China’s strategic shift mirrors Xi’s grand plans

Maj Gen GG Dwivedi (retd)
Former Defence Attaché in China

China is rapidly building a robust and lethal force with capabilities spanning the ground, air, maritime, space and information domains, designed to enable Beijing to impose its will on the region and beyond. India finds itself in a catch-22 situation. While not in a position to effectively counter China’s expansionist design, it is constrained to join regional grouping ‘Quad’ with US, Japan and Australia.

Arecent Pentagon report has raised the alarm on China’s relentless drive for global expansion, both by military and non-military means. As per Dan Taylor, a senior US defence intelligence analyst, People’s Republic of China is rapidly building a robust and lethal force with capabilities spanning the ground, air, maritime, space and information domains, designed to enable Beijing to impose its will on the region and beyond. By undertaking counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden over the past decade and expanding its military presence in the East and South China Seas, as per Taylor, China has demonstrated its willingness to employ the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) as an instrument of national power in the execution of a ‘historic mission in the new century’. The Chinese leadership considers a well-conceived military modernisation programme essential for the country to achieve the status of a ‘great power’ .

The thought process of the communist leadership continues to be influenced by China’s ancient wisdom. Chinese strategists firmly believe that their country was secure and prosperous when internally strong with a subdued neighbourhood, ensuring a peaceful periphery. Traditional Chinese thinking professed that the best way to respond to a threat was to eliminate it. This is vindicated by the fact that China used force eight times during the first three decades following the 1949 Revolution. The Chinese attribute the loss of their prime position to the weakness of the Qing Dynasty (1636-1912) and a continental mindset. ‘Shi’ (strategic configuration by gaining position of advantage) is an essential facet of strategic thinking.

Given the authoritarian character of the Chinese system, generational leadership change significantly impacted the nation’s policies, particularly during the times of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. President Xi Jinping, on assuming power, moved fast. He went on to initiate transformational reforms aimed to change the traditional strategic framework, advocating a greater Chinese role in world affairs.

Xi took on the mantle of the Fifth Generation leadership in 2012. He was expected to abide by the constitutional rules adhered to by his immediate predecessors. However, he chose to play differently. While commencing his first term as the President in 2013, Xi had stated, “To forge iron, you ought to be strong.” Accordingly, he set about systematically to strengthen his hold on the twin levers of power — the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the PLA. Xi unleashed an unbridled anti-corruption campaign which proved handy to purge political rivals. Concurrently, radical military reforms were initiated with a dual aim: to prepare the defence forces for the enlarged role and reinforce the party’s hold over the PLA. To the three most important titles — General Secretary of the CPC, Chairman of the Central Military Commission and the President — that Xi was already holding, he added half a dozen over a short period. In a lighter vein, Xi began to be referred to as the CEO (Chairman of Everything).

During the 19th Party Congress held in 2017, Xi unveiled his concept of ‘China Dream’ (Zhong Guo Meng). It envisaged China’s road to rejuvenation — entering the ‘new era’, emerging as a ‘prosperous and powerful’ nation and the restoration of its legacy. He outlined twin centenary objectives: China to emerge as a fully modern socialist economy by 2035 and to acquire the status of a ‘great modern socialist country’ by 2049. Xi’s ‘Thought for New Era Socialism with Special Chinese Characteristics’ stand enshrined in the party constitution. With the abolishment of the limit set on the presidential term through a constitutional amendment, the path was cleared for Xi to continue in power for life.

Xi propounded the policy of ‘striving for achievement’ (fanfa youwei) during the 2017 party congress, advocating a greater Chinese role to shape the new international order. This marked the abandonment of the three-decade-old strategy enunciated by Deng — to “conceal one’s strength, never take a leadership role, and bide one’s time” till China completed its peaceful rise.

In keeping with the changed foreign policy, Xi has initiated major strategic initiatives since 2014. There was an overdrive to expand China’s military position in South China Sea with a rapid programme of island reclamation to ensure diminution of US influence in the region. As part of its global outreach, China is in the process of acquiring a string of naval bases in Myanmar (Kyaukpyu), Sri Lanka (Hambantota), Pakistan (Gwadar) and Djibouti to emerge as a major player in the Indo-Pacific, besides the westward expansion into Eurasia region.

The path-breaking military reforms that are underway aim to transform the PLA into a modern fighting force on a par with the Western armies by the next two decades. The focus is on building a strong national defence and powerful armed forces as a security guarantee for China’s peaceful development.

Xi has combined geo-political and geo-strategic dimensions to launch ‘Belt-Road’ and ‘Maritime Silk Route’ initiatives across Eurasia, Africa and beyond, engaging more than 70 countries and entailing multi-trillion-dollar investment. Playing a lead role in regional groupings like the Shanghai Cooporation Organisation and BRICS, and establishing financial institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank are consistent actions to further China’s policy of resisting the West-driven international order.

Xi’s foreign policy is unapologetically nationalist, in pursuit of its core interests — sovereignty, stability, security and economic development. His new ideology seeks to promote an alternative model characterised by ‘authoritarian capitalism’. Today, the US is conflicted about its global role with Trump in relentless pursuit of the ‘America First’ policy. Russia under Putin continues to be under the delusion of the ‘Cold War’ symmetry. Xi has scripted a clearer strategic road map for China. He is expected to pursue aggressive diplomacy to restructure the international order, whose underlying rules will be increasingly framed by Beijing.

Given India’s complex relations with China, the emerging scenario has far-reaching implications. While not in a position to effectively counter China’s expansionist design and at the same time seriously constrained to join the regional grouping such as ‘Quad’ with US, Japan and Australia, India finds itself in a catch-22 situation. Ironically, Delhi has no option but to revamp its capability to engage Beijing on equal terms. It is time India formulates a long-term policy to emerge as an important stakeholder in the Indo-Pacific.

China’s strategic shift is in sync with Xi’s grand design — China acquiring superpower status by the middle of this century. Given the opaque system, past legacy and growing assertiveness, the communist leadership’s claim about their nation’s rise to be peaceful has inherent contradictions. It is vital for the global polity to effectively engage with the communist leadership to avoid what US political scientist Graham Allison called the ‘Thucydides trap’.