Monday 22 August 2022

Unease over Xi boosts security linkages within the Indo-Pacific (The Sunday Guardian)


Xi has built around him a network of advisors who are almost entirely different from individuals who were influential during the decade each in power of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, and even among such persons, turnover is very high.

Singapore: Within the ASEAN, a club that India refused to join in the 1960s in a demonstration of another of the many self-goals scored in matters of foreign policy in the past, there is considerable interest in developing strong ties with the world’s most populous democracy. For the first time ever, Vietnam is carrying out joint military exercises with India, a country that supported its struggle against France, then the US and now the coercive means being used by China to deny Vietnam access to its own waters in the South China Sea. Unease has been developing within the policymaking circles of countries neighbouring the People’s Republic of China as a consequence of some domestic and international actions ordered by the presently all-powerful General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping. Policymakers in all these countries have over the years built up extensive networks of friends and contacts within the CCP, the only institution with any real authority in the PRC, but these are shrugging their shoulders in helplessness and saying that they are unable to predict what the CCP General Secretary will do next. They say that he has built around him a network of advisors who are almost entirely different from individuals who were influential during the decade each in power of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, and that even among such persons, turnover is very high. “The closer a person is to Xi and the more his contact with the General Secretary, the higher the risk of the most powerful Emperor after Mao of the ruling Red Dynasty abruptly changing his opinion about the advisor, and either shuttling him off to an inconsequential charge, or worse, punishing him for misdeeds that exist only in the mind” of Xi. They add there appears to be no pattern in such changed assessments, and no predictable roster of reasons why an individual should in a matter of not days but hours fall out of favour. “Being close to Xi may bring short term benefit in terms of position, but it also carries the risk of suddenly losing his trust and confidence, and suffering the consequences”, which are often harsh. The General Secretary’s vindictive nature has become a byword within the upper ranks of the CCP. A frequently cited example is the 2018 temporary detention and reduction to penury of Fan Bingbing, the most popular movie star in the country at the time. Insiders claim that she was close to a former high official of state who in the past treated Xi Jinping with a lack of deference, indeed very rudely. The treatment meted out to the glamorous Bingbing was intended to humiliate the former official as payback for his past rudeness to Xi. That Fan Bingbing, who was still close to the former official, could be dealt with in such a fashion showed the lack of authority of the former official in the eyes of the entire senior hierarchy of the CCP. It was also a warning to others who had displayed a similar lack of courtesy to Xi in the past, when he was only a middle-level functionary. CCP sources say that it is preferable “to remain personally unknown to the General Secretary rather be known to him and be placed in any of the concentric rings” of his circle of advisors, owing to the risk of abruptly falling out of favour.
“Even when Xi takes a decision different from that which an advisor suggests, and that decision goes sour, he blames the advisor for not ensuring that he take his advice rather than follow a course of action that proves to be a disaster”. In other words, even if only Xi takes the decisions, any good result is because of him, while any bad result is the fault of another. They say that the fast-changing circle of advisors around Xi are so intimidated by the awesome power that he has accumulated for himself that they usually offer him not a specific course of action to follow but a menu of options, including those that regarded (by the advisors concerned) as unsuitable, but which play into the perceptions of the CCP General Secretary on a given subject. In the matter of striking terror amongst his subordinates, Xi is clearly in the same mould as Chairman Mao, the example that from the start he has adopted as his model.

The military mind is geared towards clear-cut outcomes, which is why the CCP General Secretary appears to be most comfortable when talking to the PLA commanders within the Central Military Commission (CMC), according to those in the know about his style of functioning. Adopting a military-type “Can Do” mindset seems to be the dominant strain in the policies of the General Secretary. Among the most troubling to those around him was Xi’s efforts to ensure that China becomes free of Covid-19 by the time the anniversary of the founding of the PRC arrives on October 1. Measures such as mass testing in Beijing, Shanghai and other cities, not to mention full lockdowns even in Shanghai for indeterminate periods of time, have proven a failure in eliminating Covid-19, although they have eliminated much of the external interest in investing in China. In addition, there have been the human and economic costs of measures that are as unprecedented and destructive of normal life and work as the Wuhan lockdown imposed on January 23, 2020. Another troubling decision adopted by Xi, this time not to CCP cadres but to foreign countries, was the manner in which the visit of Speaker Nancy Pelosi was used to initiate what was clearly a pre-planned series of intimidatory military moves on land, sea and air. A second round was undertaken after another group of US legislators visited Taipei, and the effect of both has been to raise considerable worry about such a trigger-happy response to what was essentially political theatre designed to impress voters back home that President Biden’s vacillations notwithstanding, the Democratic Party was steely in its determination to face down PRC bluster. The worry both within and outside China is that the bullying and bluster that have become the trademark of Xi Jinping diplomacy may someday accidentally stray into the realm of actual kinetic conflict, most likely in the narrow waters of the Taiwan Strait, where the PLA Navy and Air Force are under orders from General Secretary Xi to become ever more reckless in their challenge to the rights of Taiwan that have long been established (and respected by the PRC leadership until the Xi era).
Xi has been assisted by the cautious approach adopted by President Biden, an example being the fact that the USS Theodore Roosevelt, a formidable aircraft carrier, idled in the seas off their ports of call in the Philippines when PLAN warships and PLAAF aircraft were harassing and seeking to intimidate their Taiwanese counterparts. The reticence shown by the White House during the just-concluded acts of intimidation by the PLA is in contrast to the forthright stand taken by the legislative wing of the Democratic Party. It is likely that his level of determination to resist PRC aggression has been misread. After all, President Biden has repeatedly affirmed publicly that the US will intervene militarily in case China invades Taiwan. At the same time, while President Biden has been showering military hardware on Ukraine, the quantities made available to Taiwan are a small fraction of that, despite China being by far a more potent threat than Russia. At the same time, while Ukraine is being provided weapons gratis, Taiwan is being charged top dollar for every purchase, exactly as India is being charged top dollar for every defence acquisition from the US. The difference between Biden’s approach towards Ukraine and that where Taiwan is concerned is obvious. The US dual standard where Taiwan and Ukraine are concerned is being used by the subsidiaries of the CCP United Front to disseminate the perception amongst the Taiwanese that they would need to defend themselves against the dragon alone. What has not been missed by CCP planners is that for the first time, a rise (and a very sharp one at that) in cross-Strait tensions has not led to a rise in the popularity of the leadership of the country, and they are reading in this an augury that the November mayoral elections in Taiwan may see setbacks by the ruling DPP. Although there is a growing sentiment within the KMT that is opposed to the coercive actions being carried out by Xi, it must be remembered that through much of the active phase of such actions, a KMT delegation led by the party vice-president was sent to the PRC by KMT president Eric Chu in a mission to clear doubts in Beijing about the reliability of the KMT as an ally of the CCP. Such an accommodative stance towards Xi’s theatrics by the party leadership is growing in unpopularity, especially among the younger members of the KMT, who better reflect popular sentiment than the older leadership.

Although there are those in Taiwan who fault India for not making a kinetic appearance in the East China Sea in the manner that the US and Japan have, others recognise that the mission of the Indian Navy in particular is to choke off PRC access to the sea lanes running between the Persian Gulf and the Malacca Straits, should that be necessitated by the aggressive actions of CCP General Secretary Xi. Such a blockade would be deadly for China, and India together with the US has the capability to carry it out. A blockade by the PLAN and PLAAF of Taiwan, as occasionally threatened by some retired colonels in the PLA, would trigger an immediate volley of sanctions against the PRC, severely affecting an already troubled economy. The question being asked across the region is whether Xi Jinping securing his claim to be the leader of China for life would calm him down, or result in a further manifestation of his aggressive instincts. In the meantime, the countries around China that are being threatened by Xi are not remaining idle, but building up and deepening security linkages, including with India. It was not accidental that the first country with which Vietnam has carried out joint military exercises has been India. Nor that the fear in the Lutyens Zone of adverse Chinese reaction that had so paralysed relations with Taiwan has been shed as is evident from the peregrinations of External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar. Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India is showing itself willing to participate actively in the defence of the freedom of all countries to utilise the waters of the Indo-Pacific for the benefit of themselves and others. Now that Xi has been a disruptive game changer in the region, Modi has been an antidote to which more and more countries are turning to as a balance towards the often unpredictable and far out reactions of the PRC under the present CCP General Secretary.

Unease over Xi boosts security linkages within the Indo-Pacific

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