Leadership Change in China and Implications for India

Originally published: 7 November 2007

The 17th Party Congress of the Communist Party of China that took place in October was notable for the beginning of the transition to the so-called fifth generation of China’s leaders. It is important to analyze these leadership changes both for what they reveal about the Chinese domestic political system and for their possible impact on China’s external relations.

 

First, continuing in the manner by which Hu acceded to power, there is no particular leader of the fifth generation chosen as the “core.” Like Hu, the new leader will likely only be primus inter pares. However, unlike in the case of Hu, who first entered the CPC Politbureau’s Standing Committee (PBSC) as the only member of the fourth generation of leaders, this PBSC has two members of the fifth generation Li Keqiang and Xi Jinping. There has been talk that given Xi stands senior to Li in the PBSC, the former is the likely successor to Hu. It has however, to be noted that it was Li who was the first to become a full member of the CPC’s Central Committee in 1992, with Xi following only in 1997. The choice of who the next General Secretary is therefore not as clear-cut as it was in the case of Hu.

 

Leaving aside the question of seniority, it appears that given their respective backgrounds Li and Xi seem to fit neatly into the possibility of succeeding Hu and Wen Jiabao respectively. Li has served in senior positions in the agriculturally important province of Henan and in China’s most industrially significant province of Liaoning while Xi has only served in the wealthy coastal provinces of Fujian, Zhejiang and Shanghai. The major reason for Li’s ascent has been his Communist Youth League (CYL) connection with Hu but Xi, in addition to earning his spurs as an economic reformer is also a taizi – one of the princelings, as children of Party elders are known – and also considered to be more popular and successful than Li.

 

While this uncertainty, would in another era, be considered destabilizing, the CPC by choosing two members of the fifth generation of leaders, who could be potential successors to Hu Jintao, has left open the possibility of each candidate try to win political legitimacy for himself before 2012 when the next Congress takes place. This method also gels with the CPC’s claims of seeking increased “inner-Party democracy” and “consultative democracy.”

 

Second, for the first time, all members in the PBSC, except Wen Jiabao, have experience as Party Secretaries in the provinces. This indicates the increasing weight of the provinces at Beijing and of the importance of a career in the provinces for promotions to the highest leadership positions in China. The dynamics of centre-province relations – China is a far more federal entity than is commonly acknowledged – and their impact on China’s internal politics and increasingly, its external policies, are issues that are still little understood by outside observers. It will therefore be increasingly necessary for countries, and especially China’s neighbours, to tailor their foreign policies towards China, not just in terms of dealing with a centre at Beijing but also to reorient themselves to acknowledge China’s various provincial power centres.

 

Third, the two other new faces inducted into the PBSC, besides Li and Xi, namely He Guoqiang and Zhou Yongkang have spent significant lengths of time in departments and ministries related to China’s petroleum industry, especially Zhou, who is a former head of the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC). This point perhaps to the new and growing power of China’s top state-owned enterprises (SOEs), and in particular, the national oil companies (NOCs). This is another indication, if it were needed, that China will continue to emphasize public ownership of key sectors of the economy and that energy security will continue to be a top concern with the Chinese leadership in the coming years.

 

For India, the manner of leadership change and the background of the new leaders in its largest neighbour should be matters of close study. On the foreign policy front, there are two aspects India should pay attention to. One, India’s China policy should take note of the rising power of China’s provinces and pay renewed attention to sub-regional projects such as the Kunming Initiative, for example. New Delhi should also be broad-basing its China involvement and actively encourage closer ties between its states and China’s provinces. Equally significant for India is the fact that the Hu Jintao years have seen increased attention being paid to China’s interior provinces. This attention is only likely to intensify and could have important implications for the outcome of the boundary talks between India and China.

 

Two, at a much broader level, given the political instability and the ‘difficulties’ of Western-style multi-party democracy in the rest of South Asia, India must seriously consider whether, the Chinese one-party model might not increasingly come to be seen as an alternative and whether India needs to do more as a role model for multi-party democracy in the region.

Original Article: “Leadership Change in China and Implications for India,” IPCS Article No. 2411, 7 November 2007.

 

Direct Flights between Taiwan and China

Originally published: 2007

 

Extract:

Is a direct flight from Taipei to Shanghai an international flight or a domestic flight? It is both. It is international by the International Civil Aviation Agreement of 1944. It is domestic in the sense that it probably won’t be operated by any foreign airline, but by airlines in Taiwan and in the mainland. So what is it then? It is a special flight. What should we call it? Say, Cross-strait Flight.

Ma Ying-jeou

 The above statement by Guomindang (KMT) chairman Ma captures the nature of the problem of cross-straits flights. The ambiguity involved allows the respective government to interpret to its own advantage the nature of the flights. However, the issue at hand has always been more than one of a simple renewal of contacts between Taiwan and the mainland. Direct transport, trade and postal links – known as the “three links” – with the mainland were snapped by the Republic of China government that had fled to Taiwan following its defeat. Today, in an era of deepening economic ties, the lack of direct and convenient links between the two political entities remains something of an anachronism. What has complicated matters however, is the fact that the strengthening of Sino-Taiwanese economic ties has also been accompanied by the rise of Taiwanese nationalism.

Original Article: “The Implications of Direct Flights: Beijing in Taiwanese Politics,” in Anita Sharma and Sreemati Chakrabarti (eds.), Taiwan Today (New Delhi: Anthem Press, 2007), pp. 22-41.

Beyond the McMahon Line

Abstract: The development of the North East hinges on a range of factors. One of the aspects that could play an important role in the matter is the improvement of infrastructure along the India-China boundary in the sector. While both India and China have legitimate security interests to consider along their common, disputed frontiers, renewed focus on developing border relations between the two Asian giants, especially in the light of recent infrastructure developments in the North East, could have a salutary effect. If security is defined also as the maintenance of peace and harmony along borders, New Delhi and Beijing might find that the current phase of infrastructure development by both the countries along the common frontier could provide for such security in a number of ways. In this context, it is my contention that the pursuit of cross-border economic initiatives by both countries must focus on letting sub-national actors such as the states (on the Indian side) and the provinces (on the Chinese side) take the lead. The time has come to stop thinking of borders as being static or unchanging and to abandon the belief that achieving fixed boundaries or the defence of those lines as defined on a map is a guarantee of national security.

For the North East, this is a position that could possibly contribute to the reordering of priorities accorded to it by New Delhi. Moreover, such an approach could offer ‘mainstream’ India a way out of the dilemma it has often been caught in: whether to consider the North East as a part of India that has genuine developmental aspirations or only as a region for which security should be the sole concern—the latter, either because of the several ethnopolitical problems that beleaguer the region, or because it as a buffer zone against external pressure.

Original Article: “Beyond the McMahon Line: Infrastructure Development in the North Eastern Sector,” in Jaideep Saikia (ed.), Frontier in Flames: North East India in Turmoil (New Delhi: Penguin, 2007), pp. 170-85.

The Qinghai-Tibet Railway and Nathu La

Originally published: January 2007

Abstract: July 2006 saw China make two major statements of intent in its huge western region. The first of these was the opening of the 1,142km section from Golmud to Lhasa completing the Qinghai-Tibet railway (QTR). The other, was the reopening of the 4,545m high Nathu La trading route on the Tibet-Sikkim border that had been closed following the 1962 border conflict between India and China. Besides a narrow perception of these and other Chinese infrastructure developments as creating a strategic threat, they might also be looked at in terms of creating long-term opportunities for India.

India must not view Chinese moves to gain greater access to South Asia only within a narrow strategic framework but as another opportunity for New Delhi to come to terms with the problems that bedevil its relations with the northeastern states of the country, to take better account of local aspirations and demands before deciding what is best for the region. It needs to be remembered that Chinese ties to South Asia cannot be enduring in any way without a decisive Indian influence. For several decades now, that Indian influence has played out in a negative sense where Chinese relations with Pakistan have been concerned. On India’s eastern front, strategic concerns and a defensive mindset meant that connectivity in the northeast remained limited. Today, however, if India were to accept the challenge and approach the Chinese moves more positively, Indian influence in the larger region too can play out positively. The vision is one of tying the development of India’s northeast with that of its South Asian neighbours, of China’s west and southwest and of the countries of Indochina. The closer the ties, the lesser incentive any player has to play spoilsport. This can be a situation where everyone is a winner.

 

Original Article: “The Qinghai-Tibet Railway and Nathu La – Challenge and Opportunity for India,” China Report (New Delhi), Vol. 43, No. 1, January 2007, pp. 83-87.

European Integration and Lessons for China

Originally published: December 2006

Abstract: The European Union and the People’s Republic of China can be compared by viewing them primarily as conglomerates of smaller constituents, each with their own political and economic significance in relations with their respective political centres. While this is a perspective that is more easily applied to the EU given that each of its members enjoys sovereignty and also the Union’s rather short history, Chinese area studies have only recently begun viewing China as a sum of its parts. The present study while conscious of the huge differences in the historical development and present realities of both the EU and China, posits that the similarities in the centre-constituent as well inter-constituent relationships developing in both the EU and China allow for important lessons to be drawn. A key focus is the differentiated set of relationships developing between Brussels and the latest entrants to the EU and between the older and newer members of the EU. In China, too, the nature of relationships between the central government and the better-developed coastal provinces is different from those that Beijing has with the central or western provinces, with implications also for the relationships among these different sets of provinces themselves. The tensions and charges of unfair treatment seen in the accessions of the Central and Eastern European nations to the EU, have an echo in the similar complaints that have been coming from the interior provinces of China since the beginning of economic reforms in that country, and perhaps, provide pointers to the future direction of the development of centre-province and inter-provincial relationships in China.

Original Article: “European Integration and Lessons for China,” Asia Europe Journal (Heidelberg), Vol. 4, No. 4, December 2006, pp. 511-21.

From ‘Look East’ to ‘Think East’

Originally published: 3 February 2005

Alexander the Great met his “Final Frontier” in the Indian subcontinent; it was, however, the start of several incursions from the West leading to the spread of Islam, the rise of the Mughals, arrival of the Portuguese, and takeover by the British. The subcontinent’s political worldview has, therefore, for much of its history, inevitably been shaped by the West. The influence of the East has been more muted.

As the political entities of the subcontinent carry on their fractious relationships, the question needs to be asked, at least by India whether it is not time to move on. There are great and tumultuous changes occurring in its eastern neighbourhood that demand greater engagement. A beginning was made with India’s “Look East” policy in the early 1990s. But with a Westernized intellectual and political elite undertaking its conceptualization and operationalization, the policy still does not “look” sufficiently East. The more India and the subcontinent can learn to be Janus-faced, the less contradictions there will be in coping with the challenges of globalization and development. Incidentally, Pakistan was the first to realize the benefits of such an approach in the security domain.

But there is more to it than security. Even as historical, ethnic, political and military questions roil the region, East Asia is able to maintain the momentum of its economic interactions which has lessons for South Asia. Unlike the European Union experiment, the emphasis in Asia is – or should be – on the disaggregation of centres and doing away with centripetal forces. India, in particular, needs to show greater creativity and initiative in fostering closer economic ties with its neighbours. It needs to promote open borders and economic linkages between its border states and neighbouring countries. This would involve a substantial reordering of the concepts of federalism and sovereignty in India – a process already underway in China, though not always with government control.

In its engagement with East Asia, India is already on the way with BIMSTEC, Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) talks with China and Singapore and plans for FTAs with South Korea are examples. India’s FTA negotiations with ASEAN are notable since the latter will enter similar negotiations with Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand in 2005.

Geopolitically, India’s engagement with the military junta in Myanmar and interest in the Indochina region indicates pragmatism. Its membership of the ARF and the joint military exercises it now holds with several countries of the region, allows India to keep abreast with even if it cannot influence them. However, like Japan, India too, often conveys the impression that it only acts in reaction to Chinese moves. The remedy lies in imaginative thinking. ASEAN for example, has responded with initiatives such as ASEAN + 3 and the determination to be at the centre of a planned East Asia Community after the financial crisis of 1997. ASEAN may not be able to occupy the driver’s seat in the face of China’s rise but that should not invite deference from India. The fact that “East Asia” is the focus does not automatically exclude India from a leading role but that role can only come about if New Delhi progresses from “Look East” to “Move East” in its foreign policy orientation.

India should seize this opportunity with both hands. India’s northeast could serve as the land bridge and India’s eastern coast could provide the synergy across the seas. In the first case, a long neglected region would also acquire a position in the Indian polity that it has been long denied. In the second case, it would provide crumbling ports of Kolkatta and Chennai with the opportunities to revitalize themselves and their hinterlands.

An integral part of this process of realizing both domestic and global ambitions is to begin to “Think East” as well and this is where the Government of India has been lacking in wisdom or vision. In keeping diplomacy divested of academic input and academia being deprived of all access to the East Asian region whether in terms of language skills or access to resources for travel and study, New Delhi continues to drive its enterprise on the wrong fuel. Unless, India builds up dedicated and large academic resources to the study of more than the usual military buildups, economic indicators or foreign policy doublespeak, India is going nowhere East anytime soon.

Original Article: “From ‘Look East’ to ‘Think East’,” IPCS Article No. 1631, 3 February 2005.