(Illustration: Nichole Shinn for Bloomberg Businessweek)
While the world fights the pandemic of COVID 19, China is busy fighting the world and its own people. Apart from mobilizing troops in Eastern Ladakh against India, it has been actively militarizing the South China sea, crushing protests in Hong Kong, threatening Taiwan, Japan and the other South East Asian counties. Internally, it has been quelling dissent in Tibet and Xinxiang with an iron hand. So what drives this aggressive Chinese behavior?
President Xi Jinping and his China Dream
Since his ascent to power in November 2012, President Xihas become the most powerful person in China. Not only has he built a personality cult around himself but with the abolition of presidential term limitsin 2018, he is now President for life. He heads both the Communist Party of China (CPC) and Chinese Military Commission (CMC) thereby controlling all government, party and military institutions of China. He has centralized the conduct of foreign policy under his leadership with the creation of the National Security Committee (NSC) in Nov 2013 thereby limiting the influence of other institutions and interest groups. His ‘China Dream” providesfor ‘two centennial goals’. First,that of China becoming a ‘moderately prosperous society’ with a per capita GDP of $10,000 by 2021, (the 100th anniversary of the CPC), and second,of China becoming a ‘fully developed, rich, and powerful’ nation by 2049 (the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China).As against Deng Xiaoping’s mantra of ‘hide your capability and bide your time (taoguangyan hui), Xi in October 2013 gave the slogan of ‘strive for achievement’ (fenfayouwei) signaling a more aggressive and pro-active foreign policy. The PLA, under Xi has acquired a larger voice in foreign policy, a fact helped by Xi’s military experience (he served as vice-premier in the Central Military Commandbetween 1979-82). Xi has brought about military modernization and reforms and exhorted the armed forces to be ready for war to defend China’s core interests. Xi seeks to promote China’s political and moral vision and international leadership through his advocacy of ‘great power diplomacy’ (daguowaijiao) with Chinese characteristics. His vision is of a hierarchical international order wherein China is at the ‘core’ of the international order and the other states at the ‘periphery’. China as ‘core’acts as the international rule maker and the‘peripheral’ states depend on it for prosperity and survival.
Return of the ideology
While pragmatism defined the conduct of Chinese politics during Deng and Jiang, under Xi ideology has become an important component of Chinese politics. In 2013, he issued Document 9, which warned against the infiltration of western ideas and values in China such ashuman rights, media independence, neo liberalism and civic participation. In his article published in Qiushi, he sought further strengthening of CPC rule over China. China was asked torefrain from copying the model and practices of other countries. This ‘return to ideology’ and the attendant complications of Chinese international engagement however precedes President Xi starting with his predecessor, Hu Jintao. Since 2002, Huhad started rolling back the limited economic and legal reforms initiated by Deng and Jiang. State PSU’s were supported and subsidized at the cost of private enterprises. Jintao aggressively pushed China’s maritime interests, redoubled China’s efforts to build ports and naval bases throughout the Indian Ocean under his ‘string of pearls’ strategy, Chinese navy started regular patrolling and exercising in the South China sea including the territorial waters of other countries, they harassed foreign companies exploring oil, militarized the islets, strengthened the Sansha administrative district tasked with governing territories in the South China sea and extended control over Scarborough Shoal. Alarmed by democratic movements like the Arab Spring, he ruthlessly quelled all dissent through his powerful internal security czar Zhou Yongkang. He humiliated President Obama during his trip to China in 2009 lecturing him on US economic policy and human rights, and disallowed him from speaking to ordinary Chinese. In many ways President Xi has continued with the policy of Hu Jintao.
Slowing economy, rising nationalism
As to the question as to how close is China to achieving Xi’s ‘China Dream’, the path does not seem easy. Economic growth has slowed down from the double digits in the 2000s to 6.1 per cent in 2019. The lack of transparency in arriving at the growth figures – the same person Ning Jizhe is responsible for both setting the targets of GDP growth as well as measuring achievements – makes many analysts skeptical of the veracity of these growth figures. Brookings Institute estimates that China has overestimated its GDP by 1.7 per cent every year. Revenue growth of China has slowed to 3.8 per cent in 2019 compared to 6.2 percent in 2018 (was 7.4 per cent in 2017), while expenditure continues to grow at 8.1 per cent. This has led to widening fiscal deficit at 4.9 per cent of GDP in 2019 with the IMF estimating the shortfall in government revenues at more than 12 per cent of GDP. These have impacted fund commitments for OBOR and induced cuts in funds of military modernization. China now seems reluctant to pay for the construction of a port in Myanmar and no progress has been made on road and rail building to Nepal as was agreed to in 2015. According to the estimates of Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Chinese defense spending may actually fall in real terms in 2020. The J-20 fighter programme is experiencing problems as are the construction of the proposed six aircraft carriers. The plans for four nuclear powered carriers has been shelved indefinitely. With foreign firms seeking to relocate out of China and Chinese firms facing a push back from other nations, unemployment figures are as high as 70-80 million in China. Though Xi still remains all powerful, voices of dissent have started to grow. CPC leaders like Ren Zhiqiang and intellectuals like Xu Zongrun, Xu Zhiyong, Yu Linqui have asked Xi to step down.
Aggressive behavior against other states and promoting nationalism domestically, has long been the chosen strategy of Chinese leadership during periods of domestic discontent and challenge to their rule, Xi being no exception. This helps him externalize his problems.
Chinese self-perception, historical narratives
China is an ancient civilization ruled bypowerful dynasties who subjugated and ruled over peripheral states. Chinesehave long considered themselves to be the ‘centre of the world’, the Middle Kingdom (zhongguo). The Sino-centric world view is reflected in the expression ‘tian xia’, meaning ‘all under the heaven’,which belonged to China. This perception of greatness continues to influence the Chinese mind till date. However, the Chinese were in for a rude shock when the Treaty of Nanking (1842) was imposed on the Qing dynasty by the western colonial powers after the first opium war (1839).Apart from Britain, China was defeated by the Russians and the Japanese. The territory of the Chinese empire shrunk to nearly one third and in public perception,China was ‘carved up like a melon’ (guafen). The Chinese Communist Party (CPC) considers this period from 1839 till October 1949 as the ‘century of humiliation’. During this period, not only did China lose territory but also control over its internal and external policies and its international standing.This narrative of ‘century of humiliation’ continues to impact the imagination of the Chinese – both people and its government. The Chinese government led by the CPC seeks to undo this humiliation and regain the power, prestige, dignity and territory of the erstwhile Chinese empire. The west (including Japan) are still projected in the propaganda narrative as rapacious powers seeking to expand their territories and power at the cost of a peaceful China. China can resist these hostile powers only by being strong – both economically and militarily – and by being led by a strong government under the CPC.
It is this will to power that has made China follow policies that has made it emerge the giant it is today. Not only is it the second largest economy (largest in PPP terms) in the world (14.14 trillion dollars), it is the number one country in manufacturing output (28 per cent in 2018) and global trade (12.4 per cent in 2018) with the largest foreign exchange reserves (3.15 trillion dollars). Its military budget at 181.1 billion dollars (2020) is just second to the United States. In 2019 with 58,000 patent applications, it overtook the USA to become the country filing the largest number of patent applications with the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). It is one of the world leaders in emerging technologies like Artificial Intelligence, Quantum Computing and semi-conductors. It proposes to spend a trillion dollars to build transport infrastructure around the world so that Pax-Sinica can be realized.
China’s core interests
That this powerful China is never ever humiliated again,CPC has from time to time spelled out certain non-negotiable‘core interests’. These are protection of national sovereignty, security and territorial integrity of China, national unification, protection of Chinese communist political system, social stability and economic development. The CPC believes that these core interests were compromised when China was weak,and now that it is powerful it should pursue its core interests with vigour, even if the world considers it aggressive. Therefore,China takes an uncompromisingly hard line on the South China sea, brands Tibetans and Uyghurs as ‘splittists’ and represses them, clamps down on democratic protests in Hong Kong and passes the ‘anti-secession’ law in 2005 allowing it to use force for the unification of Taiwan with the mainland if that does not happen peacefully.
In conclusion it can be said that a host of factors, both personality driven as well as historical and structural lie at the root of this aggressive behavior by China. With the economy slowing, international push back, rise of nationalistic sentiments and growing dissent against Xi domestically, the world needs to brace up for more aggression, not less from the Chinese.