In a marked moment of political triumph for communism, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is on the verge of celebrating one hundred years of formation in July 2021. Founded by a handful of revolutionaries in 1921, the CCP’s long journey has been subject to critical and intense political debate, chaos, and authoritarian trajectory aimed at taking China ahead. The contemporary nationalistic fervor attached to the forthcoming celebration arrives when the geopolitical climate is exceedingly tense and not favoring China.
According to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Boao Forum speech, the CCP’s centennial anniversary is a commemoration of how the Party “has striven forward against all odds in a relentless pursuit of happiness for the Chinese people, rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, and the common good for the world.” It signifies the year when the Party achieves its goal of a “moderately prosperous society” in a new era of Chinese domestic and foreign policy, as it begins to work towards its second goal of becoming a “great modern socialist country” in 2049. This has major implications for leading democracies across the world, and especially for China’s Asian rival power, India. What does the CCP’s one-hundredth anniversary, and the changes in Beijing’s international outlook post the centennial, mean for New Delhi?
Beijing’s highly controversial political arrests under the new Hong Kong National Security Law, its doubling down on repressive Xinjiang policies, its explicit threats to Taiwan, maritime adventurism in the South and East China Seas, wolf warrior diplomacy vis-à-vis Australia, and territorial expansionist tendencies with India have become hallmarks of the CCP’s nationalist global posturing. For too long, Western and non-Chinese analysts were convinced that China’s rise would be accompanied by political transparency and deeper integration with the global system leading to a move away from its unilateral revisionist tendencies. However, under Xi Jinping, now effectively president for life, the CCP has promoted an overtly aggressive and unambiguously expansionist approach. Under Xi, China has employed its economic might via the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to further its geopolitical ambitions.
To further realize Xi’s (and by extension, the CCP’s) nationalistic “Chinese Dream” vision, Beijing has mobilized “influence operations” as well as military and non-military tactics to enforce its territorial and maritime claims as seen in the South China Sea via the use of covert lasers rather than firing missiles. Similar imperatives will guide the CCP’s trajectory beyond its centenary; however, it will not be a mere continuation, but rather an intensification of such tactics as Beijing seeks to cement its geopolitical position, despite the U.S.-backed coalition it has stirred. Consolidating its military might and economic power in Asia will further advance its expansionist goals.
By making China the world’s foremost economy, with formidable military and technological capabilities, the CCP has led China to emerge as a leading global power. In keeping with its revisionist tendencies, the CCP’s ultimate aim is to remake a global order with “Chinese characteristics” that would challenge the supremacy of the United States and its democratic allies. To this end, Beijing has pursued a global strategy that legitimizes and promotes the glory of Chinese Communism; China’s activities in its immediate neighborhood—particularly with the suppression of political opposition in Hong Kong—are designed as systematic attempts to dislodge democratic rule. Furthermore, Beijing’s participation in multilateral forums is drawn on such contours, leaving India caught in a competing as well as challenging geopolitical environment.
Beijing’s promotion of communism and authoritarianism stands against India’s status as the world’s largest democracy. New Delhi is committed to liberal democratic values and envisions a “multipolar Asia” with a rules-based international system. India has adopted a more nationalist and assertive foreign policy in recent times that negates (and even confronts) the ambitions the CCP’s leadership holds. Beijing recognizes India’s growing role and agency as a threat to its carefully calibrated regional strategy in Asia and a direct competitor to its CCP-led political vision. The recent India-China boundary clash leading to antagonistic relations is a reflection of these contested perceptions as China attempts to curtail India’s rise and regional influence by challenging or checking New Delhi from time to time. Beijing’s continuous attempts to block New Delhi’s bid for permanent membership in the United Nations Security Council furthers the different ideological connotation it attaches to the future international systems or order.
Beijing and New Delhi’s hostility has deep roots, situated in longstanding mutual suspicion, contested political visions, conflicting claims along the border, and clashing strategic interests. Still, post establishment of the People’s Republic of China, despite stark differences in political systems between the neighboring countries, there was leeway for cooperation on multiple fronts. Each of China’s important leaders has had a specific vision of putting China on the map—and a specific India policy. India and China’s ties started off well post their establishment as republics—with Mao Zedong declaring that the two have an “excellent friendship” despite differences in ideologies between Mao and Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. The signing of the “Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence” between Nehru and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in 1954 marked a major foreign policy direction (perhaps a cooperative) of the CCP. These principles denote China’s principled stand on non-intervention and the CCP’s contribution to international peace and showed, despite differences between Nehru and Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong, that the two countries wanted to focus on building positive ties. Border-related tensions began at the end of the 1950s, exacerbated by the Dalai Lama’s fleeing to India in 1959, eventually culminating in the bloody Sino-Indian border war of 1962.
Under Deng Xiaoping, rapprochement between India and China saw growth, with Deng’s Tao Guang Yang Hui (“Hide Brightness, Nourish Obscurity”) focusing on building China’s domestic economic strength. President Jiang Zemin’s visit to India in 1996 marked the first state-visit by a Chinese head of state to the country, creating a focus on constructive partnership. Such continuity in relations was signaled under Hu Jintao as well. Even under Xi Jinping, India and China singed a “developmental partnership” in 2014 as he came to power. However, the China Xi took over was vastly different from the ones of his predecessors; it had already established itself as a global power, and Xi, building a “strongman” image, wished to establish the superiority of the socialist system. This was incompatible with India’s economic rise and strong commitment to liberal international institutions, coupled with potentially joining U.S.-led efforts to balance China’s rise.
In essence, this has led to an ideological clash of authoritarianism and democracy in the region, which could quickly escalate to a geopolitical competition for influence and perhaps even a direct (if limited) military contest between the two major regional powers. Numerically too, China’s 2021 defense budget has seen an 8 percent nominal increase from $188billion in 2020 to $202 billion. India’s defense expenditure on the other hand has decreased, from 16.86 percent of the total government expenditure in 2019 to 14 percent in 2020-21.
The CCP’s authoritarian outlook over the boundary and its forceful transgression into Indian territory derailed India-China ties almost entirely, negating any momentum gained over the last two decades as a fellow developing partner and emerging Asian power. This confrontation further broadened as India-China ties entered a period informed by their competing nationalisms and conflicting strategic interests. Such areas of competition include cybersecurity, maritime security, infrastructure outreach, and trade, among others. Today, despite the ongoing military disengagement at the border, New Delhi-Beijing relations remain unstable.
Faced with a hostile axis towards its north—with China and Pakistan’s synergy as “all-weather friends”—India has found it necessary to expand its outreach in the Indo-Pacific. Its engagement with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) is born out of such growing competition combined with a desire to better situate itself in global politics. China is concerned by the Quad and India’s association; the Quad’s pledge to an Indo-Pacific region “anchored by democratic values and unconstrained by coercion” contradicts China’s strong-arm tactics and authoritarianism.
India perceives China as a security threat, especially after China showed a willingness to influence the democratic process of Australia. New Delhi is, therefore, concerned that as tensions rise, China may resort to similar tactics with India; given China’s extensive connection with India’s sensitive technology, telecommunication, and infrastructure industry. Xi’s “cyber superpower” (网络强国) vision and sophisticated cyber espionage capabilities add to India’s paranoia. India is also reliant on Chinese imports of raw materials such as active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs), which adds to the risk of a cyber-attack. Serious concerns regarding Chinese cyber warfare are not unfounded, considering the China-initiated October 2020 blackout in Mumbai, as well as the alleged 40,300 attempts at injecting malware into Indian networks within a single month. India will thus look to strengthen its cyber defense capabilities, as this is proving to be another method frequently employed by China to gain control of critical areas for India’s security. India left out Chinese companies Huawei and ZTE from participating in its 5G trials, unofficially citing the potential for cyber-espionage, yet the economic impact of this decision is likely to weigh heavily on India.