in Indo-Pacific at multiple places in South and East China Sea with greater assertion against other claimants like Vietnam, Indonesia and Philippines. Besides coercion of Taiwan, it has also taken away the autonomy of Hong Kong by passing draconian National Security Act unilaterally, bringing an end to One Country Two System, agreed upon at the time of reversion of Hong Kong to China. The rationale of China being over assertive at the time of pandemic comes from Sun Tzu’s thoughts of ‘strike adversary when it’s weak and preserve yourself when it is strong’. China is therefore speeding up its Incremental Encroachment Strategy in South China Sea as well as LAC.
Undeclared World War III
Most strategists normally call the present global situation as ‘Cold War 2.0’. Cold War, as per Cambridge Dictionary, is a state of extreme unfriendliness existing between countries, especially countries with opposing political systems that expresses itself “not through fighting, but through political pressure and threats”. This expression was usually used to describe the relationship between the US and the Soviet Union after the Second World War. The erstwhile Cold War did not see hybrid war of recent times. The present geopolitical situation witnesses hybrid war in different forms with changed instruments and dimensions. The incremental encroachment of territory by China in terms of features in South China Sea claimed by others junking PCA ruling, Economic war, Cyber and information war, and large scale military posturing in Indo-Pacific and physical land-grab offensive by China in Ladakh, using pandemic as a weapon and relative CNP as a force takes it beyond Cold War.
The global strategic situation described above is beyond the definition/bounds/ realms of cold war. It has graduated to conflicts, forceful occupation of territory like South China Sea, innumerable deaths beyond both world wars put together due to alleged biological agent spread in asymmetric manner and economic destruction; hence calling it Cold War 2.0 will be understatement. The possible alliances seem to be on the horizon are China, Pakistan, and North Korea. Russians and Iran have a forced marriage with China, due to sanctions from US and economic compulsions, but given the geostrategic situation, playing neutral, along with sale of weaponry/oil may be the best option for them. China will have to bandwagon most cash strapped partners through its dwindling economy, if it wants to count on them. In contrast the other axis seemingly developing is US-centred with Indo-pacific countries suffering Chinese aggression along with old alliances of the West like NATO. The reality check carried out from definitions of War, Cold War, Force, World War and Comprehensive National Power(CNP), clearly brings out that the global situation has every element of a World War, except that the dimension, instruments and modalities have changed, and the war has not been ‘Formally Declared’; hence it may not be wrong to call it “Undeclared Third World War with Changed Instruments and dimensions”. The world has already entered in preparatory phase of it, without recognising it to be so.
Opening multiple fronts
Benefitting from early recovery of pandemic, Chinese leadership has used the opportunity to up the ante and open multiple fronts for strategic gains to achieve their ambition to enhance their claims on territorial and maritime domain and encroach up to its ever increasing claim lines, making best of its relative advantage of resultant CNP, as the opponents struggle with pandemic. The strategic calculations of China seem to be ambitious, because in authoritarian state the sycophancy sometimes prevents leaders getting objective advices from subordinate strategists. When Hitler launched offensive in Russia in World War II, beyond its logistics limit for sustaining in winters, he overruled advices of subordinates and brought Germany to unprecedented disaster.
In case of China, Xi is emboldened by modernised arsenal and extensive exercises and propaganda is planning to take on some of the most experienced troops despite not having a single pilot in PLA with any operational experience. While its density of arsenal in South China sea and Eastern Sea board looks impressive, but its vulnerability of long Sea lanes of Communications in Malacca strait and Indian Ocean, coupled with the threat of blockading of its naval bases by hostile navies, can draw PLA out of its comfort zone, where it is no match to combined navies of hostile countries given the fact that defence budget of US has been many times of PLA over so many decades. The strong military posturing by navies from US, Australia, Japan, and regional claimants of South China Sea are enough for shadow boxing, because an all out war is recipe for mutually assured destruction (MAD) which Beijing cannot afford given the fact that it faces potent nuclear and space powers.
Pattern of global reaction
In continental domain its land grab efforts in Ladakh have been rebutted by India, which honoured its 20 fallen soldiers with state honours, whereas PLA chose to hide its fallen soldiers much more in number, creating another wave of anger amongst PLA veterans. The mutual disengagement is being viewed with suspicion as PLA demonstrated its unprofessionalism to the world by using barbaric tools for attacking Indian soldiers, junking the CBMs. India is certainly not going to take mini disengagement gestures for granted, unless PLA withdraws to pre-standoff positions and will be ready with all options on the table.
In maritime front, ASEAN, which has been muted by China so far by allurement of Code of Conduct and purse diplomacy, combined with coercion due to large power asymmetry, seems emboldened to talk about UNCLOS, demanding fair share of EEZ in case of affected countries. Taiwan, emboldened by national sentiments, leadership, US support through Taiwan Relation Act and NDAA has started identifying itself as a nation, junking One country two systems, ready to defend itself should a situation arise, besides granting asylum to willing people from Hong Kong. Japan is looking for strengthening its defence capabilities and some more adventurism by North Korea may see it going nuclear in future. Xi Jinping’s ambition has costed global loss of trust by China and the scenario in Indo-pacific is unlikely to be the same in future. Russians and to some extent Iranians have economic compulsion to be with China due to sanctions from the West, but given the geo-strategic situation, playing neutral along with sale of weaponry/oil may well be the best option for them.
On domestic front China may be able to implement the draconian National Security Act in Hong Kong, but it has to bear the cost of demise of its financial hub, with many countries inclined for economic distancing, shifting FDI, banning concessions granted to Hong Kong, granting citizenship to those willing to exit, thus creating ideal conditions for urban insurgency in times to come, besides the rural insurgency of Xinjiang. Suddenly the voices in support of Uyghurs and Tibetans and questions on ‘One China Policy’ have started becoming active, notwithstanding the threats of Chinese wolf warrior diplomats and state media global times, which are being rubbished as tools of propaganda warfare.
Xi Jinping’s Chinese dream of ‘Rejuvenation’ and his aim of ‘Prosperous Developed Society’ with a ‘War Winning Modern PLA’ by 2050 was achievable, had he not harboured dictatorial overambition to achieve these aims and dislodge US as superpower making unfair use of pandemic. In fact the first major conversion of features in South China Sea to military bases took place during last US elections, anticipating no big bang action from the US, worked as per his incremental encroachment strategy. This emboldened him to use pandemic unfairly to fulfil all his aims before time, without having capacity to protect its global shipping outside its eastern seaboard. With the kind of global anger he has generated against his regime, the lesson of diversification of global factory for the world, along with need of economic distancing from China, Xi has pushed his country on a path to disaster unless Chinese people wake up and shake up CCP to protect their dreams.
From Indian perspective, this is the time when Beijing is under maximum external and internal pressure since last five decades. If Beijing continues with its high headedness, it will invite further pressure. This may well be the time to push through border settlement or demarcation of LAC as the political cost of resolving the border/ LAC may be lesser than an active front with India. India should not settle down with token disengagement because unless the LAC is demarcated the standoffs will continue. For the time being India should not blink at the borders.
Maj Gen S.B. Asthana (Retd.) is a strategic and security analyst.