Revisionism has been a way of life in China for more than a century. China transited from imperialism to nationalism to Maoism to capitalism with socialist principles. It has just embarked on another revision from capitalism to an uncertain form of socialism with an ideological mix of Mao, Marx and Xi Jinping. The current revisionism is hazy with uncertain outcomes. Any revisionist society where cataclysmic changes of lifestyle occur tends to be unstable. In China, every generation has faced such changes. What is happening today is a bit more complicated. The drivers of this revision are themselves undergoing a revision. Understanding this multi-dimensional neo-revisionism will be a key to handle China in future.
China’s huge population has been a driver of its great strength. Cheap and skilled labour. High volumes and demand. Many hands for its Armed forces. This demographic dividend is now fading. The One Child policy and its outcome have changed that irreversibly. China is hereafter going to be saddled with an ageing and declining population where labour costs are rising, consumption reducing and the manpower pool for an expanded military is shrinking. Sustainable economic development is at risk. China knows that its period of rapid growth is over. It is staring at a plateau preceding a decline. To offset this, China has to transform into a developed society before it hits that plateau. It implies two things. The political compulsion to take risk to transform China into a developed society of great power, post haste, is huge even in an environment of uncertain but ambitious outcomes. It also imposes a huge strain on its society which knows that it is heading into this ambiguous future with no political choice to the people.
When China opened up to the world, it increasingly meshed into the international order. Post-Mao leaders worked towards being part of the international order and benefitting from it. It was a gradual transition. It had developed an outbound world view through Globalisation. Xi Jinping changed that by aggressively seeking Rejuvenation of the China Dream, attempting a sino-centric International Order and avenging the perceived ‘Century of Humiliation’. The speed of his drive has antagonised the International Order. It is also being driven by a leader whose personal ambition is to anoint himself not only as China’s lifetime ruler but its greatest one. Besides this, the current sentiment to deglobalize is forcing it to turn inward.
China derived immense riches from its ‘state capitalistic model’ over the past five decades. The model created iconic organisations and people of immense wealth and power. As their wealth and fame grew, they have begun to intrinsically challenge the state supremacy. However the growth of the wealthy has also resulted in widening inequality. The danger lies in sliding back to the days of the vast inequalities of imperial China. The answer to this is the populistic ‘common prosperity’ drive. Ostensibly it takes from the ‘haves’ and gives to the ‘have-nots’ while addressing the social grievances of the common Chinese. However it actually culls the power and the wealth of those who can challenge the state supremacy. Energy shortages due to geopolitical factors is also being palmed off as common prosperity for the common good in the garb of environment or self -sufficiency. Ultimately the common prosperity program is trimming the wealthy, depriving the common people of some basics and giving power to the rulers. This ingenious power concentration program drives the larger revision .
The core motive of the CCP from Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping has always been to establish China as the foremost and influential global power with an expanded footprint. This has also been the fundamental aim of the oft articulated phrase ‘Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation’. Rejuvenation involves increasing China’s comprehensive national power, territorial expansion into areas perceived as China’s, show that socialism is superior to capitalism, and retain the initiative and be the dominant power. However the on-going revisionism is most likely to cap China’s economic power. Resultantly ,increase in comprehensive national power is threatened. However China will not give up on its overall aim to establish China as the foremost global power. If China cannot increase its economic power, it will build up its technological and military power to compensate for this loss to its comprehensive national power. If that be so China will become increasingly more militaristic, expansionist and technology hinged to leverage its economy to continue to be functioning as before. It will also attempt to heighten global dependency on trade through one means or the other. The BRI, Digital Silk Road and Health Silk Road are all part of that effort to keep its economy at peak output levels. That is the trend line one is seeing now.
Overall China is aware of its divergent strategic environment in which its military power must succeed. The majority Han population and the rich agricultural and economic belts are concentrated in the East. The East is also where it faces Japan, Russia and USA. All of them ravaged China in the century of humiliation. In addition, China must overcome Taiwan to break out of the first Island chain to expand into the Pacific Ocean. Currently, its expanding Navy is constricted with too few outlets or bases for power projection. Most importantly, it must better the US Navy at sea and push it out of the Pacific Ocean. The bulk of its Armed Forces and capabilities must be dedicated to defending its core and creating avenues for expansion. This is its prime requirement. On the other hand, the sparse expanse of the West is populated by non-Hans and has less resources. The Western minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet are unassimilated. If China has learnt anything it is that despite all the development investment into Tibet and Xinjiang, there will always be the danger of ‘splittism’ as envisioned by Xi Jinping. This has been re-affirmed by the US which had to exit from Afghanistan after failing to assimilate people there. Its unsettled border with India complicates the situation. However the Western areas also present an opportunity to China to access two oceans and position its navy in Gwadar and Djibouti area to dominate the Gulf. China’s strong relationship with Pakistan, its budding relationship with Iran and the opportunity in Afghanistan can power the CPEC to culminate in realisation of two ocean access. This implies that out of proportion military commitment has to be made to this area which will be difficult for it to afford but will be forced to commit. That is evident in the ongoing military build-up in Tibet and Xinjiang. If China has to become the pre-eminent global power during this revisionist period, it must enhance its military unambiguously to overcome its strategic competitors in both areas. Only then can it continue with a coercive foreign policy and military presence beyond its borders to leverage its economy.
China faces two major competitors in this period of strategic revision. A re-rising USA is the current and major threat. Its strategic orientation, alliances and power projection capabilities threaten China’s core interests and global ambitions. USA cannot be muscled out. It has to be slowly sidelined by salami slicing. The first stage was gaining control of the South China Sea and Hong Kong. That has been done. The next stages involve assimilating Taiwan by force and to subjugate the South China sea littoral nations. China will therefore be belligerent in this area. Its belligerence will continue till its sphere of physical influence expands to guarantee a safe passage across Malacca to buffet its economy. That will be the third stage. China is fully aware that around 2050 , the aged will be 35% of the population at a time when the Indian youth bulge will be approx. I billion. A rising India is therefore the future threat. India can derail its Western expansionism. It can instigate spilttism in Tibet and Xinjiang. It can blunt China’s image and cause to lose face to dent its pre-eminence as a global power. Rising India has to be constantly put down. Eastern Ladakh demonstrated that a war of quick resolution against India is beyond China. It also cannot force its will against a nuclear power to attain its objectives within one season. The uncertainty in Afghanistan makes dealing with India a protracted affair. India has to be worn down over three to four seasons. That will have repercussions on its eastern strategy. The best one can do is to create situations in conjunction with Pakistan so that India remains in the backfoot and its rise is constantly impeded. All in all China will constantly create military problems for India for which we have to be prepared.
The Virus is still playing out despite China having proclaimed victory over it last year. The economic and geopolitical effects and outcomes of the Virus are still uncertain. It is now emerging that the Virus has started to adversely affect China economically, far more than it was visualised. This has also fuelled the revisionism. In every estimate the Virus has contributed immensely to the antagonism China has experienced in the international order. As long as the Virus lasts, China will not be able to reassert itself either economically or geopolitically.
Overall China will remain a large economy which can affect the world. However it might not have the clout it had so far. However, as part of the revisionism, its leaders will try to enhance and revive China’s economic clout while continuing to expand territorially. At present the plan, logic and outcomes sought in this economic revision is not clear. What is clear is that China is veering away from a market based economy to being a command economy. Militarily, China will continue to grow. In this period of revisionism, it will only get more assertive and aggressive. In the same vein we are likely to see a new face of Wolf Warrior diplomats who will hereafter start extolling revisionism. Chinese influence operations will aid this entire effort. They will project a progressive and superior China, hide internal schisms and create an impression of its legal correctness. This process has just started. It will take anything between 5-10 years before one gets a hang of the direction in which China is heading. This is assuming that Xi Jinping continues. If that does not happen, the course ahead is even more uncertain and unstable. All in all we must be prepared for a China which will trouble the world. This is very clear from one of Xi Jinping recent speeches – “China has not yet achieved the complete reunification of the motherland, and has disputes over territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests with many neighbouring countries. Solving these problems is a hurdle we must cross, and it is also a major risk and challenge that we must correctly handle…The motherland must be unified”.
India should be prepared for a calculated onslaught from all domains. China will attempt to increase India’s dependency on its goods and services, to enmesh it economically. It will do everything in its power to derail the Atmanirbharta effort. It will continue to build up militarily across Tibet and seize any opportunity which presents itself.We must expect persistent nibbling actions in the future. Its move into the IOR will be contingent upon the success it achieves in expanding its control over the South China Sea towards the Malacca Straits. It will enhance its relationship with Pakistan to constantly pose an operational and strategic dilemma to India. So what is new about all this? From here on, China will be prepared to take additional risks. Its focus on India will increase. One must expect its behaviour in Tibet and in the neighbourhood to be far more intrusive and overbearing. The revisionist China will be far more India centric than in the past. Brace for it.
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