China: Will new leadership mean new ideas?
by Jaibans Singh on 12 Dec 2012 6 Comments

The Naval chief’s comment about enhanced Indian geo-strategic involvement in the South China Sea has expectedly raised hackles in Beijing. The stringent response by the Chinese foreign ministry has come at a time when there is increasing speculation about the effect that the imminent leadership change will have on relations between the two Asian giants. The Chinese response goes to prove that regardless of the growing economic affiliation between Delhi and Beijing, or change in leadership, in matters concerning geo-strategy the latter would probably not yield any ground.


Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping who is poised to take over from Hu Jintao is often referred to as a ‘princeling’ on account of his family's place in the communist party aristocracy, has placed a veil of opacity around his future policies even though he has since January made several foreign visits, including one to the United States. That he would keep a lid on his thoughts is expected as the Chinese leadership functions on consensus and shuns sudden changes. Still, he and his team have to gear up to face some daunting domestic and global challenges.


Under the outgoing dispensation, Beijing managed to sustain high economic growth; millions of people have been pushed out of the poverty index. But this has not translated into the internal harmony Hu Jintao was looking for; there is rising unrest in China which the government is trying to brush under the carpet via censorship and use of brute force. But the cracks are now there for all to see.


Militarily, the country has made huge progress. China’s defence budget officially stands at $106.5 billion; in actuality it is around $ 180 billion, almost three times more than what New Delhi is ready to shell out. More important are the rapid strides made in the field of indigenous defence research and production which have given China astounding air and maritime capability. A prime example is the fifth-generation J-20 radar-evading stealth fighter rolled out in January 2011, not to talk of the vast array of cruise missiles; short and medium range ballistic missiles, both land and sea based, which have the capability to hit targets across the world and of course the whole of India. The Chinese are also proud possessors of an aircraft carrier, the Varyag, of Ukrainian origin.


In tune with its growing military muscle, China has adopted a more assertive foreign policy of late; is a major deviation from the low profile followed by previous leaders like Deng Xiaoping. Fissures have thus opened with neighbours like Japan, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan, Vietnam and India. So far as India is concerned, there are three areas where engagement with China attains criticality: the border dispute to be seen in concert with larger defence and security matters; the economic relationship; and the Pakistan factor.


The defence and security paradigm naturally takes precedence. Here the spat over the South China Sea is a virtual non-issue though it may have some diplomatic connotations in the long run. More important are concerns over the stapling of visas for people of Jammu and Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh by the Chinese foreign office despite protests from India, resulting in a breakdown of defence cooperation between the two countries.


Then, the Chinese presence in Occupied Kashmir and the Shaksgam valley near the Siachen glacier makes it an active partner in Pakistan’s illegal occupation of Indian territory; Chinese incursions on the line of actual control on the borders continue despite protests from India. Their claim to Arunachal has been expressed in more ways than one.


The Chinese armed forces have recently carried out military exercises to fine tune employability along the Himalayan ranges in and around Tibet. It has tested its air capability with its potent J-10 fighter jet and practiced rail mobilisation drills for quick deployment in the Tibetan Plateau. The Chinese army has been rehearsing capture of mountain passes with the help of armoured vehicles and airborne troops; such manoeuvres can be aimed only at India. The situation has eased somewhat with the recent visit of the Chinese Defence Minister to New Delhi.


The India-Pakistan-China triangle continues to be as messy as ever. Despite evidence of Jihadi activity from Pakistan causing disturbance in the Xinjiang province, China is not ready to dilute support to its wayward neighbour. If the support was restricted to economic and diplomatic assistance, India would have worry less. But Beijing is blatantly supporting and building up Pakistan’s military nuclear programme, giving  Islamabad an edge over India.


The Dalai Lama, queried about the change in the Chinese leadership, said, “At this moment, it is too early to say definitely. Individuals - now new leadership, younger age and also many his friends say that he is more open-minded, but system is such that one or two individual cannot do much, so better to wait another six months, or a year or two (sic) like that.”


This is a good summation. The recent Chinese reaction to the statement by the Indian naval chief reinforces this view. The problems and challenges are there for all to see and only time will tell how things eventually pan out. For the moment, it would not be wrong to suggest that Xi Jinping may not be amenable to upset the apple cart, though leaders have a tendency to spring surprises every now and then.


The author is editor,

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