An Indian soldier stands atop a vehicle as the Ladakh standoff escalated in September 2020. Photo: NurPhoto / AFP / Muzamil Mattoo

Amid immense international curiosity, the Communist Party of China (CPC) is celebrating its centennial this week with great pomp, while cementing its position as one of the largest and longest-surviving one-party governments in the world.

Through all these decades, the party has reformed and revised itself in accordance with domestic and global developments with a sophisticated combination of political control, economic freedom, and ideological strength.

However, the CPC does face daunting challenges as the party marks its 100th birthday. While the United States continues to prevail as a rival to China, an emerging India in the Asian landmass also serves as a challenge to the CPC’s plan to dominate in times to come.

If anything, as it approached its 100th anniversary, the party under the leadership of Xi Jinping entered a critical juncture in India-China relations, as bilateral relations seemed to be at their “lowest point since the 1962 border war.” 

In particular, Beijing’s continued bolstering of military posture along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) despite the disengagement talks, and its assertive and unilateral tactics in the region do call into question the CPC’s conviction to the principles of “peaceful co-existence” and policies of “building a closer developmental partnership” with India.

Given its evolving priorities in the new era and a possibly changing India policy under Xi, how has India evolved in the CPC’s strategic and geopolitical calculus, and how will China’s India perceptions be shaped from now on?

The CPC’s perception of India has been shaped by the party’s worldview and self-proclaimed image embedded in history, the evolving regional and global standings of China, and the domestic motivations guiding its foreign policy. This has enabled India to transcend from a neighboring country and a benign power to an adversary and a rising challenge. 

In retrospect, the CPC has viewed the world through a prism of its self-proclaimed civilizational superiority and centrality stemming from its medieval urge to consider itself as Zhongguo, or the “Middle Kingdom.” This has enabled China to aim for global primacy through its concept of tianxia, or “all under heaven,” while already reaching a supreme position in the regional domain and viewing Asia through a hierarchical lens.

Thus the CPC, since the era of Mao Zedong, has considered India an unequal power, often viewing it as a “backward country” aiming to counter a “country that is far superior in strength.” In fact, Mao perceived India as a “lackey” of Western imperialism, while Zhou Enlai viewed the country as a “bottomless pit” for foreign aid, dismissing India’s claims of being a major power. 

Such Chinese viewpoints were firmly reverberated back in June 2011 during the inauguration of US-China consultations on the Asia-Pacific region in Honolulu, Hawaii, where Chinese officials turned down a US suggestion to hold trilateral dialogue with India, as they did not see the requirement of a “lesser power” to participate in a dialogue “among equals” (US and China).

Subsequently, this was reiterated as Beijing refused to support India’s plea for a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council despite assuring support on several occasions, and blocked Masood Azhar’s listing as a global terrorist in the UNSC four times until lifting its veto in May 2019.

If anything, the CPC had not given serious consideration to India’s rising power and solely viewed it as a neighboring country with which China shares an unresolved border. This is in contrast to India, which has provided China with utmost importance in its foreign policy.

The unequal behavior, disavowal of New Delhi’s capability and lack of reciprocation as an emerging economy seem to be continuing under Xi. This behavior is likely to be sustained as the CPC cements its future power base under Xi’s leadership.

Beijing’s utter disregard for New Delhi’s territorial and sovereignty concerns vis-à-vis the development of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) – an offshoot of the CPC’s grand strategy of the Belt and Road Initiative – reflect the same.

In fact, such a dismissive perception by the CPC can be argued as a significant factor in China’s belligerent stance against India along the LAC and explain, to an extent, the recent standoffs in Doklam and the Galwan Valley. 

However, the CPC’s perceptions of India under the Xi administration seem to be undergoing a radical change, if not a complete shift.

This change mainly factors in India’s increasing power capabilities in the Indian Ocean Region (without acknowledging it), its developing strategic partnerships with the US, its allies, and other Indo-Pacific powers, New Delhi’s policy adjustment by designating Ladakh as a Union Territory and abrogating Article 370 on the state of Jammu and Kashmir, and most important, its sustained and firm military posturing at the LAC coupled with improvements in patrols and stepped-up infrastructure developments in the region.

These have been unfavorable developments for the CPC, but have forced the Chinese leadership to view India more seriously and cautiously. 

Thus China has stepped up its training along the border, began conducting “record-breaking” high altitude drills, revamped its military equipment and vehicles, increased the use of surveillance and strike drones, and recruited new militias of Tibetan youth, deploying the first batch in the Chumbi Valley.

In this vein, India seems to have been gradually elevated to a much higher position in China’s foreign policy and strategic calculus, while its perception seems to be transcending to a rising challenge and a major adversary in the making. In other words, the space of India in CPC’s strategic ambit seems to be growing substantially, and such a space only draws on Chinese antagonism toward India as a competing rival power. 

Concurrently, how the CPC views or perceives India also has a lot to do with the tactical position the party holds in China’s command-culture hierarchy at present. The CPC, since China’s rise after opening up, has adopted ideological standpoints that have shaped the country’s diplomatic and strategic posturing.

From Deng Xiaoping’s 24-character guideline to “keep a low profile and achieve something” (taoguang yanghui, yousuo zuowei) to Jiang Zemin’s “peaceful development” (heping fazhan) and Hu Jintao’s “Harmonious Society” (hexie shehui), these concepts have guided China’s external behavior and thus shaped its approach toward India.

These, to an extent, were successful in bringing in an element of cooperation in bilateral relations while enabling the party to focus on peace and development without aiming for hegemony. Thus the initial phase between India and China in the post-Mao period witnessed fundamental shifts, as the meeting between Rajiv Gandhi and Deng Xiaoping in 1988 set the stage for a new beginning in the bilateral relationship.

This was followed by confidence-building measures through the next few years, especially by establishment of a “constructive partnership of cooperation oriented towards the 21st century” in 1996, “Declaration on Principles for Relations and Comprehensive Cooperation Between the Republic of India and the People’s Republic of China” in 2003, and the “strategic and cooperative partnership for peace and prosperity” in 2005.

Additionally, these concepts led the CPC to be more or less satisfied with the status quo in terms of actual control of the disputed territory, primarily as the party remained convinced of China having the upper hand in the military capabilities along the borders. 

However, the CPC under Xi Jinping, particularly in its regional and global conduct, has departed from the previous ideological standpoints. Instead, the party has sought to cement the “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” by aiming to take the center stage and realize the “China Dream” of national rejuvenation.

As an implication for India, Beijing’s foreign-policy and security approach toward New Delhi has become more assertive and aggressive. Its posturing has assumed a desire to become the dominant power and establish hegemony in the region, at the least.

This is best displayed through China’s expansionist and revisionist posture at the LAC while utilizing a “salami slicing” strategy to expand its territorial control incrementally over the disputed areas and unilaterally change the status quo, visible during a series of standoffs since 2013.

Last, the CPC’s perceptions of India, to an extent, hold domestic underpinnings, particularly as China’s foreign policy and external behavior remain driven by its internal imperatives. This argument is buttressed by the challenges faced by the CPC in recent times, which have held the capability to threaten the legitimacy of Xi’s leadership and risk the survival of the Communist regime.

In this vein, the domestic tensions and divergences arising out of the criticisms over the party’s initial handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as record slow economic growth during the early days of the health crisis, have been viewed as challenges to the CPC and Xi’s re-centralized political control.

This, it is often argued, remains a significant factor guiding China’s assertive policies at the LAC in an effort to divert attention away from internal contradictions and vulnerabilities to sustain the leadership’s control and legitimacy over the party, people, and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

However, this was not the first time China employed such a tactic; the 1962 war, according to historian Bertil Lintner, was also a move to dissuade the domestic audience from the disastrous impacts of the Great Leap Forward and re-solidify Mao’s hold by uniting China against an “outside enemy” that was already viewed as a “weaker” state and a “soft target.”

On the occasion of the CPC’s centennial, the party’s approach toward India (and the posturing of the PLA, which is an integral arm of the party) is likely to take on stronger nationalistic sentiments, possibly leading to sustained and robust military language by China along the LAC and even in the maritime domain.

However, any future developments in the CPC’s approach toward New Delhi would have to consider critically India’s gradually growing capabilities in the region to a greater extent, and view the Galwan Valley standoff as a watershed moment highlighting the same. Hence the CPC would need to revisit its India approach in times to come.

Nonetheless, it remains to be seen to what extent the CPC will display an accommodative approach toward its largest neighbor. No matter what strategy the CPC employs toward India in times to come, the Himalayan region is already witnessing a new context that is drawing primarily on the CPC’s historical antagonism and perception of India as a long-heralded rival in Asia. 

Mrittika Guha Sarkar

Mrittika Guha Sarkar is a research scholar at the Centre for East Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She is also a research associate at the Centre for Strategic Studies and Simulation, United Service Institution of India, also in New Delhi. She is further associated with the series editor for Routledge Studies on Think Asia as an editorial assistant and the Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs, Air University, in the US as a researcher and writer.