What Will a Third Term for Xi Jinping as China’s President Mean for India?

India’s exports to China have slumped, imports have soared and even as China settles on Indian territory, Modi, who has visited China nine times, hosted Xi Jin Ping thrice, is unable to break the ice

Xi Jinping addresses the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing, China
Photo courtesy: Twitter @AbdurehmanMunir
Xi Jinping addresses the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing, China Photo courtesy: Twitter @AbdurehmanMunir

Sarosh Bana

The Chinese shadow is darkening palpably across India, as the 20th congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) starting today (16 October) readies to anoint Xi Jinping for a historic third five-year term as China’s President.   

Xi’s appointment by the CPC during its five-yearly national congress that lasts until 22 October is widely expected, as the 69-year-old leader has served as the unquestioned general secretary of the founding and sole ruling party of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) since 2012.   

India has reason to fear a progressive deterioration in its security environment, as President Xi cements his place as the country’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong who founded PRC in 1949. Xi himself had made this possible when in 2018 he had rescinded the two-term limit for the presidency.

Since his ascension to the presidency in 2013, he has been consolidating his political standing to near supremacy, even as he headed both the CPC and Central Military Commission (CMC) since 2012.   

President Xi has been a bugbear for India, with his country challenging India’s sovereignty with relentless pugnacity by encroaching on its territorial waters, and redrawing their Himalayan frontiers, called the Line of Actual Control (LAC), which divide the two nuclear-armed neighbours. 

India has demonstrably been pushed on the back foot as over 50,000 People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops continue to occupy vast tracts measuring a combined 1,000km² of the eastern sector of India’s border Union Territory of Ladakh since their violent clash with Indian soldiers on 5 May 2020.

The PLA also slew 20 Indian jawans in the area on 15 June 2020, the first deadly skirmish since 1967, when a border confrontation led to the deaths of 80 Indian and 400 Chinese soldiers.   

The PLA has also brought in medium-lift helicopters, towed artillery, light tanks, infantry combat vehicles, rocket launchers, drones and thermal imaging, and additionally created extensive support infrastructure with fortifications and encampments, all within striking distance of Indian deployments. They have also laid optical fibre cables to secure lines of communication between forward troops and bases in the rear. 

A menacing China is also opening up additional fronts along the border states of Arunachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Sikkim. Beijing has all along claimed 83,743km² Arunachal as part of southern Tibet, or Zangnan as it is called in Mandarin, and in 2018, its state-run English language daily Global Times asserted: “Although China recognised India’s annexation of [7,096 km²] Sikkim in 2003, it can readjust its stance on the matter.” 

China’s push against India does not appear merely tactical, but has a strategic intent aimed at realising specific long-term objectives. These moves are, after all, not being directed by exuberant commanders on the ground, but by the topmost leadership, namely, the CMC chaired by President Xi. 

 Despite three previous border agreements, Beijing disputes most demarcations with India. In 2017, it had a 73-day standoff with India at the India-China-Bhutan tri-junction of Doklam, the most critical in decades. 

Overriding India’s concerns, Sri Lanka recently allowed Chinese research ship Yuan Wang 5, accused by India and the US of spying activities, to dock for six days at its Chinese-run port of Hambantota.

Another Survey ship, Xiang Yang Hong 3, had caused controversy last year by operating in the Indian Ocean, while two Chinese submarines had also berthed in Sri Lanka in 2014, despite Indian objections. 

As part of its deception warfare at the LAC, China has been constructing “dual-use” border villages and installations, where civilian settlements are being upgraded to military enclaves and civilian airfields are being converted into PLA Air Force bases. 

 India views China’s intrusions as “salami slicing”, whereby Beijing scythes through Indian territory with the intent of redrawing the LAC. Ruling Bharatiya Janata Party MP Tapir Gao said, “I want to tell media houses in the country that there is no coverage of the extent to which China has captured Indian territory [in Arunachal Pradesh].”  

Prime Minister Narendra Modi claims a close rapport with Xi built up over his nine visits to China, five as Prime Minister and four previously as chief minister of Gujarat, apart from hosting the Chinese President in India on three occasions, between 2014 and 2019.   

However, there are suspicions of a communication gap between the two leaders, because many believe that if Modi were to bring up the border issue with Xi, it would help defuse the tensions.

The Prime Minister has not only desisted from identifying China as the aggressor, but three days after the brutal killing of the 20 Indian soldiers, maintained that “no intruder is present inside India’s borders, nor is any post under anyone’s custody”. He also declared that Indian soldiers had not ceded an inch of their land.  

Such assertions by the head of a country under attack seemed to forfeit both the diplomatic and military high ground to the Chinese, who questioned the purpose of military-level talks when the issue of any breach had been clarified by the Prime Minister himself. 

There were also questions raised that if there had been no intrusion, then how, and more importantly, why, had the clashes occurred?

Absence of any infiltration would besides imply that the territory where the clashes occurred was neither disputed nor India’s, when India’s own Defence and External Affairs ministries had accused the Chinese of incursions. 

The PLA may well believe that if it can invade with impunity a territory that offers little resistance, it cannot be expected to retreat so readily on request.   

Even so, in its desire of a fightback, New Delhi progressively banned 273 Chinese apps, including video-sharing service TikTok that was downloaded 660 million times in India since its launch in 2017.   

Hailing the ban as a ‘digital strike’ by India, IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said these apps had been ‘engaged in activities prejudicial to the sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, the security of the state and public order’.

However, most of these apps had been trending in India for years, including the microblogging website, Weibo, which the Prime Minister himself had joined during a visit to China in 2015 and from which he exited soon after the ban. This prompted social media comments, ‘They change our map, we ban their app!’.   

India has also refrained from imposing any sanctions or curbs on trade. Rather, at a time relations have plummeted, bilateral trade hit a record $125 billion in 2021-22, crossing the $100 billion mark in a year for the first time. 

Two-way trade crossed $87.2 billion during January-August 2022 amidst surging Chinese exports, worth $70.7 billion, a growth of 23.6 per cent year-on-year. India’s exports to China during this period slumped to $16.5 billion, a decline of 50.7 per cent year-on-year, when its global exports rose 17.9 per cent.   

While India is evidently shunning military retaliation in an effort to avert a war it can ill-afford, questions have arisen regarding its defences, when PLA troops can so intrude at will and poach on Indian territory.   

“It is said that the pre-requisite for an Asian Century is an India and China coming together,” said External Affairs minister S. Jaishankar at a recent talk in New Delhi. “Conversely, their inability to do so will undermine it.” 

(SAROSH BANA is Executive Editor of Business India in Mumbai, Regional Editor, Indo-Pacific Region, of Germany’s Naval Forces, and India Correspondent of Sydney-based cyber security journal, Asia Pacific Security Magazine)  

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