Under Hu, the PRC became a superpower. Under Xi, it began acting like the only one, writes Prof. Madhav Nalapt
Say this for Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping, he has made hiding behind platitudes impossible for those who believed in a world where the rival systems most often represented by the US and the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) cannot just coexist in harmony, but work together so as to ensure mutual benefit that would in course of time benefit the entire world. Such was the vision embraced by US Presidents, from Jimmy Carter to (the Clinton-heavy first term of) Barack Obama, who even sought to fashion a G-2, a partnership of Beijing and Washington that would in effect guide the rest of the world.
Signs that the CCP had not deviated (except verbally) from the vision of its founders a century ago multiplied during the second 5-year term of CCP General Secretary Hu Jintao, whose genial countenance masked the energetic manner in which he sought to ensure that the PRC overtook the US and the EU in technological and scientific superiority, in the way that had earlier been the case in manufacturing. What Hu Jintao sought to camouflage has been revealed in technicolor shades by Xi Jinping, with the consequence that for the first time since the 1970s, public opinion across both sides of the Atlantic in particular has turned against the seemingly unstoppable rise of China.
The formula devised by the present writer nearly two decades back, of major powers adopting a policy of constrainment of the PRC, rather than for the time being a USSR-style policy of containment, has become popular, especially following the apparently accidental leak of the laboratory-boosted SARS2 coronavirus from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The unusual (for the PRC leadership elements) directness and transparency of General Secretary Xi’s call to his subordinates to convert into reality the century-old dream of the CCP to make the PRC the centre of gravity of global geopolitics has been helpful in dispelling the Carter-Reagan-Clinton delusions of peaceful coexistence of the clashing systems of the US and the PRC, especially now that the latter has been turbocharged since the 1970s by the formation of the Sino-Wahhabi alliance and since 2006 of the Sino-Russian alliance that was the default option of Russia once it became clear to Moscow that there was no space for the Russian Federation anywhere within the Atlantic Alliance except in a subservient role
Russian President (and geopolitical grandmaster) Vladimir V. Putin opted by 2007 for a junior partner role within the Sino-Russian alliance rather than a subordinate, even subservient, role on the periphery of the Atlantic Alliance. At the same time, he sought to fashion policies that would over time once again catapult Russia into the ranks of the superpowers, thereby giving him co-equal status with Xi. This remains a work in progress, but given the potential and history of Russia, not to mention the resilience and capability of the Russian people, Putin’s choice of the PRC over the Atlantic Alliance was inevitable to all except those who are still living in the world until the close of the 1990s, when the Atlantic Alliance dominated two-thirds of the world.
Since the second term in the White House of George W. Bush, the US has ceased to preside over a unipolar world, even as the PRC leadership seeks to fashion a new unipolarity, with itself at the apex. Since the boost in confidence within the CCP that was given after the smooth takeover of Hong Kong from the British in 1997, the effort at substituting a US-centred unipolar world with a PRC-centred one has formed the core of CCP policy, although this was camouflaged until the refreshingly frank ascent to the apex of the CCP by the hyper-confident Xi Jinping. Although Xi Jinping claims to be an atheist (at least in public), he seems to have the confidence that there is a “divine wind” that is carrying him forward on his mission to Sinicize the globe. Such leaders will take risks and adopt policies that others would avoid, which is the primary reason why there has been a rise of instability and uncertainty across time zones since 2015, the year when the CCP General Secretary was able to overawe and dominate every significant structure of authority within the PRC. This has given Xi the freedom to pursue the policies of his choice, whether these relate to India, the US, the EU, Taiwan, the South and East China Seas, Australia or elsewhere. Not just dissent but any difference with the Xi point of view usually leads to unpleasant consequences for the offender and his or her family, as several cases have publicly demonstrated.
The CCP leadership’s not-so-merry-go-round with its “passengers” (the subordinates of the CCP General Secretary) is careening on its unpredictable course, with the passengers aware that none of them has any influence over its speed or direction, all such controls being concentrated within the Office of the General Secretary to a level even greater than was the situation during the period in power (1949-76) of CCP Chairman Mao Zedong. The impact of the removal of initiative and decision-taking from other layers is being felt across the spectrum of governance, not least in the economic sphere, but as the delayed reporting to Xi of the SARS2 cases in Hubei demonstrates, bad news travels with a much slower speed than assumed good news, and in several instances does not travel up to the top, which these days has close to a monopoly on even less than significant decisions that need to get taken in the governance structure of what since the second 5-year term of CCP General Secretary Hu Jintao emerged as the Second (albeit closet) Superpower. Under Hu, the PRC became a superpower. Under Xi, it has begun to act like the only one.
COLD WAR 2.0 NOW IN FULL VIEW
Unlike US President Joe Biden, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson or the formidable Angela Merkel while German Chancellor (it is too early to judge the trajectory of her successor, as there is an ocean of difference between being second-in-command and taking the helm), the CCP General Secretary has a plan of action that is expected by his loyalists to ensure that China will dominate the Eurasian continent by around 2025, South China Sea by 2027 and the East China Sea by 2029, after which it will move towards the objective of achieving a similar dominance in the Atlantic, together with the Russian Federation.
Meanwhile, the Wahhabi International is expected to raise as much dust and fire as is needed to distract those powers seeking a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific (in the way the Atlantic is) from focusing their attention on the PRC and its twin alliance systems. Separately with the Russian Federation and with the Wahhabi International, with which Moscow is finding it difficult to accommodate the wish of Beijing that it join the PRC in serving as a force multiplier to them. In this, Moscow is far closer to New Delhi than it is to Beijing, a factor that has been instrumental in the outreach to Moscow by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, assisted by External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar. Even while a President of the US and Commander-in-Chief of US armed forces, Joseph Robinette Biden Jr hesitates to acknowledge that reality, Cold War 2.0 is in full play between not just the two countries but the two systems of the PRC and the US, and 2022 bids to being the year that will bring more clarity to (a) the disposition of forces, and (b) the chain of likely events, although it will almost certainly not be clear during 2022 or even the next year or two as to who will be the victor in the ongoing systemic conflict that characterises Cold War 2.0.
Much will depend on internal developments within the US, India and the PRC. What is taking place is a race against time where CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping and his allies are concerned. Their effort will be to use social media and other tools (including in the cybersphere) to dilute the resilience of the US and India in particular; to generate internal tensions and divisions that lead to eruptions of violence; and to ensure that economic growth slows down and issues plaguing society multiply. At the same time, the increasingly obvious destination of the path that CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping is taking is willy-nilly bringing together a coalition of countries that are united in their desire to ensure that the world does not once again turn unipolar, this time with Beijing rather than Washington as the centre-point. Such unity is as needed now as was the unity fashioned in the previous century by Roosevelt and Stalin against the effort to create a unipolar world with Berlin as the core.
Whether the leaders of the countries that need to work together understand and work on this is unclear. Certainly, ASEAN remains divided in its approach to the PRC, with a sizeable lobby of pro-PRC elements operating in the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia, although this lobby has been losing steam in Taiwan. The Central Asian republics are conflicted by their antipathy to domination by the PRC and the reality that their closest ally, the Russian Federation, seems firmly committed to assisting Beijing to replace Moscow as the centre of external gravity within the Eurasian landmass, including Central Asia. Whether the gravitational pull of India will be strong enough to prevent Russia from falling into the gravitational pull of PRC geostrategic objectives is an open question, especially given the self-defeating nature of much of the approach of Atlanticist countries towards Moscow. 2022 may see a resolution of that question, or at the least the signs of a resolution.
DECISIVE YEAR FOR INDIA
In the case of India, so far as jobs and the economy are concerned, the inability or unwillingness of the Reserve Bank leadership of the time to ensure sufficient liquidity while implementing the replacement of old higher-value notes during the 2016 demonetisation, coupled with the high rates and complex compliance structure of GST as first worked out has been fused with the impact of the Covid-19 lockdowns in 2020 to create substantial turbulence, especially within the small and medium sector. A large part of both are at present finding it difficult to avail themselves of the numerous schemes that Prime Minister Modi has devised to assist them. This is because of the difficulties they face in formalizing their activity in the manner mandated under such schemes.
2021 has seen significant efforts led by Prime Minister Modi and assisted by colleagues such as Finance Minister Nirmala Sithararaman, Commerce Minister Piyush Goya and others to reduce compliance and tax burdens, and it is expected that such efforts will intensify during 2022, so that the economy once again moves onto the fast track. The rupee too needs to be stronger and more stable, given that its performance over the past few years has been dismal. Those within India who have accounts abroad will be delighted at the fall in the value of the rupee, but those with only rupee savings and investment pools are seeing the value of their stock decline almost every month, a traumatic experience that needs to be reversed through changes in policy, beginning with the 2022-23 Union Budget.
Coming to our people, the Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas mantra of the Prime Minister needs to be mainstreamed. This would assist in bringing investment from an autocratic to a democratic country, especially when so many enterprises are looking to shift from China because of geopolitical considerations and multiplying regulations under Xi. PM Modi’s mantra needs to get mainstreamed across governance structures in 2022, so that efforts to create “Us vs Them” discord or a victim mentality in some sections of society fail. In the security sphere, the need is for the countries committed to a free, open and inclusive to fashion structures and responses that would ensure concerted and effective countermeasures to combat the measures kinetic and otherwise being designed and operationalized against India by the Sino-Wahhabi alliance. Supporters of Prime Minister Modi expect all this to take place in 2022, while those who seek to replace him latest by 2024 hope that they will not. The year ahead will better show whether the supporters or the opponents of PM Modi are correct in their prognostications. A decisive year indeed for all.