Chinese Checkers: Beijing's Strategy and Tactics beyond Doklam

(Note: This is the first of two essays under the series titled ‘Chinese Checkers’ on Chinese foreign policy in South Asia)

If you followed this week’s BRICS summit in the coastal Chinese city of Xiamen, you would never have guessed the tempest that transpired in the run-up to the event. In a gushing expression of bonhomie, Prime Minister Narendra Modi hailed the Chinese President Xi Jinping for his warm reception and organisation of the summit. Xi, on his part, agreed to include an explicit mention of several Pakistan-based terrorist groups for the first time ever in the BRICS joint declaration.

The two leaders then proceeded to speak of the many avenues for cooperation between the five BRICS states. Hailing the “complementary skills and strengths” that define each of their economies, Modi touched on a wide range of common interests, from clean energy and credit rating, to infrastructure building and skill training. Xi followed by telling the summit that China will provide over $76 million for a BRICS economic and technology cooperation plan, and $4 million for projects undertaken by the group’s New Development Bank.

Yet, only a few days prior, India and China had been engaged in calculated needling along the eastern half of the Himalayas. It started with Indian troops moving in to prevent a Chinese roadway construction in the strategically located Doklam plateau in mid-June. That soon precipitated into a prolonged standoff, which spread to other parts of the Indo-Chinese border. The standoff even resulted in stone-pelting between the two sides in Ladakh.

This is not the first time that India and China have been involved in skirmishes along the border while their leaders exchange warm handshakes elsewhere. In 2014, 200 Chinese soldiers entered disputed territory in order to build another highway, a day before the Chinese President was to arrive in India on a state visit. The year before, Chinese soldiers set up camp in Ladakh, in violation of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between the two countries.

Alongside these minor irritations, China has tried to wean off India’s neighbours with promises of ports and prosperity: an infrastructure project in Hambantota, an airport in Malé (pointedly announced after the Maldivian Government cancelled a contract with India’s GMR for the same project), and most contentiously, a highway through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

None of these activities are purely coincidental. In recent years, Chinese engagement in South Asia has been carefully crafted to undermine New Delhi’s strongest bilateral relationships. When India was involved in a diplomatic tangle over Nepal’s Constitution a little over a year ago, Beijing stepped in to offer an unprecedented fuel supply deal to the Nepalese. Now, in the face of the Doklam conflict, China has offered $10 billion in economic assistance to Bhutan, even before the standoff came to an end.

Why does China do this? Chinese foreign policy has long been driven by what is called the pursuit of ‘fuqiang’ – a term that literally translates to ‘wealth and power’ in Chinese. For over two millennia, Chinese society has determined the legitimacy of a regime on the basis of the wealth and power it has managed to accumulate. Any ideology which fulfils the national goal of fuqiang is readily accepted and pursued. Any that compromises that quest must be abandoned.

For all of history, this has been the greatest test of domestic leadership in China. Successive Chinese regimes have sought to legitimise themselves through the pursuit of fuqiang. In bringing about the Revolution, Mao himself saw communism only as a means to an end, while national wealth and power were the end themselves. Years later, when Deng Xiaoping sought to overthrow Mao’s communist principles, he argued not as an ideologue but as a pragmatist. He famously told a Communist conference in 1962, “It does not matter whether the cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.”

Now, China is yet again faced with crises that threaten to undermine the political system’s moral authority. With slowing economic growth and increased internal dissent from young aspirational Chinese, Xi has sought to legitimise his party’s political monopoly in China through the time-tested actions of old: the pursuit of fuqiang. Xi calls it the ‘Chinese Dream’; a long-term vision that aims to restore China to its erstwhile position of Asian dominance – or the ‘Middle Kingdom’, as the Chinese have long called themselves. If wealth has been accumulated over the last three decades through the manufacturing boom, power must now follow.

With Japan now rapidly aging, China is increasingly conscious of the fact that India is the most credible obstacle on that path to Asian domination. Its favourable demographics and fast-growing economy apart, India’s democracy is the natural ideological rival to the Communist Party’s rule over China. Over the years, Beijing has sought to counter this threat by undermining the effectiveness of Indian democracy in state propaganda. In 2012, the Oiushi Magazine – published by the Communist Party’s training academy – ran a scathing critique of democracy, pointing to the corruption that plagues India’s governance. “While democracy is widely expected to control corruption,” the authors wrote, “by commonly used yardsticks, democratic India has done no better than China at checking corruption, and may even have fared worse.”

But such propaganda has not always been successful. When China’s second largest news portal Tencent published a report that explained why democracy can’t cure India’s corruption, 85% of the 9,000 people who responded to the report disagreed. In the meantime, democratic dissent has grown, both in the far reaches of Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and also in parts of mainland China. For its own survival, Chinese communist rule will need to discredit Indian power at some point, in order to discredit its democracy.

New Delhi needs to be acutely conscious of all of these forces which drive Chinese foreign policy in the modern age. For all its professions of a ‘multipolar world’, Beijing knows that the future of communist rule in China hinges upon its ability to express superiority over India, for both its domestic audience and the rest of the world. That is why China’s pursuit of fuqiang is bound to bring a clash of interests between the two regional powers, as both of them seek to rise on the world stage.

(c) 2017, ABP News Network