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The Comparison of China and US Strategies in South China Sea

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Globalization has also played a vital role in integrating the world and economic dependence of countries. For instance, in case of Sino-US they are dependent upon each other in economic sector. They avoid direct confrontation with each other. They have experienced period of good and bad relations and the distrust is major cause of conflict between the two parties. The high diplomatic visits in 1960s reduced the tension between Sino-US relations and marked beginning of new chapter of good relations. US is not ignorant about the growing role of China in global politics especially within in Asia-Pacific region. This research focuses on Sino-US rivalry over South China Sea; the comparison of strategies of both and how they have developed overlapping interests in Asia-pacific region. Usually states have good or bad relations with each other, but in this case what is unique to note is that they (Sino-China relations) had phases of cordial and strained relations. As a consequence, they keep check on each other power to safeguard their area of influence in the world by using military, economic and political means.

This paper is divided into five main parts. The first one deals with the historical background of conflictual relations between US and China. Second section concerns with the significance of South China Sea in Asia Pacific Region. Third section is about Chinese strategies over South China Sea. Fourth section explains the strategies of USA in the Asia Pacific region. Fifth section is mainly a comparative analysis of their strategies which seems to be influenced or derived from offensive and defensive realism. Last and sixth section deals with conclusion and recommendation to resolve this conflict in an effective manner.

Background

It is believed that the rivalry between US and China is not a current phenomenon. It has its roots that can be traced back since the inception of PRC. The US initial reluctance to recognize the communist China is often quoted as one of the major impediment that laid the very foundation of strained relations from the beginning. Furthermore, China remained suspicious of US true intentions as they have been deceptive in their policies especially towards China and their increasing economic growth. Similarly, US support for nationalist against PRC proved to be another obstacle that tarnished the relations between China and US until Nixon came to power in US during 1960s; this paved the path in normalizing relation with China in form of various confidence building measures.

Open policy towards rest of world can be safely called as one of the most defining moment for the future of China that was envisaged by Deng Xiaoping. Basically, Deng’s policy involved a drastic shift from an Isolationist policy of Communist China to more of an open system that embraced the changes of the modern world. The policy of openness has helped to change the fate of China from an internally conservative and weak state to a leading economic power of the Asia Pacific region.

Significance of South China Sea

South China Sea basically consists of four groups of islands. First, the Pratas Islands are (located 200 miles to southwest of Hong Kong) claimed by both China and Taiwan. Second, although the Parcels Islands are located in the northern part of the South China Sea and near from the coastlines of Vietnam and China (Hainan), however, these islands are claimed by China, Vietnam and Taiwan. On the other hand, China took control of Paracels in 1974, by using the means of force from South Vietnamese troops. It is a main reason of conflict between China and Vietnam. Fourth, Saparatly Islands (are located in the centre of the South China Sea. to the north of the island of Borneo [which comprises Brunei Darussalam and the east Malaysian States of Sarawak and Sabah]. The east of Viet Nam, and west of the Philippines and south of Hainan) are claimed in their entirety by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam, while some islands and other features are claimed by Malaysia and the Philippines. Brunei has established a maritime zone that overlaps a southern reef, but it has not made any formal claim.  Therefore, the intense competition among states has become a main source of concern and even potential conflict as it consists of cluster of small islands that have distributed claims by almost all ASEAN states.

United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea

UNCLOS provided a framework in 1982 on how to use oceans that came into force on 1994. It was ratified by China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines and Brunei except for Taiwan as it was not recognized as a state. It is a convention related to laws of sea, navigation, fishery and using natural resources for energy production in form of hydrocarbons.

(UNCLOS) establishes a legal framework to govern all uses of the oceans. UNCLOS was adopted in 1982 after nine years of negotiations. It entered into force in 1994 and has been almost universally accepted. China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines and Brunei are all parties are signatory of UNCLOS. Taiwan is not able to ratify UNCLOS because it is not recognized as a state by the United Nations, but it has taken steps to bring its domestic legislation into conformity with UNCLOS.

Chinese Strategies for South China Sea

Delay Strategy

In Deng view, China always pursued a policy of delay to respond to any foreign stimulus. The application of this policy can also be seen in implementation processes of the final choices or decision. Since the policy of delay is all about concealment of China’s true intentions to prevent any kind of escalation and stresses the maintenance of a cooperative policy with rest of the world. As a result, it helps to accelerate the development and prosperity of China in term of utilizing economic means to the fullest.

Politics of claims and counter claims

South China Sea had been one of the most contentious areas of world. Most of the states involved in this area claim certain area, while rest declares their open claims on the other part in Asia –Pacific region. The policy of claims and counter claims is the main source of conflict. Despite many efforts of ASEAN and regional players, the South China region continues to be matter of contention and a major impediment in bringing peace and stability in the region.

Military means

Although the nature of warfare has changed to a large extent, however, the significance of military means cannot be denied in contemporary world. For instance, the defense budget of countries has increased from 1980s to 1990s in accordance with the technological advances and revolutionaries in weapons. The military agreements between US and Taiwan and US and Japan in Guam is another example that established military buildup against Chinese expansion in the region to secure an array of states from any potential Chinese attack. According to Andrew Erickson, China is also increasing its defense budget to secure its territory of East and South China seas and their airspace above this area. This implies that the reliance of states on traditional means or military continues to play an important role in providing security to states.

US Strategies for South China Sea

The term pivot was coined by Leon Panetta, who is US secretary of defense. He had used the term to explain the adversarial interactions between rising and falling power. In this context, a rising power refers to a potential power that is China in this paper and falling power is an entity that confronts challenges to maintain its power. So, US can safely be claimed as a state falling in the latter category. Theoretically speaking, offensive realism most appropriately explains the US policy behavior in South China Sea, their attempts to undermine the Chinese potential hegemonic power in the Asia-Pacific is a proof of that. As per offensive realism, a hegemonic power cannot stand any rising power. It further explains the inevitability for two hegemonic powers to co-exist with each other that can be seen in case of US and China rivalry over South China Sea. Although offensive realism is presented by John Mearsheimer, but contribution of Organski and Gilpin cannot be ignored. Similarly, Chinese strategy can be understood with the help of defensive realism that concerns with increase of power to secure the interests from any threat or foreign intervention that is often taken as offence by US. Consequently, it results in security dilemma that leads to a never ending game of power politics

Generally speaking, USA National Strategy for South China Sea consists of five main points. First deals with their official stance over South China Sea. Second one is about legality of the nine-dash line claim of China. Third one concerns with freedom of navigation in South China Sea and fifth deals with supporting Philippines in their arbitration case against China. The United States developed a policy document—a National Strategy for the South China Sea (NSSCS)—that contains:

An official position regarding the nature of the disputed land features in the SCS;

A legal memorandum concerning U.S. military activities in the SCS, including military surveys;

An opinion on the legality of China’s “nine-dash line” claim;

An affirmation of U.S. “freedom of navigation” operations in the SCS; and

A statement of support for the Philippines in its arbitration case against China

In 2010, the Obama administration declared what was then referred to as the “US pivot to Asia,” that consists of multi-faceted strategy of US policy in the Asia pacific region. It includes shift of 60% of the United States naval assets to the pacific region reversing a policy that had been exercised in Europe since the Second World War. In November 2011, US president Barrack Obama announced in his speech to the rotational stationing in the Australian city of Darwin in front of 2,000 marines. The strategy was supposed to go beyond the military means. The Obama administration began to define its non-military aspects. These included an emphasis on the trans-pacific partnership (TPP), a club of high-performing economies in the region intended to push economic agenda beyond the pace set by the Asia pacific economic cooperation (APEC).

Support of Arbitration cases against China

The United States reluctance to remain merely an observer in the arbitration case filed by the Philippines against China is evident and a matter of their interest. Since arbitration in favor of the Philippines can play a vital role in discrediting the nine-dash line that is of utmost significance to China. Similarly, US pressurize other states in South East Asia, for example, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia to support Philippines arbitration request against China. The main purpose of this pressure is to undermine the power of China as per UNCLOS that encourages states to resolve disputes by peaceful means and prohibits use of force.

The United States Official Stance in 2011

In 2011, Hilary Clinton believed that US policy towards South East Asia is not limited, but it is multifaceted policy that includes six main issue areas namely; bilateral security alliances, involving international organizations, expanding trade, providing military assistance, promoting human rights and democratic values. According to my understanding initially US used the pretext of war on terrorism to shift their attention towards Asia-Pacific region by announcing and diverting all their efforts and resources to secure South East Asia from potential threat of terrorism and providing security to region. Alongside they made military agreements with countries especially with Taiwan and Japan .US attempts to exploit the grievances of countries against China for the sake of undermining Chinese power within the region cannot be denied either. The security umbrella to weak states against any potential attack from China is one of the many examples; however, the shift of policy towards efficient utilization of both means (force and flexible measures) to accommodate the concern of china is evident in American policy.

It also reflects in President Obama’s long-held view, expressed even before his election, that the “center of gravity in this world is shifting Towards Asia,” requiring the U.S. to “look east” and “take a more active role,” as well as his identity as “America’s first Pacific president.” Obama in his election campaign expressed that attention of world is diverting to Asia-Pacific region.

Pentagon has adopted an Air-Sea Battle (ASB) strategy. Its main purpose was to restore the ability of the US to provide security to its allies in the region and to the international order (including freedom of navigation), and maintenance of status as the world power. ASB explains that, in case of conflict with China. American forces will attack on the Chinese mainland to neutralize the A2/AD weapon systems that is, an escalation to total war. It involves a coordinated attack using bombing, missile and cyber-attacks, and space weapons among others.

On the contrary, skeptics are of the view that use of force in form of ASB strategy (Air-Sea Battle), support of allies in region by US and counter attacks against Chinese aggressive policies over South China on the principle of collective security would be a mistake, because both states (US and China) are nuclear and any miscalculation or overestimation could lead to escalation or war in the worst case scenario. Therefore, there is a need to exhaust diplomatic means to resolve matters related to South China Sea and myriad of other issues between two states.

Overview of US policy

In my understanding, US is pursuing a policy of ‘smart diplomacy’. In simple words, smart diplomacy entails the effective utilization or use of force along with  economic means to keep a firm check on Chinese potentials capability to challenge United States hegemony in three main aspects;  economic, military and political spheres. Although China and US are economically depended upon each other, both continues to have a clash over the South China Sea.

The two main questions that emerge from this research are; can the rivalry between US and China continue and can it transform in a beginning of a new cold war? Can China rise peacefully without any conflict with US? First off, it would be implausible to say that it is a start of new cold war as the conditions and scenarios ware quite different during cold war between USA and Soviet Union. They were not economically integrated as US and China is in the contemporary times. Second, cold war was more of power rivalry that had not much to do with economic ties. During cold war, USA and Soviet Union were two states having different ideologies. US were a capitalist state that believed in free trade. On the hand USSR was a socialist state that advocated nationalist economy under the government control. One can say it was clash of ideologies between two powers. It was more about acquiring more territory to increase their sphere of influence in global politics and becoming sole power of world. On the other hand, the conflict between China and US cannot be equated to cold war between US and USSR. Since the rise of USSR was not peaceful, it was attained by Stalin expansionist policies; whereas China’s rise was not only peaceful, but it took time to become a potential power of the world.

Theoretical explanation

According to offensive realism, states acquire hegemony to dominate the rest of world and prevent the emergence of any potential power to share their superiority in the world politics.  Defensive realist assert that a state cannot lead to conflict as state try to increase power to provide or ensure security to state instead of dominating the world or becoming a hegemon.

According defensive realist, states try to maintain status quo and ensure their security instead of direct confrontation that would make them vulnerable and expose their weaknesses. In case of Sino- US conflict, China pursues a policy of non- confrontation, but it is often considered to be an offence by others states in the region. In this paper, Chinese defensive policies are taken as offensive by US and they try to limit their power in region and at global level. US on the other hand, pursues a policy of an offensive realist that curtails a rising power from emerging in terms of any compromise or tolerance to competition or sharing of the power as it would undermine their hegemony and their status of  sole power in global politics.

Conclusion

According to offensive realist, the conflict between US and China would eventually lead to a complex scenario as hegemonic power cannot co-exist peacefully together. The aim of hegemonic power is to curtail potential power from rising by use of economic, military and all available or possible means. Therefore, it would be safe to claim that US is following a policy of offensive realism to suppress China’s growing power in form of exploiting the countries in Asia Pacific who have resentment and envious attitude against China. This implies that the main aim of American policies is to limit Chinese ever increasing power especially their economic growth.

On the other hand, China is hesitating to declare its policy for coming years over South China Sea and in Asia-Pacific region. In my understanding, it is yet to be seen if or whether China employs military means or force to tackle the issues with other states within region, especially, with Taiwan and Japan or to predict the future of Asia-pacific region and outcome of the conflict between US and China.

Recommendations

1-Global institutions can help them to bridge the gap between US and China by promoting cooperation

2-Engagement in a dialogue process can help to reduce the tension between the two states (US and China)

4-Chinese perspective should be projected equally in global arena.

5-US should not involve herself in to the regional politics, rather china should be given adequate time to sort out their issues themselves.

6-In case of war like situation, US should encourage the role of global institutions rather than indulging into conflict unilaterally.

7-China should focus on building and strengthening good relations with its neighbors and with international community to minimize chances of conflict or escalation of conflict in the region or at the global level.

Mehwish Akram holds masters degree in International Relations and currently doing M Phil in Political Science. Her areas of interest are Democracy, Political theory and Environmental politics .

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Russia and the end of North Korea’s Tong-mi bong-nam strategy

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North Korea’s decades old strategy of ‘Tong-mi bong-nam’ (Engage the United States, Block South Korea) and its rare variant ( ‘Tong-nam bong-mi’ or Engage South Korea, Block the US) of breaking the Washington-Seoul axis by alternatively cooperating with one in order to isolate the other so as to manoeuvre its way through it has seen a shift recently as Pyongyang moves closer to Russia.

Tensions have been high on the Korean Peninsula since the election of the conservative President Yoon Seok-youl, who has adopted a “Kill Chain” strategy to preemptively target the Kim regime in the face of an imminent nuclear threat. Cooperation has been restricted to calls for reunion of families across the border along with disarmament linked “audacious”  economic aid in order to denuclearise Pyongyang, which stands at the cusp of its worst economic crisis post the pandemic. However, surprisingly, North Korea has not only rejected the offer but has declared itself a nuclear state by adopting a law which rules out the possibility of denuclearisation by allowing Pyongyang to conduct preemptive strikes to protect itself. With a possible nuclear test on the cards, the Russian hand behind such bold moves cannot be overlooked.

Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine has emboldened North Korea in more ways than one: it has not only challenged the invincibility of the Western powers whom Pyongyang defines as “hostile” but has also created demands for North Korean weaponry for a sanction pressed Russia to continue the war, promising to fill Pyongyang’s coffers with much needed foreign reserves. While North Korea has denied these claims, its increased proximity with Moscow is too conspicuous to gloss over. The most significant consequence however has been a change in North Korea’s policy towards Seoul and Washington.

Efficiently using it to challenge Seoul’s participation in any peace negotiations since the Korean Armistice Agreement of 1953, the strategy of Tong-mi bong-nam was employed again in 1994 when faced with recurrent famines and massive food shortages, Pyongyang agreed to denuclearise under the Agreed Framework and eventually normalise its relationship with the US. The idea was to extract economic aid while isolating Seoul after tensions soared over the latter not sending official condolences on Kim il-Sung’s death. 

The strategy was reversed in South’s favour  when relations with Washington soured after it imposed a fresh series of sanctions against Pyongyang’s nuclear proliferation programme in April 1998 and North Korea positively responded to Kim Dae-Jung’s Sunshine Policy which resulted in the historic June 15 summit of 2000, where the  the leaders of the two Koreas met for the first time post the division in 1945. President Bush’s “Axis of Evil” comment further worsened US-North Korean ties which led Pyongyang to not only break off contacts with both the US and South Korea but also withdraw from the NPT in January 2003. Although South Korean efforts and North Korea’s mounting economic crisis  succeeded in bringing Pyongyang to the Six Party Talks where Seoul argued that North’s security concerns be taken into account before pushing for denuclearisation, Washington’s rigid stance that North Korea denuclearises first  resulted in a stalemate. Pyongyang conducted its first nuclear test in 2006 inviting more stringent sanctions and eventually withdrew from the Six Party talks in 2009. After successive conservative governments which favoured a hard stance towards North Korea virtually stalled negotiations, President Moon Jae-in’s friendly approach resulted in a major breakthrough in Inter-Korean relations in the form of the 2018 Panmunjom Declaration which called for phased disarmament, at a time when Pyongyang’s economy was at its lowest in the past two decades and tensions with the Trump administration soared high. The breakdown of the 2019 Hanoi Summit between North Korea and the US finally ended cooperation.

The above cases illustrate how efficiently North Korea has used Tong-mi bong-nam as a manoeuvring tool where negotiations were undertaken only during times of economic crisis while nuclear proliferation continued to remain a priority to achieve  reunification of the peninsula in a way favourable to Pyongyang. Moreover, Kim Jong-un has learnt from the case of Gadaffi’s Libya that engaging the West in denuclearisation would only provide limited respite while possession of nuclear weapons not only creates a strong deterrence against attacks by much powerful adversaries but also fuels nuclear nationalism thus reproducing regime legitimacy even at its weakest moments. Hence, he has nipped all chances of achieving complete denuclearisation in the bud. While China has so far played a major role in moderating Pyongyang’s aggression by prioritising regional stability considering its own geopolitical and economic interests over countering the US; Russia’s bold violation of UNSC sanctions by not only trading with Pyongyang but also demonstrating active interest in  employing North Korean workers and labelling the bilateral relationship as being of “mutual interest” speaks volumes about the greater latitude it is willing to provide its anti-American ally in pressing forward with its agenda.

Though Tong-mi bong-nam has served North Korea’s interests by aiding it in extracting economic benefits while dodging commitments over complete denuclearisation, it has simultaneously acted as the only window for Seoul and Washington to negotiate with Pyongyang. As its raison d’être, namely North’s economic and diplomatic isolation, wanes with Moscow’s support; the hope for denuclearisation might be lost forever specifically as the US and South Korea continue to  seek “overwhelming” military response to resolve the crisis which might lead to unimaginably dangerous consequences. The need of the hour is to multilaterally engage with both Russia and North Korea on disarmament and lift sanctions in a phased manner while ensuring that the two abide by their commitments.

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The SCO seeks for a new role in the post-Ukrainian crisis world

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During the Samarkand summit which was held during September 15-16, the Council of Heads of State of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) signed the landmark Samarkand Declaration, advanced Iran’s accession, start the process for Belarus to become a full member, while approving Bahrain, Maldives, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Myanmar as dialogue partners. Additionally, the SCO issued groundbreaking statements and documents, marking the first time that member states have jointly spoken out on emerging issues, such as climate change, supply chain security and international energy security. All of these progresses verify that the SCO has come of the age over the past two decades. There is no question that the SCO is now the largest regional cooperation organization in the world. Over half of the world’s population lives in its member states, accounting for about 25% of the global GDP—and those states have a powerful intellectual and technological potential and a considerable part of the global natural resources.

As one of the two leading drivers of the SCO, Russia has played the tremendous role in its development and solidarity of all member states in principle and in reality as well. This year, despite the Ukrainian war drags on for over 200 days, Russia still acted influentially to promote Iran’s “earliest possible accession” to the SCO legally and Belarus’s beginning the accession process. As President Putin said during the summit, “There are many more countries that seek membership in or association with the SCO. All are welcomed because the SCO is a “non-bloc association and rather working with the whole world.” It is also true that in a very complicated international situation, the SCO is not “marking time,” but rather continuing to develop and build its role in addressing international and regional issues—maintaining peace and stability “throughout the vast Eurasian space.”

Echoing the coming changes in global politics and the economy which are about to undergo fundamental and irreversible changes, it is obvious that there are new “centers of power” emerging, and the interaction among them is inclusively based on universally recognized principles of the rule of international law and the UN Charter, namely, equal and indivisible security and respect for each other’s sovereignty, national values and interests. Given this, this article aims to argue what role the SCO would be able to play in the next twenty years?

The SCO holds tremendous potential for the future of international community and particularly in the fields of ensuring energy security and food security. Accordingly, the latest joint statement proposes to avoid excessive fluctuations in the prices of international bulk commodities in the energy sector, ensure the safety and stability of international food and energy resources’ transportation channels, and to smooth the international production and supply chain. To insure these ends, the statement also underlines adherence to the principle of technology neutrality as it is the key to encourage the research and application of various clean and low-carbon energy technologies. Given this, the Samarkand summit is a milestone both in the development of the SCO and building of a SCO community with shared future. Accordingly, the SCO will adhere to the principle of not targeting third parties as the Final Declaration states that the SCO seeks to ensure peace, security and stability. In reality, SCO members intend to jointly further develop cooperation in politics and security, trade, economy, finance and investments, cultural and humanitarian relations “in order to build a peaceful, safe, prosperous and environmentally friendly planet Earth.”

In the overall terms, China has played the significant role in joint promoting of the SCO as Russia admitted that in unison with the Chinese side, the existence of a unipolar world is impossible. Moscow and Beijing have agreed that it’s an impossible situation when the wealthy West is claiming the right to invent rules in economy, in politics and the right to impose its will on other countries. The foundation of the unipolar system has started to seriously creak and wobble. A new reality is emerging. Now it is more apparent that the obsolete unipolar model is being superseded by a new world order based on the fundamental principles of justice, equality, and the recognition of the right of each nation and state to its sovereign path of development. Put it more precisely, strong political and economic centers acting as a driving force of this irreversible process are being shaped in the Asia Pacific region.

Echoing the consensus among the SCO member states and their partners in the Eurasian domain, President Xi spoke at the summit that the successful experience of the SCO has been based on political trust, win-win cooperation, equality between nations, openness and inclusiveness, and equity and justice. They are not only the source of strength for the development of the SCO but also the fundamental guide that must be followed strictly in the years to come. Given that under the volatile world, the SCO, as an important constructive force in international and regional affairs, should keep itself well-positioned in the face of changing international dynamics, constantly enhance strategic independence, consolidate and deepen solidarity and cooperation, and build a closer SCO community with a shared future.

More specifically, China has not only presented the Global Development Initiative and the Global Security Initiative, but also carried out the initiatives with real actions. In addition, the SCO greets the new round of the largest expansion of the SCO membership has consolidated its status and influence as the most populous regional cooperation organization with the vastest territory in the world. The expansion fully demonstrates that the SCO is not a closed and exclusive “small clique” but an open, inclusive “big family”. As a new type of international organization comprising 26 countries, the SCO is increasingly showing strong vitality and bright prospects for development including that it will inject new impetus into peace and prosperity in Eurasia and beyond and play an exemplary role in building a new type of international relations and a community with a shared future for mankind.

In sum, the SCO has gained greater significance with the outbreak of hostilities in Ukraine, where an economically weaker Russia is turning to East in general and China in particular as Beijing and Moscow vow to be a partner with no limits and leading coordination over the SCO. In addition, the comprehensive strategic partnership of China and Russia covers a bilateral agenda, multilateral trade and economic cooperation and shared security concerns of all concerned. In the face of outrageous Western sanctions, the SCO demonstrates stability, continues to develop progressively, and gains momentum. China is sure to play the constructive role of promoting their business to the global level, including strengthening the basis of economic cooperation among SCO member states, allowing the launch of free economic zones, and implementing large-scale infrastructure projects globally.

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Factionalism in the Chinese Communist Party: From Mao to Now

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With the crucial 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) set to commence on October 16, here’s a look at the different factions that have historically existed within the Party, otherwise considered a highly centralised and monolithic organisation.

Democratic Centralism

Described by Lenin as “freedom of discussion, unity of action”, Democratic Centralism is a Marxist-Leninist theoretical concept which attempts to strike a balance between inner Party democracy and organisational unity as an assurance that decisions could be efficiently made without stifling ideological struggles within the Party which emerge in the form of dissent. It was first specifically adopted as the organising principle of a Marxist party in the Soviet Union by both Bolshevik and Menshevik factions of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP)  at their separate conferences in 1905 and was unanimously adopted at the Party Unity Congress in 1906. Initially seen to be compatible with the existence of factions, a more rigid idea of Democratic Centralism was adopted at the 10th Party Congress in 1921 when all factions were outlawed in the name of Party unity. While the intention was not to wipe out the democratic discourse altogether, ‘monolithic unity’ vertically imposed by the late 1920s supplanted all free debate.

The Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) at its 17th Congress in 1934  defined the four cardinal points of Democratic Centralism as follows:

election of all leading bodies of the Party; their periodic accountability to their respective organisations; strict party discipline &  the subordination of the minority to the majority and decisions of higher bodies to be absolutely binding on lower bodies and on party members.

 In other words, free debate and discussion would be allowed to exist within the ranks of the Party till a decision is taken by the higher body after which it must be faithfully followed and implemented by all lower ranks in the name of Party discipline  without any collective attempts to block the decision. Factionalism thus, came to be seen as a serious offense of sabotaging Party unity. The Third Communist International (1919-43) called for  Democratic Centralism to be strictly implemented by all fellow Communist parties across the world which continued even after its dissolution in 1943.

The Chinese Communist Party, through the  slogan ‘Centralism based on Democracy and Democracy Under Centralist Guidance’ (《民主基础上的集中,集中知道下的民主》), describes its role as focused on the inclusion of popular opinion which is considered  extremely important not just for the successful implementation of its policies but also as the raison d’être of its rule however concurrently, it considers them too vague to be implemented as they exist. The CCP thus sees itself as the central sieve through which mass opinions would be filtered off their vagueness and effective policies could be formulated as it is considered to be in best possession of both the knowledge of Marxism-Leninism and interests of the masses. Party cadres would go to the masses and raise their demands at the Party meetings followed by a debate, also known as the Mass Line approach. Once the decision is taken, there would be no further discussion and the cadres would faithfully implement the policies among the populace with iron discipline.

After a brief period of decentralisation post the 1978 Reform and Opening up, Centralism was reintroduced following the Tiananmen Square Movement of 1989 and more so after the fall of the USSR in 1991 in order to avert a possible legitimacy crisis. Since then streams of Centralism and Democracy have alternatively dominated leadership views. In his speech at the 17th Party Congress, Hu Jintao emphasised on the need to strengthen intra Party democracy as a part of Democratic Centralism. In contrast, Xi Jinping in 2016 emphasised on the need to integrate centralisation on a democratic basis while urging the members to display “pure and utmost” loyalty to the Party.

Guanxi (关系)

Though Articles 3(5) and  10 of the CCP Constitution  prohibit factionalism within the Party in the name of Democratic Centralism, interest groups nevertheless exist through informal networks based on  personal ties called Guanxi (关系). Guanxi has its roots in the Confucian tradition which emphasises on the feeling of belongingness among members of a family or an organisation. Such a  nexus functions in a reciprocal way where the followers look for career security and advancement under the protection of a senior leader who ensures their interests are served in the upper rungs in exchange for their support, for instance, Hu Jintao was known to have led a group of his comrades from his Communist Youth League (CYL) days  called Tuanpai (团派) in his entourage. While in itself testifying the presence of factionalism, this relationship often results in emergence of factions due to its unstable nature. All chosen successors to the General Secretary in the Party’s history have been purged by their own patrons (Mao and Deng) with the sole exception of Deng Xiaoping’s protégé, Jiang Zemin. Inconsistent leadership decision making, with opinions swinging between “Left adventurism” and “Right opportunism” under Mao and “Emancipation of Mind” and “Socialist Spiritual Civilisation” under Deng too has given rise to interest groups within the Party.

Other features of China’s political system which give rise to factionalism include  power entrusted to individual leaders in a hierarchical context; the monopoly of the Communist Party over all legal channels of expression of diverse interests; absence of a formal structure of decision making and interference of the military in politics.

Factions at a glance

The origins of Guanxi networks can be traced back to Shantou (山头)or “mountain top” alliances which date back to the Party’s early days. Facing a hostile Nationalist Party (国民党) and Japanese forces, the CCP was nurtured in independent and isolated rural basecamps which were often located in rugged hilly terrain. Thus, each Shantou became a locus of its leader’s power.  The hostile and dangerous conditions necessitated a close bond between leaders and their followers which fragmented member’s loyalty towards the CCP as a Party as the primary allegiance was paid to the leader and not to the organisation.

Though Mao in his On Contradiction (1937) defined intra Party differences and discussions as a symbol of its vitality and liveliness, he was very strict about expression of dissent outside the Party apparatus which was seen as an attempt to break away from the Party and resulted almost always in purges. Even as Mao successfully established his line of thought as the single ideological core of the Party during the Yenan Rectification Campaign of 1942, ground realities built conditions for the existence of factions which continued as external channels of communication among political associates, outlets of their diverse interests and command system of their forces. Informal Factionalism continued to drive the Party’s inner politics even after the victory in the Civil War in 1949. While Mao could establish himself as the Chairman, his sole legitimacy to rule still faced challenges since all his associates had comparable experience and contribution to enlist. As a result, though working under Mao, leaders such as Zhou Enlai and Peng Dehuai continued to remain influential in a system where they were not expected to do so. Cautious of not upsetting Mao,these leaders often collaborated amongst themselves to weather any crisis which Mao read as a threat to his own power and hence, he launched the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) as an anti-organisation movement so as to tie all strands of loyalty to himself and not the Party where other leaders still exercised influence.

Interestingly, a penchant for a similar policy did not always translate into unity among members, the classic example being the fallout between Liu Shaoqi and Mao Zedong who did not just share policy preferences on most issues but had also joined the Party at the same time and worked together. Similarly, both Lin Biao and the Gang of Four (四人帮) were on the same page in the trajectory of the revolution but it was the power struggle amongst them which ultimately led to Lin’s fall. During Deng’s regime, Chen Yun and Peng Zhen’s shared conservativeness did not prevent Chen from blocking Peng’s path to the Politburo Standing Committee. Both Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang were reform minded but Zhao held his silence when Hu was ousted. Similarly, it was on the basis of personal networks that Deng Xiaoping and Chen Yun remained the most powerful leaders throughout their lives without holding any official position. 

The economic reforms of the post Mao period further split internal unity into those who continued to stick with the Maoist line, demanding strict obedience to the socialist model of development and those who believed in inching closer to an open, market oriented economy. Economic interests thus play a major role in guiding factionalism, with the emergence of a ‘Petroleum faction’ within the CCP of those associated with the crude oil industry being a noticeable example.

Common political origins have also formed a ground for development of factions. Like Hu’s Tuanpai, Jiang Zemin was known to promote those who had worked for him previously in the Shanghai administration which led to the rise of a “Shanghai Clique” when he ascended the top position. Xi is similarly known to be leading a  “Fujian Clique” as his ascension to power was soon followed by the promotion of his former associates Wang Xiaohong and Deng Weiping to senior positions. He has also promoted his protégés from his home province of Shaanxi. Xi is not only known to secure the interests of “Princelings” (太子党 or children of high ranking Communist leaders as himself) but to also further promote a “Tsinghua Faction” of his alma mater which is known to have existed since 2008 when 1 of the 7 members of the Politburo Standing Committee and 3 of the 25 members of the Politburo were alumni of the prestigious Tsinghua University. Xi Jinping has also actively promoted leaders such as Ma Xingrui and Zhang Qingwei from the Defense-Aerospace industry (军工航天系) to top civilian positions. Perhaps the starkest episode of factionalism within the CCP was the fall of Bo Xilai, Xi’s contender to the position of the General Secretary in 2012, which not just revealed the fault lines within the Party but also brought into question the fragmented loyalty of the military as many senior PLA officers closely associated with Bo such as Zhou Yongkang were found to have actively aided him in securing the most coveted position and were later tried and arrested for charges of corruption and abuse of power.

With speculations high that Xi is likely to evade the “seven up, eight down” (七上,八下) rule which restricts reappointments of senior leaders above the age of 68 and  the retirement of Li Keqiang as the Premier, groups such as the CYL faction are likely to be further marginalised while the prominence of those close to Xi Jinping is bound to prevail at the upcoming Party Congress which might result in the likely promotion of leaders like Chen Min’er and Ding Xuexiang. 

Factionalism within the CCP does not just stand as the testimony of the dynamics in Chinese politics but also provides a window into the otherwise opaque world of its functioning.

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