In late September this year, the Communist Party of China (CPC) scored a propaganda coup by conducting a two-day training programme in Kathmandu for top leaders and cadre of the ruling Nepal Communist Party. To think that this has happened in their near neighbourhood should worry Indian policymakers but it is also important to understand Chinese motivations and the tools at their disposal for these have implications for political systems everywhere, and especially for democracies.
In mid-December 2018, at a speech commemorating the 40th anniversary of the beginning of economic reforms and opening up in China, CPC General Secretary and Chinese President Xi Jinping pointed out that as a result of its economic reforms and growth, China had ‘significantly raised its cultural soft power and the international influence of Chinese culture’.
Earlier at the CPC’s National Congress in October 2017, Xi had also declared that China ‘as a major and responsible country’ was committed to ‘tak[ing] an active part in reforming and developing the global governance system’ and that it would be ‘contributing Chinese wisdom and strength to global governance’.
Taken together these references highlight the larger purpose of the accretion of Chinese economic power namely, to promote a ‘Chinese model’ of economic and political development to the rest of the world.
And anyone that actually suggests a model or a reference point must be expected to then not hide it under a bushel but to promote it subtly or otherwise. And promoting it is what Xi, the CPC and the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs are doing courtesy the country’s increasing strengths in economic and diplomatic capacities.
It is in this light that the Chinese training programme in Nepal – conducted by the CPC’s International Liaison Department (ILD) – must be seen. The ILD’s original mandate was to maintain contacts with other communist parties around the world but its mandate has since widened to include non-communist political parties as well. Thus, ILD delegations regularly meet also with Indian political parties including both the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party as well as opposition parties such as the Congress (I), India’s own communist parties and others.
But perhaps more important than the ILD is the United Front Work Department (UFWD) of the CPC that is tasked with the job of interfacing with political, economic and intellectual elites both inside and outside China. It is the UFWD that has been responsible for any number of political scandals in Australia and New Zealand involving lawmakers supporting – for financial and other considerations – China’s positions on the South China Sea disputes and Hong Kong, against Taiwanese independence and the Dalai Lama, and advising silence or neutrality on the internment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. The UFWD also supports Chinese chambers of commerce and trade associations, as well as expatriates and students associations across the world that are deployed in service of the ‘motherland’ on all of the above issues and more.
In essence, the CPC’s ILD and UFWD function as additional foreign ministries for China, and, in fact, rank higher than the Chinese state’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA). It is worth noting that two of India’s neighbours – Sri Lanka and Bangladesh – presently have Chinese ambassadors who have considerably more experience as CPC functionaries than as MOFA diplomats.
This is part of a wider trend in China of inserting Party officials in the Chinese foreign ministry. Their presence indicates that Beijing has accorded these countries a high degree of priority. Sri Lanka is an especially important cog in China’s Maritime Silk Road project, part of Xi Jinping’s pet Belt and Road Initiative, while Bangladesh is today ranked one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. It is noteworthy that despite a supposed pro-India leadership in Dhaka, Bangladesh has steadily improved its ties with China to the extent that it is also the second-largest buyer of Chinese arms behind Pakistan in the last decade.
Despite Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘neighbourhood first’ policy, it would appear then that New Delhi is steadily losing ground to China. In Nepal itself, and especially following New Delhi’s ill-advised fuel blockade of that country in 2015, India is widely perceived as “hawkish” and “selfish”. China’s ingress into India’s South Asian neighbourhood underlines the declining returns on India’s historical influence and geographical centrality in the region and highlights the weak structures and processes of Indian foreign policymaking.
Meanwhile, the Nepal training programme that focused on Xi’s views on governance – ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ – as the central theme also serves as an unflattering counter-point to the very Modi-centric Indian foreign policy of the last few years.
It is not that an Indian political party like the BJP lacks the sort of tools that the CPC has in the form of the ILD and UFWD – Modi’s massive diaspora rallies across the globe and slew of international awards would not have been possible without the active outreach of several organizations and affiliates of the BJP/RSS family both within and outside India. However, the question is: how much have these organizations contributed to national goals rather than to merely sectoral interests or burnishing the image of one individual.
Ultimately, India will need both a capable and expanded foreign service working in coordination with political parties, business communities, intellectual elites and the diaspora and to display adherence to values that are genuinely attractive to the peoples of other nations to push an ‘Indian model’ of politics and development that can challenge the Chinese one.
A version of this article was published as Jabin T. Jacob, ‘China’s foreign policy outreach in India’s neighbourhood’, Moneycontrol, 1 October 2019.