A strong Xi Jinping is better for conciliation

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Geopolitical Notes From India

M D Nalapat

MOST leaders decide from the beginning of their term not to challenge existing practices and systems, believing – usually correctly — that such a laissez faire attitude would lead to a less difficult tenure than if they were to obey Mao Zedong’s dictum to “Bombard the Headquarters”. The founder of the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) observed in the 1960s that leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was getting ossified and needed to change. Hence, together with then Minister of Defence Lin Biao, “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution”, (GPCR), which resulted in the humiliation of much of the leadership of the CCP.
Interestingly, Mao protected Deng Xiaoping from the worst excesses of his followers, thereby enabling the individual responsible for China becoming an economic superpower to take control of the party and the country by the beginning of the 1980s. Had P V Narasimha Rao remained as Prime Minister for ten years rather than five, it may be that India would have had double the per capita income the country now has. Certainly it has more than double the income it would have had, were Rao not to have become Prime Minister of India in 1991. Fortunately for China, Mao had ensured (through the GPCR) the elimination of almost all the CCP leaders opposed to the liberal economic policy of Deng Xiaoping, thereby enabling the small in size but big in intellect Paramount Leader of China to bring about reforms on a scale that ensured double digit growth for practically a generation, a feat India has been unable to achieve thus far even for a few years.
It was the promise of fast growth that ensured enough votes for Narendra Modi to win the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, but thus far, the Prime Minister of India has not been able to reach even as close to this objective as Manmohan Singh did for a few years, before he handed over full charge of economic policy to the Congress Party, satisfying himself by globe trotting and convening meeting after fruitless meeting of bureaucrats, a pastime he enjoyed. Throughout his decade in the most consequential job in India, Manmohan Singh preferred the company of officials to those of politicians, despite having surrendered much of his discretion to individuals such as Ahmed Patel, the soft spoken but super powerful Political Secretary to the all-powerful Sonia Gandhi. “Manmohan’s” ministers often ignored requests and even commands from the Prime Minister’s Office but dared not do the same to any instruction coming from Sonia Gandhi, either directly or (more often) through her known confidants, to whom what counted in politics was money and lots of it.
Not to mention sops to citing blocs.Of course,that flood of cash spent on the elections and on populist schemes failed to ensure that the Congress Party secured in 2014 only a quarter of the seats it had won just five years earlier. Thanks to Mao’s strategy of reaching out to the US and forging an alliance with that country in the 1970s, the PRC enjoyed the good fortune of being assisted by geopolitical tailwinds from the close of the 1970s to 1997, the year of the handover of Hong Kong to China by the United Kingdom, However it was dressed up, the event was a strategic setback for Europe. And because the US establishment followed European cues in matters of geopolitics (for example in continuing to target Moscow rather than Beijing as the main rival long after the former had made way to the latter in the challenge posed to the Altantic Alliance), it was not long before such subliminal pangs were felt in Washington as well. From that time onwards, there came the realisation that China had not only the capacity but the intention to overtake every other country in its race to the top, or to the position which it had occupied for millennia before Europe began its climb to the top four centuries ago.
However, from that event onwards, headwinds began to multiply that were designed to slow down the advance of China, and by the time Xi Jinping took charge of the Chinese government in end-2012, the global tailwinds assisting China’s rise had almost disappeared while headwinds slowing the country down had become strong. While in the 1980s,it was Moscow that was the Prime Foe (and therefore target) of the Atlantic Alliance, the 21st century has cast Beijing in that role, although as yet the Europeans are resisting such a conclusion, aware that the focus of US attention will shift from Europe to Russia once China gets accepted as the primary challenge to US global leadership. Barack Obama, who is clearly the most cerebral of US Presidents since Abraham Lincoln, understood this, but was too weak to prevail against the Clinton Euro-focussed orthodoxy that has so diluted his legacy. Donald Trump, with the steel nerves and hard-headed realism of the businessperson, has no such constraints, having made short work of each of his opponents, and standing ready to repeat the performance against such backers of Euro-orthodoxy as Senator John McCain and Speaker Paul Ryan. Only a strong Chinese Communist Party General Secretary would have the ability to deal effectively with President Trump. Not so much to launch a confrontation ( as the near-hysterical Europhiles are arguing, somewhat illogically, for if Russia is the main rival, why are they so nervous about China?) as to work out settlements that are Win Win but which go against the Zero Sum solutions trotted out by those in China who are at the receiving end of Xi’s war on corruption. For such people, their only salvation lies in hyper nationalisation.
This would, in their calculus, either make Xi (and by extension China) so unpopular globally that he would fail, or – if Xi were to ignore their jingoistic war cries and work out mutually acceptable solutions with Washington and Delhi – serve to castigate him as a compromiser. Fact is that compromise is central to unique genius of Chinese tradition but this will be possible for Xi only once he prevails over his rivals in the CCP and establishes his complete control over party and the govt. Hence paradox that a strong Xi is more likely to conciliate and compromise than a weak leader, including while dealing with cross-strait ties and over South China sea.
—The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.
Email: mgnalapat@gmail.com