Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, right, and Chinese President Xi Jinping look out over East Lake in Wuhan in this photo taken on April 28, 2018. Their talk aimed to reduce border tensions but it appears to have had limited effect. Photo: AFP/ govt handout
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, right, and Chinese President Xi Jinping look out over the East Lake in Wuhan in this photo taken on April 28, 2018. Their talk was aimed at reducing border tensions but it appears to have had limited effect. Photo: AFP/ Govt handout

Rumblings are emanating from China against President Xi Jinping, who was placed on same pedestal as Mao Zedong by the Communist Party of China (CPC) recently. Though technically Xi is not “President for Life,” very systematically he has accumulated total power unto himself, eliminating dissenters and emplacing loyalists.

Dissent against Xi is emerging. One professor accused Xi of reversing years of reforms, in effect returning China to an era of totalitarian politics and a style of dictatorship last seen under Mao. Others blame the US-China trade war on Xi’s failure at implementing reforms, and urge him to stop spending money abroad on projects like the Belt and Road initiative (BRI), spending it instead in China.

There are rumors of rifts within the CPC. Somehow Chinese media appear to be giving more prominence to Premier Li Keqiang than to Xi.

Interestingly, visiting Lhasa recently, Li affirmed the Jokhang Monastery model for Tibetan-Chinese unity without noticing the inscription on the “friendship pillar” at that temple:

“Tibet and China shall abide by the frontiers of which they are now in occupation. All to the east is the country of Great China; and all to the west is, without question, the country of Great Tibet. Henceforth on neither side shall there be waging of war nor seizing of territory. If any person incurs suspicion, he shall be arrested.… Tibetans shall be happy in the land of Tibet, and Chinese in the land of China. Even the frontier guards shall have no anxiety, nor fear.”

China acts ruthlessly against dissent. Anyone speaking against Xi can be arrested, anyone disfiguring a poster of Xi can “go missing” or a controversial artist can have his studio demolished.

Noteworthy is the manner in which China has crushed Uyghur dissent in Xinjiang (a mere 1.5% of the Chinese population). It is amazing that despite Xi reintroducing virtual ethnic cleansing, there is no protest by Islamists is Pakistan, Saudi Arabia or Turkey, and not even by ISIS and al-Qaeda – the self-proclaimed champions of global jihad.

Xi’s headaches include China’s slowing economy, what seems like a protracted trade war with the US, rising external debt, hiccups in the BRI and countries getting wise to the Chinese “debt trap”. But the rising dissent that Xi faces this time is different, with the trade war at its center, which could lead to protests and a rise in unemployment. Xi’s hardline policies appear to be building dissent among intellectuals, liberal-minded former officials and the middle class.

Xi doesn’t appear to be threatened immediately, but which way the trade war will go is unpredictable. Despite the slowdown in the economy, Xi is unlikely to scale down foreign investments, the BRI and the Maritime Silk Roads, all part of Xi’s “China Dream” that he wants to realize at the earliest. The cumulative effect could be more dissent in China, fueled by intellectuals, educated jobless, the middle class and maybe even within the CPC. If so, Xi may look for diversion to rally the public in the name of nationalism.

If the trade war persists, Xi could go for devaluating the yuan, provided it hurts the US more and affects China minimally, even as it adversely affects regional economies such as India.

Whether Xi would like to further tensions with Taiwan is questionable, but the South China Sea has possibilities for more tension. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ Code of Conduct for Unplanned Encounters (CUES) doesn’t cover civilian coast guards, keeping open the possibility of confrontation involving coast guards and fishing militia. China could flex its muscles on an individual basis, say with a country like Vietnam whose evolving maritime strategy is not to China’s liking.

Xi could also strike India despite his summit with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Wuhan, as long as Chinese access to Indian markets continues. The People’s Liberation Army has consolidated in the Doklam Plateau of Bhutan despite Indian denials. China made 30 trangressions into India territory in May. In June, 50 PLA troops transgressed 2 kilometers into India territory in Sikkim resulting in a standoff, denied by the Indian government perhaps for political reasons but confirmed by other sources.

Defense allocations under the Modi government have been abysmally low. The last report by the Indian Parliament’s Standing Committee on Defense lambasted the government for the pathetic state of the Armed Forces, which ironically was publicly scoffed at by Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. Now the Estimates Committee of Parliament chaired by a Bharatiya Janata Party member of Parliament and with 16 BJP members has stated that for the past four years the Modi government has brought defense preparedness down to the level of 1962 when India was dealt a crushing defeat by China, “compromising safety and security of the country.”

The government has also done little to improve border infrastructure, particularly in Arunachal Pradesh, claimed by China as “Lower Tibet.”

India will remain a rival to Xi’s aim of a China-led Asia, translating into constricting India’s strategic space and keeping its economy in check. If Modi is improving the economy, what better than to dethrone him in coming elections? But the Chinese media lauding Modi’s economic policies could be a ploy to promote complacency, and we may be in for strategic shock before the general elections scheduled for April next year.

The author retired as lieutenant general from the Indian Army's Special Forces.

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