China: the more things change, the more they remain the same
by Jaibans Singh on 16 Mar 2013 2 Comments

The customary decadal change of leadership in China took place on March 5, 2013, during a session of the Chinese Parliament in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. The highlight of the transition process was that despite its fair share of intrigue, rivalry, speculation, the changeover was carried out without any major upheaval and in a peaceful manner. This by itself is a big achievement given the fact that such a smooth transition has happened for only the second time in the history of that country.


Delivering the keynote address, outgoing premier Wen Jiabao took the opportunity to advise the new dispensation while summarising the achievements of the previous government in the past few years. He identified a steady upward graph of the economy as a major milestone of the outgoing leadership, and stressed the success achieved in escaping the global recession and maintaining a steady growth trajectory with the creation of 58.7 million urban jobs, holding the Olympic Games, and constructing nearly 9000 kms of high speed rail – all major economic landmarks.


It is notable that China’s defence policy and rapid military expansion under the outgoing regime were not touched upon at all. The coercive diplomatic posture adopted by the Chinese government in the same period was also not mentioned. This is not surprising given the fact that military matters are traditionally kept under wraps by Beijing.


Notwithstanding the lack of transparency in military matters, the new leadership has exhibited a firm resolve to continue the policies of the previous regime in this regard. Within a few days of taking over, the new regime announced an increase of 10.7% in defence outlay, which would now stand at about 720.168 billion yuan ($115.7 billion). Beijing has also hiked public security spending which would give a boost to the police services. Apparently, President Xi Jinping, being the son of a well known general and having served as aide to a senior general early in his career, will maintain focus on rapid defence modernisation and expansion of the army. It is quite evident that the new leadership is not likely to change the nations traditional posture on territorial claims in the East China Sea, the South China Sea or the Himalayan border with India.


China’s steep hike in defence expenditure and stringent diplomatic posture has sent anxious tremors in its neighbourhood. Japan views the development with great concern since it comes in close proximity to the spat over the uninhabited Diaoyu islands that are claimed by Japan, China and Taiwan. In recent days Japan has described the Chinese posture as ‘overbearing”.


The writing on the wall is that not much change in Chinese policy can be expected as a result of the leadership change. The Chinese are not likely to digress from the course of military hegemony; instead, the country will go into a coercive diplomacy mode progressively as its military might increases. Smaller countries in the immediate neighbourhood are likely to feel the heat much earlier than India which has enough military muscle to elicit a degree of restraint for the moment.


India can, therefore, expect that the border dispute will be kept alive by China but without causing any diplomatic upheavals in the ongoing relationship. There will be no statesmanlike concessions and nor will there be any drastic changes in policy. The rapid military build up will, however, give to China an option in the longer run to press for some politico-military advantage. Indicators of this policy are the rapid steps the PLA is taking to fine tune its high altitude warfare capability and the manner in which this is being publicised.


There can be no two views about India’s lack of capacity to catch up with Chinese military strength. Against this pragmatic backdrop, for India the imperative is to increase its military strength to an extent that keeps a check on Chinese hegemonic designs; the minimum that needs to be done is to deny overwhelming military ascendency to China. The objective should be to maintain a balance in military parity to an extent that could cause an unacceptable level of damage in a situation of conflict.


With the existing Indian defence outlay being no more than one third of what China is spending, this is certainly a tall order. Even achieving this minimal threshold means a lot of hard work for India. The government needs to be alive to the security threat and ensure that the demand for economic growth does not override security.


Diplomacy will, of course, play a significant role; India will need to keep itself involved with the security concerns of all such nations along the East and South China Seas that are distrustful of China. India will do well to keep the Tibetan issue in the forefront since this is where China’s position is not as strong as it would like it to be. Overall, India needs to deal with China at multiple fronts in a manner that keeps national interest in primacy. To say that the new regime would be more forthcoming than the one gone by simply because Xi Jinping appears more amenable than Hu Jintao would be a grave misjudgement.

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