(Source: BloombergQuint)

Emperor Xi And The Kowtow Imperative

BloombergQuintOpinion

Imperial China had no Foreign Ministry; there was only the Ministry of Rituals. Its job was to judge the importance of the country seeking consideration and decide the level of kowtow – the elaborate show of obsequiousness, the series of bows, kneels, and touching the forehead to the floor, that would be required of its emissary seeking an audience with the Emperor.

At the 19th Party Congress the 5th General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and the country’s President – Xi Jinping, instead of identifying his successor for a smooth transfer of power five years hence, decided he liked life in the Zhongnanhai too much to leave, and removed the rule limiting the tenure of general secretary-cum-President to two terms or 10 years. It is an internal coup staged by Xi to all but anoint himself Emperor supported by the People’s Liberation Army – the power behind the throne – and controlled by the Central Military Commission that he continues to head.

Xi has thus upended the leadership succession system put in place by the ‘great helmsman’ – Deng Xiaoping, who had suffered at the hands of Chairman Mao Zedong, his ‘Gang of Four’, and the Cultural Revolution they let loose in the 1960s when he was humiliated, forced to ride a donkey with a dunce cap on his head.

Deng had reformed the system so China would not have a dictator again. A rich and powerful China has a dictator again in Xi.

Complete with a compilation of his ideas and quotations to guide party cadres in the manner Mao’s ‘little red book’ did in a poor, backward China.

Porcelain cups featuring portraits of Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, and former Chinese leader Mao Zedong stand on display at a store window in Beijing, China, on February 26, 2018. (Photographer: Giulia Marchi/Bloomberg)
Porcelain cups featuring portraits of Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, and former Chinese leader Mao Zedong stand on display at a store window in Beijing, China, on February 26, 2018. (Photographer: Giulia Marchi/Bloomberg)

What Does Emperor/Dictator Xi Portend For India And Its Environs?

Nothing very good, alas, considering how cravenly the Modi government is giving in to Beijing with officials and ruling party members being instructed to not participate in events marking the Dalai Lama’s 60th year of exile. The lack of resolve to stand up to China is reflected in the events in the neighbourhood that Delhi has done nothing to obviate. China’s India policy is anchored in developing Pakistan as the counter. This has limitations primarily because Pakistan is too small, too economically insignificant, and too fractured to be a stable partner. But with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor $46 billion (CPEC), China is afforded a presence in the Indian Ocean with the warm water port of Gwadar which, besides giving its restive Western provinces, especially Xinjiang and Tibet (Xizang), an opening for direct sea trade, establishes China’s role in the Indian Ocean, what with the seaward base in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa, and control of the Hambantota port in Sri Lanka.

Signage for the China Overseas Ports Holding Co. is displayed on a building wall at Gwadar Port in Gwadar, Balochistan, Pakistan. (Photographer: Asim Hafeez/Bloomberg)
Signage for the China Overseas Ports Holding Co. is displayed on a building wall at Gwadar Port in Gwadar, Balochistan, Pakistan. (Photographer: Asim Hafeez/Bloomberg)

China’s strategy on the CPEC or Sri Lanka – or the other countries in South Asia and its littoral which are under contestation – is less about trade, more about geo-strategically crowding India out of the Indian Ocean region per “wei qi” principles.

Wei qui is the traditional Chinese board game where the object is to occupy as many squares on the board as possible to leave the opponent no space to move, and thus eliminate his policy options.

Consider how methodically Xi has gone about capitalising on the alienation of states adjoining India.

Landward, Nepal is the big prize where under the Unified Marxist-Leninist Party (UNMP) Prime Minister KP Oli has made clear his intention to play India off against China to get the best deal for his country. There’s recent history of Delhi invariably overplaying its hand, trying to coerce Kathmandu into drafting a Constitution for the country giving a significant political role for the Terai-region habitants of Nepal, called Madhesis, who are of eastern Uttar Pradesh-Bihar ethnic stock, by arranging a ham-handed Madhesi blockade that prevented essential supplies of foodstuff and petroleum reaching the interiors of the land-locked country. It turned the Nepali people against the Nepali Congress Party (NCP) government of Sher Bahadur Deuba, and the Oli regime taking over. The mercurial Prachanda, who led the Maoist rebellion against the state for many years and is now mainstream, decides who rules.

Prachanda has thrown his support to Oli, and between them, China has locked Kathmandu down on its side.

In Sri Lanka, the China-friendly Mahinda Rajapaksa and his Sri Lanka People’s Front party (SLPFP) having swept the local election, are calling for new elections, something Prime Minister Ranil Wikremesinghe’s government has pre-empted by ramming through a law that disallows the Sri Lanka President from calling elections on his own. This law may have had President Mangala Sirisena’s covert support considering he won the presidential poll against Rajapaksa, among other issues, because of the latter’s policy that put the country in hock to China.

Ironically, it is the Wikremesinghe regime which ended up leasing the Humbantota port to a Chinese company for 99 years because of Colombo’s inability to service the debt incurred on its modernisation.

If SLPFP is voted to power then Sri Lanka, as Rajapaksa’s son Namal told the Nikkei Asian Review, will revert to relying on Beijing.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, accompanied by then President Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka, inspected the South Container Terminal of Colombo Port, on September 17, 2014. (Photograph: Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
Chinese President Xi Jinping, accompanied by then President Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka, inspected the South Container Terminal of Colombo Port, on September 17, 2014. (Photograph: Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

Shift focus to the Bay of Bengal, and one finds India losing ground there as well.

  • The recent contest to wrest control of the Dhaka Stock Exchange went China’s way because, well, it offered more money for its shares.
  • India hasn’t helped its cause eastward in Myanmar where the Indian project to develop the Kalidan port complex has not taken off because of the usual inter-ministerial turf war and bureaucratic bungle in Delhi, even as China has raced to build the north-south infrastructure for the oil pipeline and Kyauk Pyu port, and bought 70 percent control of it.
  • And, most disturbingly, the Modi regime has failed to prevent the China-leaning Abdulla Yameen Gayoom from unlawfully extending his rule in the Maldives even as the leading opposition leader Mohammad Nasheed begged for Indian intervention to head off Yameen and Delhi did nothing. The payoff to China will be an atoll where it will erect in no time at all where construction is concerned, as is its wont, a warship berthing complex, and even a submarine pen.
Maldivian president Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom, center, surrounded by his body guards arrives to address his supporters in Male, Maldives, on February 3, 2018. (Photograph: AP/PTI)
Maldivian president Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom, center, surrounded by his body guards arrives to address his supporters in Male, Maldives, on February 3, 2018. (Photograph: AP/PTI)

Xi’s ‘belt and road initiative’ is cover for setting up a string of regimes on states surrounding India and headed by strongmen financially beholden to China. For instance, the Sri Lanka Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera has charged Rajapaksa of siphoning off $18 billion, presumably, of Chinese credit to offshore accounts in Dubai and Seychelles and, perforce, will do his bidding.

So, owing to Delhi’s strategic myopia, political inattention, and just plain ineptness China is strategically ensconced to India’s immediate north in Nepal, immediate west in Pakistan, immediate east in Bangladesh, and to the immediate extended east in Myanmar, and on its oceanic doorstep in the Maldives, Hambantota, and Kyauk Pyu. The next time Modi seeks a meeting with Xi, who knows, he may be required to kowtow.

Bharat Karnad is Professor for National Security Studies, Centre for Policy Research, and author most recently of ‘Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)’.

The views expressed here are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of Bloomberg Quint or its editorial team.