Why India is watching China Communist Party Congress keenly

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New Delhi: Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday laid out a confident vision for a more prosperous nation and its role in the world, stressing the importance of wiping out corruption and curbing industrial overcapacity, income inequality and pollution.

Opening a critical Communist Party Congress, Xi pledged to build a “modern socialist country” for a “new era” that will be proudly Chinese and steadfastly ruled by the party but open to the world. Although his wide-ranging address made clear there were no plans for political reform, Xi said China’s development had entered a “new era”, using the phrase 36 times in a speech that ran nearly 3-1/2 hours.

The twice-a-decade event, a week-long, mostly closed-door conclave, will culminate in the selection of a new Politburo Standing Committee to rule China’s 1.4 billion people for the next five years, with Xi expected to consolidate his control and potentially retain power beyond 2022, when the next Congress takes place.

The 64-year-old Xi, widely regarded as the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, spoke to more than 2,000 delegates in Beijing’s cavernous, red-carpeted Great Hall of the People.

On the economy, Xi said China would relax market access for foreign investment, expand access to its services sector and deepen market-oriented reform of its exchange rate and financial system, while at the same time strengthening state firms.

During Xi’s first term, China disappointed many investors who had expected it to usher in more market-oriented reforms, especially in the debt-laden state sector.

In what was probably an indirect reference to US President Donald Trump’s “America First” policy, Xi promised that China would be fully engaged with the world, and reiterated pledges to tackle climate change. Trump this year opted to withdraw the US from the Paris climate pact. “No country can alone address the many challenges facing mankind; no country can afford to retreat into self-isolation,” Xi told the delegates.

Xi praised the party’s successes, particularly his high-profile anti-graft campaign, in which more than a million officials have been punished and dozens of former senior officials jailed, saying it would never end as corruption was the “gravest threat” the party faces.

On self-ruled Taiwan, claimed by Beijing as its own, Xi said China would never allow the island to separate from China, adding that China would strive to fully transform its armed forces into a world-class military by the mid-21st century.

China’s Party Congress is an important event in the Chinese political calendar but neighbour India will also be watching it closely—for several reasons. India’s ties with China with Xi at the helm can be at best described as uneasy. There have been numerous instances of incursions by Chinese troops into the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control. China is also opposed to India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group that controls global atomic commerce. Also, China has turned a deaf ear to India’s protests that the China-Pakistan-Economic Corridor runs through disputed Kashmir and is violative of India’s sovereignty. And last but not the least, Beijing has been against India’s attempts to get Pakistan-based terrorist group Jaish-e-Muhammed chief Maulana Masood Azhar included in a list of terrorists by the United Nations.

Here’s why India will be keeping a close watch on the 19th Congress that will conclude on 24 October:

■ News reports say that Xi could decline to promote a successor, indicating that he intends to remain in the top party post for a third, or perhaps even fourth term. According to party norms, China’s top two leaders are usually publicly presented at the Congress five years before they take power. Xi himself had emerged as China’s future leader at the 17th party Congress in 2007. He had then served as Chinese vice-president from 2008-13. This will mean India will have to deal with Xi for perhaps the next decade or longer and will have to fashion its policies to suit this development.

■ India would be closely watching to see whether the accent of future Chinese policies will be on China’s “core” or “developmental” interests. If it is the former, India can face many more challenges like incursions along its undemarcated boundary with China like at Depsang, Chumar, Pangong Tso and the latest on the Doklam plateau that resulted in a 73-day-long military face-off between the two countries. If it is the latter, then it could open up the possibility for India-China cooperation at the bilateral level and at the international fora.

■ New Delhi would also be looking at what sort of role the military gets in the new Chinese power structure, said Harsh Pant, a professor of international relations at London-based King’s College. The extent of civilian control over the military (especially after the dismissal of top generals on charges of graft) could become clearer after the Congress which could give pointers to the military’s role in China’s development and plans for military modernization. Already India and China are increasingly encountering each other in places once considered the exclusive sphere of influence of the other—the South China Sea in the case of China and the Indian Ocean in the case of India. As Beijing presses ahead with its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, analysts say the Chinese navy is expected to play an increasing role in patrolling and securing sea lanes—taking its reach beyond previous levels.