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Stronger, more powerful Xi Jinping will bring foreign policy challenges for India

An assertive and rising China and a more powerful Xi Jinping will raise new challenges for India as the neighbourhood will remain an important foreign policy priority for Beijing.

world Updated: Oct 18, 2017 20:13 IST
Sutirtho Patranobis
Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks during the opening of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on October 18, 2017.
Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks during the opening of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on October 18, 2017. (Reuters)

One aspect of the Communist Party of China’s congress that is certain is that at the end of it on October 24, President Xi Jinping will emerge a stronger leader - his powers consolidated, his men in key positions in decision-making bodies of the ruling party.

What does a stronger and likely more assertive Xi mean for India?

Less than two months ago, troops of the two countries had to carefully untangle themselves from a military standoff at Doklam that lasted more than 70 days.

The face-off ended with India withdrawing its troops from the Doklam or Donglang region claimed by Bhutan and China stopping work on a road, but somehow, it seemed that Beijing’s retreat was strategic.

A delegate reads a document before the opening session of the Chinese Communist Party's five-yearly Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on October 18, 2017. President Xi Jinping declared China is entering a "new era" of challenges and opportunities as he opened the congress expected to enhance his already formidable power. (AFP)

On Wednesday, however, Xi spoke of a softer strategy towards neighbours.

Delivering his work report to more than 2,200 delegates of the Communist Party, Xi spoke about deepening “relations with (China’s) neighbours in accordance with the principles of amity, sincerity, mutual benefit and inclusiveness and the policy of forging friendship and partnership”.

It’s fairly certain China’s neighbourhood will remain an important foreign policy priority for Xi and his new team.

Delegates leave the Great Hall of the People in Beijing after attending the opening ceremony of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China on October 18, 2017. President Xi Jinping urged a reinvigorated Communist Party to take on a more forceful role in society and economic development to better address "grim" challenges facing China as he opened the twice-a-decade congress. (AP)

Experts and diplomats, however, believe an assertive and rising China – though not a new phenomenon – will raise new challenges for India.

“Naturally a more and more proactive and assertive China, which is shaping its periphery, which has leadership ambitions in the region and beyond, will bring more challenges (for India),” said AK Kantha, the former Indian envoy to China who served during 2014-16.

“China is opting for an Asia where it has pre-eminence. This will make our management of relations with China , management of our foreign policy priorities more challenging,” added Kantha, who now heads the Institute of Chinese Studies in New Delhi.

Chinese President Xi Jinping bows before delivering his speech during the opening session of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on October 18, 2017. (Reuters)

China’s general foreign policy posturing has become more assertive in the past few years.

Beijing is prepared to achieve its interests and disregard competing claims, said an academic who didn’t wish to be named.

“Be it in the South China Sea or Bhutan, competing claims have been disregarded. This is a trend which has become more pronounced and has become a pattern which is more apparent,” the academic said.

That trend is unlikely to change.

“When Xi came to power, he indicated China wanted better relations with India. Five years down the line, bilateral ties have moved southwards. A stronger Xi may mean this trend is likely to continue unless there are mid-term corrections in this relationship,” said Lt Gen (retired) SL Narasimhan, a member of the National Security Advisory Board and China expert.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (centre) sings the national anthem with former presidents Jiang Zemin (right) and Hu Jintao (left) during the opening of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on October 18, 2017. (AFP)

India will have to be ready to tackle a country on the rise and one of the most powerful Chinese leaders in decades, said Victor Shih, associate professor at the school of global policy and strategy at the University of California in San Diego

“With any true dictatorship, the quality of decisions made by the leader becomes important. The problem is that with such a powerful leader, few in the party will dare to challenge his ideas, even if they are wrong,” Shih said.

Shih added: “He also will come to believe in his own wisdom.  The problem for China's neighbours is that Xi's speeches suggest that he means for China to be a global hegemon with the same, if not more, influence as the US. China's neighbours will have to decide whether that's desirable.”