China’s callousness in allowing the virus to spread and then taking advantage of it at the cost of people at large have not been accepted. What the world saw was Beijing displaying a sense of being ordained to rule the world; whose time had come with the virus.
There are too many amongst us who predict that China will come breathing fury and fire of a mythical dragon. It won’t happen because it can’t happen. Very clearly the facts show that China is not the behemoth it is being made to be. In any case till such time the CCP is in power, India has to deal with an inimical China.
China is facing ‘deep’ isolation in the international environment. It started with the cover up of the Wuhan Virus and its aggressive and assertive expansionism. The expansionism found military expression in the China Seas and Eastern Ladakh. Political expansionism spread to Hong Kong when the National Security Law was imposed in contravention to international agreements. The idea of gobbling up Taiwan is an eternal Chinese and CCP obsession. Future expansionist plans include parts of Bhutan, Nepal, CARs and Russia. After the initial gains, there has been a military push back notably by USA and India. Both of them have stopped the Chinese juggernaut in its tracks. The physical isolation imposed by the virus has been followed by geopolitical, diplomatic, technological, and isolation. It is now heading into trade and economic trimming. The real test of character is how an individual or a system behaves under stress. When put under stress by the Wuhan Virus, the true ‘Chinese Character’ revealed itself. A ‘what is mine is mine and what is yours is also mine’ kind of a greedy China emerged.
China’s callousness in allowing the Virus to spread and then taking advantage of it at the cost of people at large has not been accepted. What the world saw was China displaying a sense of being ordained to rule the world; whose time had come with the Virus. They also witnessed total Chinese disregard for the international rules based order, attempt to gain control over governments through debt traps, influence operations, social media surveillance, intelligence collection and plain coercion. Chinese characteristics which came through were IPR theft, wolf warrior diplomacy and weaponisation of the virus through health and mask diplomacy. Key motives which have emerged are unbridled profits and geopolitical control.
It emerged that China also weaponises public opinion by manipulation, misinformation, sowing dissent, and discord in democratic societies. The legal loopholes of democracies are exploited. It shapes domestic and international public opinion blatantly through media, military experts, and political parties portraying itself as a victim. It provides legal justification, through mythical history. Target countries are left with no choice but to accept the Chinese fait accompli. Chinese narratives were being built through pliant politicians, media, officials, international institutions, think tanks, academic institutions, workers unions, industry, and even foreign governments to influence thought and decision. The intrusive and pervasive extent of Chinese seepage into the international environment and respective domestic environments has been exposed. It needs to be stopped. That is what all countries are doing.
The effectiveness of a global power lies in its ability to win wars. The US, the erstwhile USSR, and the United Kingdom proved that a superpower must shed blood — own and that of your enemy’s. Unless China is prepared to fight and win or seen to be winning it is simply not a superpower. One can talk endlessly of unrestricted warfare or multi domain warfare or all other kinds of warfare but wars have to be ultimately won on ground. After all we are humans. We are not birds, fish, space creatures or electronic chips. Currently China is outmanoeuvred by India in Ladakh and boxed in by the USA in the China Seas. The PLA has turned up short on this score. China’s strategy of ‘Belligerent War Avoidance’ has not worked. If the PLA cannot militarily enforce and achieve the CCPs political aims, China will not succeed. Very importantly, the military state of affairs indicates that China is not yet capable of protecting its overseas economic interests. In fact it is vulnerable on this count. The Chinese stress has been on development of Comprehensive National Power which might get you a seat on the UN Security Council but not a military victory. The drawbacks of PLA are evident in China’s White Paper on Defence. It is an overtly political paper. The focus is on organisation, mechanisation, informationisation and of all things micro-corruption! If a nation has to talk of rooting out micro-corruption from its armed forces in an international document, then it is an admittance of incompetence.
When there is no mention of improving combat effectiveness at cutting edge levels in such a paper, then it is some sort of an expectation that your enemy will roll over due to sheer bluster. The PLA might bully small nations with weak forces. When arraigned against professional and strong-armed forces it is being found out. PLA is an inexperienced force under transition. Neither fit for continental nor overseas engagements. When the transition is complete and if it gains experience, it might be different. That is an IF. In the current situation ‘if’ it cannot prevail over India it will be a total loss of face. The military future of China is not very rosy — politicised leadership, unproven manpower, unproven weaponry, unproven capabilities.
China is a diverse nation composed of 56 ethnic groups. Han Chinese account for 91.59% and the other 55 make up the remaining 8.41%. Among the non-Han ethnic groups, 44 ethnicities occupy their own autonomous regions, or counties. The largest ethnic minority groups in China are the Zhuang (16 million), Manchu (10 million), Hui (9 million), Miao ( 8 million), Uyghurs (7 million), Yi (7 million), Tujia (5.75 million), Mongols (5 million), Tibetan (5 million), Buyei (3 million), and Koreans (2 million). The degree of integration of ethnic minorities varies. Uyghurs and Tibetans are not integrated with the Han or CCP or China. Of late, this is spreading to Mongols also. The Government does dot trust these minorities. They are under strict state regulation. Religious autonomy is restricted. At various points of time these minorities have had major problems. Any signs of resistance from these ethnic minorities are interpreted as separatism and draws severe repression. These minorities occupy around 50% of the total area. They are not well off as compared to the Han. Han migration is encouraged into these areas through development and construction projects. Chinese government sees economic development as the main solution for ethnic dissent.
However these areas are being kept less developed inexplicably. The CCP wants to integrate them forcefully into the mainstream through side-lining ethnic languages, religion and customs. Tibetan and Uygur minority language schools have been closed since 2017 and replaced by Mandarin Chinese instruction. The same is being done now in Mongol areas. They are discriminated against in the job market. Their populations are not being allowed to expand through forced sterilisation. 1.3 million Uyghurs on average per year have been put through ‘vocational training’ internment camps from 2014 to 2019. They have now put 500,000 Tibetans into forced-labour camps for militarized vocational training aimed to reform ‘backward thinking’ and improve ‘work discipline’. Forced integration of Tibetans into the system is a recent phenomenon. There is a clear fracture with Tibetans, Uyghurs and Mongols which is enlarging.
The Hong Kong democracy undercurrent will not vanish. Chinese preoccupation with Taiwan will not evaporate. If things deteriorate other minorities might also raise a flag. The implication is that the ‘Westwards Development’ agenda and the ‘Dual Circulation’ strategy which are to rescue the Chinese economy are at further risk. China will have to constantly invest considerable political, economic and military effort to keep these rimland areas under control and survive as a single entity. It will have to keep looking inwards. The international environment will also not respond favourably to China till such time it discriminates with its own people. This will inhibit their superpower drive.
The high flying Chinese economy has been brought down to earth by the virus. There is no doubt that it is recovering. Notwithstanding propaganda, the economic recovery has been found to be patchy and overhyped. In the short term things will look normal. In fact Xi Jinping has reiterated that the Marxist political economic model will be the bedrock for China’s growth. Further he was only partially right when he said that the situation was ‘deep and complex’. It is actually beyond that. With Germany joining the Indo-Pacific Club, most of the big economies and rich nations are now ranged against China . That is going to be a big blow to China. What does it mean? The Made in China 2025 plan is facing stiff problems due to lack of ‘Core Technology’ as mentioned by Xi Jinping himself. Its Military Civil Fusion methodologies have been found out and exposed. They are being culled. China is being placed in a technology denial system. China does not have the technological ability to overcome all those barriers which Xi Jinping spoke of. As much as China has progressed in some fields, it has stagnated in others. Hence its economy will have a limiting factor at some stage. The BRI and its flagship CPEC have run into economic, political, and strategic rough weather. The BRI model is no longer sustainable. China has not managed macroeconomic risk well. It has not given adequate attention to building political capital. Its choice of weak nations and debt trap diplomacy has led to a BRI backlash. BRI is now being subjected to a higher level of audit. Renegotiation is on the cards in many cases. There is also a reluctance on the part of countries to commence new projects. China will have to settle for far less geopolitical/economic dividends than it had set out to reap. Most importantly, the decoupling initiative of all the big economies will hit China hard. Economic shrinkage is a matter of time and that will be permanent. On that there is no doubt.
The Dual Circulation model has not got much traction. It is contingent on the success of three things. One. Internal consumption has to go up. In the short term, Chinese are simply refusing to consume. In the long term an aging China cannot consume. Two. The Go West Policy can only succeed if Tibet, Xinjiang, Mongolia and Western regions prosper. That looks unlikely due to political and ethnic factors. Three. Exports must increase but are going to reduce. The current enhanced expenditure on the Military situation will take its economic toll. The overall outlook for the Chinese economy does not bode well. Someone sensible has to do the maths.
All the issues highlighted and analysed are issues common to any country. What is special here? The difference is that China has an overbalanced and rigid polity which is driving the country to an unrealistic destiny. China is fixated with overtaking the USA. Its thinking is that others including India are handmaidens in that journey. The White Paper on Defence 2019 actually spells that without saying so. On the other hand the Chinese nation is imbalanced at this point of time – economically, militarily, diplomatically, environmentally and ethically. The Nation and the Government are at odds with each other. At the same time, Indian resistance is something new and totally unexpected. Currently, China is flummoxed as to how to contend that. Hence it will gather itself and come back at us with vengeance.
So how do we deal with China? We deal with facts and how they are presented to us. There are too many amongst us who predict that China will come breathing fury and fire of a mythical dragon. It won’t happen because it can’t happen.
Very clearly the facts show that China is not the behemoth it is being made to be. In any case till such time the CCP is in power, India has to deal with an inimical China. It will do us well to remember that after the US, India is enemy Number 2 hereafter. Their strategists, analysts and ‘Global Times’ will attribute their failures to us. Also, China has become habituated to the fact of blaming others for its own faults and deficiencies. Its leaders will externalise failure and the needle will swing to India. Hence, the lesser of China in our society the better it will be. The importance of Aatmanirbhar Bharat lies in the fact that we should consume to make our economy thrive and not consume to make the China Dream happen! When soldiers march in step on a bridge it tends to collapse. Why? Resonance! If even some issues facing China resonate then there will be a major change.
To recap, the issues are — diseases, aging, ethnic disparity, pollution, agriculture, degradation, climate change, diplomatic isolation, military limitation and economic trimming. China is a society without a check. It will continue on its improbable path at breakneck speed. Many of these factors are resonating and if the cadence is strong enough, we will see political change without fail. The Chernobyl factor is at work. Make no mistake about that. We should be prepared for the fallout of that change. From a long term perspective, it will be prudent to catalyse the change. The next standard question is will it lead to a China collapse? The simple answer is it will not. Will China become a superpower? The chances are no. What will happen? The economy was all set to shrink in the forthcoming decade anyway. It will get accelerated. Currently the world will consume what China produces and it will appear that the Chinese economy is still booming. However, in a couple of years when Chinese mega projects bottom out, organised decoupling takes effect, pollution takes effect, and aging progresses, the shrink will be visible. We will then see the Chinese economy right sizing. Accordingly, the polity will change.
This analysis is a ‘man without a dog’ effort. There could be shortcomings and it is probably full of holes. I concede. However, it is based on facts. It is not an exercise in wish listing. The facts reveal a vulnerable China. We need to do a holistic fusion analysis based on multiple inputs from institutional experts. It will enable us to then handle China in a realistic manner. From the analysis, writings and commentaries in public, it is evident that we are obsessed with Pakistan which is such a waste of time. For long, India has let the Ministry of External Affairs and some traders handle China exclusively. They have built an unrealistic image of China and allowed it to seep into our society. It is time that we study China and handle it with better understanding rather than the illiterate manner we have so far adopted. That is why we see a Dragon instead of a teeny weenie Chinaman who is sitting on a nuclear reactor about to go critical.
Lt Gen P.R. Shankar was India’s DG Artillery. He is highly decorated and qualified with vast operational experience. He contributed significantly to the modernisation and indigenisation of Artillery. He is now a Professor in the Aerospace Dept of IIT Madras and is involved in applied research for defence technology. His other articles can be read on his blog www.gunnersshot.com.