Does the Chinese Communist Party Need Military Confrontation?

8 July 2020 Lindsay Hughes, Senior Research Analyst, Indo-Pacific Research Programme

Background

Much time and (news)space has been devoted to the recent clash between Chinese and Indian troops in the Galwan River valley in India’s union territory of Ladakh, which adjoins China’s Tibetan Autonomous Region. Twenty Indian soldiers were killed in that clash, together with an undisclosed number of Chinese troops, causing, according to one unconfirmed report, the Chinese troops to flee and to remain in a state of panic, fearing retribution from the Indian troops. (That Indian report claims that at least twenty Chinese personnel, including officers, were killed but other media outlets – see here and here, for example – put that number at forty-three but provide vague substantiation of their claim.) The clash was the result of a border dispute between the two countries.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi travelled to Ladakh recently to meet the wounded troops there and to thank them for their service. In a speech he delivered on that occasion, he stated that the age of expansionism had passed, which was generally seen as being targeted at China. That led a spokesperson of the Chinese Embassy in India to comment on social media that the implication that China sought to expand its territory was “groundless”. As he tweeted:

#China has demarcated boundary with 12 of its 14 neighboring countries through peaceful negotiations, turning land borders into bonds of friendly cooperation. It’s groundless to view China as “expansionist”, exaggerate & fabricate its disputes with neighbours.

Comment

The common perception is that China has settled its border issues with most of its neighbours, India being the exception. That, however, is not entirely correct; most recently, China has laid claim to the eastern part of Bhutan, Japan’s Senkaku Islands and Ryuku Islands, parts of Laos and Cambodia, all of Mongolia and Taiwan and, for good measure, parts of Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. Other countries, including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Russia, have ceded territory to settle their border disputes with China. In the last few days, reports have emerged that China has occupied a village in Nepal, removed boundary markers to legitimise its annexation and made inroads into eleven Nepalese territories. The Oli Administration’s silence on the matter was deafening.

At a time when Chairman Xi is under mounting pressure being exerted by a number of Western countries on several fronts, one of the last things that he needs is for Chinese officials to get into a spat with one of the very few “allies” he has – Russia. Yet, that is precisely what happened. After the Russian embassy in Beijing posted photographs on the Chinese social media platform Weibo of the celebrations in Vladivostok on the occasion of that city’s 160th anniversary of its founding, some Chinese officials and citizens became incensed. One official tweeted:

This “tweet” of #Russian embassy to #China isn’t so welcome on Weibo[.] “The history of Vladivostok (literally ‘Ruler of the East’) is from 1860 when Russia built a military harbor.” But the city was Haishenwai as Chinese land, before Russia annexed it via unequal Treaty of Beijing.

As a report explains:

The modern-day territory of Primorsky Krai, whose capital is Vladivostok, was formerly part of the Qing’s Manchurian homeland but was annexed by the Tsarist empire in 1860 following China’s defeat at the hands of Britain and France in the second opium war.

It was handed over under one of three “unequal” treaties China was forced to sign with Russia, France and Britain that year, in an agreement that also saw the Kowloon peninsula being added to the colony of Hong Kong.

That explanation corresponds with the observation of a previous FDI paper that noted:

Russia and China have been enemies for centuries and have fought several wars against each other. The last time the two countries engaged in a war with each other was as recently as 1968. Most, if not all, of those wars were fought over the issue of territory. The Sino-Russian border extends over four thousand kilometres, which has, in part, caused the territorial disputes between them. Between 1860 and 1937, Russia (as the Soviet Union) purged ethnic Chinese, who had settled there for around a thousand years, from Siberia. Siberia today comprises around 6.5 million square kilometres, which is two-thirds the size of China; and around six million people live in the border region. While the territorial dispute has officially been resolved, unofficially the Russians are extremely concerned that the Chinese might wish to take back the territory that they consider is theirs. … In the border areas of Siberia itself, the growing number of Chinese traders, entrepreneurs and tourists is increasingly resented. As one Russian citizen said, ‘If we let them, the Chinese will take over. They will just steal all the money and the local people will get nothing.’ Growing Chinese nationalism in the border region justifiably compounds Russian fears of a covert Chinese invasion.

Border issues aside, the Chinese Communist Party has put a new security regime on Hong Kong in place, thereby transgressing the terms of its agreement with the UK regarding Hong Kong’s special status until 2047 and ending the principle of “one country, two systems” that it had agreed to in 1997, entered into a spat with Canada, been accused of outright genocide against its Uighur community (see here and here, for instance) and overtly threatened to use “carrier killer missiles” through its mouthpiece, the Global Times, against two US Navy carrier groups that are conducting exercises in the South China Sea at the same time that China planned to conduct its own naval exercises.

It is surprising that China has become more aggressive and opened up these fronts at a time when its economy has collapsed. According to official figures, its economy had slowed to 6.1 per cent growth in 2019 but that figure could be misleading. As one source reported, China had overstated its GDP growth by an average of 1.7 per cent per annum. In the wake of the Covid-19-induced shutdowns in China, industrial production declined by 13.5 per cent over January and February this year, retail sales fell by 20.5 per cent and fixed asset investment fell by 24.5 per cent. Couple those figures with reduced demand from China’s markets in the West (due, ironically, to the Covid-19 pandemic and those countries’ own economic woes) and increased unemployment rates in China due to the shutdowns and foreign companies leaving China, and the scale of China’s economic worries becomes apparent.

The Chinese Communist Party rules China according to a “social contract” with the Chinese nation. At its most basic, the contract gives the Party the unquestioned (and unquestionable) right to rule over China in exchange for the economic and social upliftment of the Chinese people. The Covid-19 pandemic and its subsequent shutdowns have upset that agreement. It could be, therefore, that the Party, being as acutely aware of its deteriorating grip on power, realises that it needs to deflect the attention of China’s citizens from the country’s economic travails. If that is the case, one way to do that would be to initiate disputes with other countries and portray those as requiring a nationalistic response. China’s actions in the recent weeks bear all the hallmarks of just that stratagem.

That is, however, a dangerous game to play because it has given China’s opponents – and even its previous economic partners, including Australia – every reason to come together and present a concerted challenge to the Chinese Communist Party. As one Indian ex-diplomat suggests, Chairman Xi could retire due to “ill health” by the end of this year if that challenge to the Party does not dissipate soon.

Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

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