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Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

Opinion | The domestic motivations of Beijing's LAC aggression

Any appearance of weakness in Xi on the world stage could imperil his grip on power within China

Amid the ongoing covid-19 pandemic, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has increased defence expenditure by 6.6%. Although this increase is believed to be the lowest in three decades, the PRC’s decision to rev-up spending in the midst of a global health and economic crisis, which it ironically precipitated, demonstrates the importance it attaches to defence preparedness at a minimum, and its commitment to the pursuit of expansionist goals at a maximum, whether in the maritime or continental domain. Three issues are worthy of consideration. First, how does the current increase compare with the budgetary increases of the past? Second, the extent of motivations behind China’s accumulation of defence capabilities will pose a threat to its immediate neighbours, including India, and this deserves reflection. Finally, despite experiencing negative growth for the first time since 1976, the PRC has hardly shown any doubt or restraint about its defence requirements, as is evident in its latest increase in defence spending.

The growth in Chinese defence expenditure in the current fiscal year might not be as high as in previous years, but it does represent an important increase, particularly in the midst of a pandemic when most countries, including the PRC, are under considerable fiscal distress. Chinese military spending in 2019 was 5.1% higher than in 2018, and in the period between 2010 and 2019, its defence spending rose by 85%, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Over a 25-year period from 1994 to 2019, the PRC has sustained year-on-year increases in spending, and this year is no different—at best, spending is only marginally lower.

It is plausible that its growth in defence expenditure was compelled by its quest to keep key military industries afloat, as well as ensure the continued loyalty of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to the Xi Jingping-led Communist Party of China. Covid-19 has generated a backlash against the Chinese regime led by Xi. This has rendered his hold on power under stress, if not precarious, given his domestic critics and opponents. Having secured an indefinite extension of his reign following the 19th Party Congress by effectively shelving the term limits set by Deng Xiaoping, the denouement induced by the pandemic has in all likelihood compelled him to keep select internal constituencies sufficiently placated and mollified. In addition, the continued expansion in defence spending is a natural consequence of what China sees as necessary measures to press its claims against its immediate neighbours.

Consequently, there are potentially adverse consequences for China’s immediate neighbours, both in the continental and maritime spheres. The latest round of tensions between India and the PRC are an instructive revelation of the extent to which China is ready to push ahead with its territorial claims along its contested boundary with India. Indeed, areas along the Line of Actual Control (LAC)—such as Hot Springs in the western sector of the boundary in Ladakh—which were settled, are now being brought into contention by the PLA’s intrusions. This is a reflection of how quickly PRC’s intentions can change on territorial matters that took years of painstaking negotiations.

Further, issue-linkage has gained currency in Beijing, as it steps up its confrontation along the LAC in a quest to prevent New Delhi’s support for a global investigation of the origins of the coronavirus. Also notable is Beijing’s outrage or pique over New Delhi assigning two Members of Parliament (MPs) to attend Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s virtual swearing-in ceremony. Any appearance of weakness in Xi at home in the face of what China perceives to be a regional and global multi-directional assault on both its ambitions and rise as a great power could imperil his domestic grip on authority.

In the ongoing round of tensions between New Delhi and Beijing, the latter has pretty much followed the Pakistani playbook—level a baseless charge against India, that it is trying to make territorial gains, in order to justify its own aggression. Indeed, in the current episode, China has accused India of trying to unilaterally alter the territorial status quo, marking a shift from Beijing’s conduct in past crises, so as to justify its own troop build-up in Galwan and eastern Ladakh.

Finally, the source of this Chinese aggression and the continued budgetary increases for defence, despite its shrinking economy, can be attributed to nationalism. China is picking fights with multiple actors simultaneously amid an ongoing health pandemic precisely because of what it sees as a nationalist imperative. The focus is sharper on India, and the troop build-up is much greater than it was during the Doklam crisis in the summer of 2017. India is also deploying two battalions to match the PLA’s force enhancement. It is entirely likely that the present crisis will result in a protracted stand-off that stays confined to eastern Ladakh, but it could also be a prelude to a larger confrontation across the entire length of the Sino-Indian boundary.

In either case, New Delhi will have to be on guard and will need to summon all its reserves of resolve and capabilities. The present stand-off between India and China is a reminder that Beijing is not only a formidable military foe under normal circumstances, but remains doggedly aggressive even in the midst of a health catastrophe.

Harsh V. Pant and Kartik Bommakanti are, respectively, professor of international relations at King’s College, London and an associate fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

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