Originally published at BQ Prime, 22 October 2022.
India has several reasons to pay close attention to the ongoing 20th Party Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC). As a neighbour to China and as a country of similar size of population and length of history, it would be natural for India to assume that it occupies an important place in the minds of Chinese leaders in terms of both geopolitics and development experiences. What then is the message for India from CPC General Secretary Xi Jinping’s report to the Congress on questions of foreign policy and the economy?
Like several of China’s neighbours, India too has been at the receiving end of Chinese military aggression. 20 October this year marked the 60th anniversary of the beginning of the Sino-Indian conflict of 1962. While that might be an event too far in the past for most Indians alive today, another reminder of China’s propensity to ride roughshod over India’s territorial and sovereignty claims was served in the summer of 2020 with multiple Chinese transgressions across the Indian perception of the Line of Actual Control in eastern Ladakh and the first troop casualties in over four decades at Galwan.
Thus, the statement early in the 20th Congress Report, when Xi says, “We have not yielded any ground on matters of principle, and we have resolutely safeguarded China’s sovereignty, security, and development interests” (9), is noteworthy from the Indian perspective. It indicates an increasing stress on China’s own territorial and sovereignty claims rather than a willingness to find negotiated settlements. The videos and photographs that emerged from the Chinese side immediately post-Galwan with such expressions as “never give up a single inch of land belonging to the motherland”, painted by PLA soldiers on rocks along the LAC between India and China, might be considered a case in point.
This suggests two possibilities. One, that whatever the current agreements on disengagement at various points of friction along the LAC, these are only temporary and can easily be overturned again by the Chinese – Chinese claims of the situation returning to normal notwithstanding. And two, that there are more problems likely to crop up at the LAC in the years to come. It must be remembered that in eastern Ladakh – the Western Sector of the boundary dispute – the Chinese actually control most of the territory they claim and are only contending for relatively smaller tracts of territory for tactical advantage. The more serious source of the dispute as far as China is concerned is in the Eastern Sector, representing Arunachal Pradesh, which is part of its claim over Tibet itself.
With New Delhi’s position post-Galwan being one of equally unrelenting insistence that the bilateral relationship cannot move forward in other sectors without a resolution of the ongoing tensions in eastern Ladakh, and the Chinese insisting on the exact opposite formulation, future economic and diplomatic ties will be difficult.
At the 20th Party Congress, focus on the economy was about “Accelerating the Creation of a New Development Pattern and Pursuing High-Quality Development” (23) but represents, in fact, several internal concerns about tackling widening income and regional inequalities, modernizing the industrial system (24) and achieving rural revitalization (25). There is little direct reference to the global pressures on the Chinese economy but references abound about the need to “speed up efforts to achieve greater self-reliance and strength in science and technology” (30).
The Indian central government has long been conscious of the growing trade deficit with China and the non-tariff barriers its companies face when trying to enter or expand presence in the Chinese market but it was not until the Chinese transgressions in eastern Ladakh that it chose to respond on this front. Beijing, meanwhile, will perceive New Delhi’s banning of Chinese apps and targeting of Chinese companies in India for financial irregularities as aligning the latter more closely with the US in trying to stymie China’s economic development and to cut China out of large and lucrative markets for its technology products.
This perception of greater India-US alignment on economic issues as well as on matters of geopolitics in the form of the Quad, for example, will likely feed into greater aggression on the LAC.
These will complicate not just bilateral diplomatic engagement between the two countries but also their multilateral engagements. One of the “missions and tasks” the CPC has laid out for itself at the 20th Party Congress is to “further increase China’s international standing and influence” (20). If so, it would appear that this will cost India. Consider, for example, China’s lack of support for reform of the UN Security Council to allow India a permanent seat or its latest “technical hold” on a proposal – mid-Party Congress – to list Pakistan-based terrorist, Lashkar-e-Taiba leader Shahid Mahmood, under the UNSC sanctions regime.
Meanwhile, if the ‘informal summits’ between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping were an attempt to provide a personal touch to diplomatic engagements between the two countries, they clearly failed for the eastern Ladakh clashes that followed barely six months after the second summit in Mamallapuram. The fact that the Chinese ignored the Indian attempt to ‘reset’ ties suggests that Xi was not of a mind to share the stage on equal footing with the Indian leader. Indeed, evidence that diplomatic options between India and China are growing increasingly limited came also from the recent Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan where both Xi and Modi were present – even stood together for an official photo – but did not speak to each other.
A likely third term for Xi, therefore, does not presage any immediate improvement in India-China relations.