An overambitious party state and the perils of imperial overstretch


Here, I analyse the rise of China under an overambitious Communist Party (CCP), and what it means for the rest of the world, despite all its exceptional domestic accomplishments. How do the CCP’s acts of belligerence in China’s neighbourhood openly challenge the notion of peaceful coexistence?


The People’s Republic of China is one of the only five remaining ‘politically’ communist states in the world, the others being North Korea, Vietnam, Laos, and Cuba. On July 1, 2021 the ruling Chinese Communist Party observed its 100th anniversary of establishment with much pomp and splendour in the historic Tiananmen Square of Beijing.

The party was formed by a small group of radical Chinese intellectuals in the eastern city of Shanghai in 1921, without much expectations of ruling a vast country like mainland China in a matter of decades, which was then in its Republican Era that continued till 1949.

The CCP seizes power

With the fall of the nationalist Kuomintang government led by Chiang Kai-shek in the aftermath of the Chinese Civil War (1927-1949) the communists seized power in Beijing with the proclamation of the People’s Republic on 01 October 1949 by Mao Zedong, then Chairperson of the Communist Party, in Tiananmen Square, a name that would turn infamous after four decades for a brutal crackdown on democratic aspirations by the CCP using the armed forces and the massacre of hundreds of Chinese youths, including university students, in 1989.

The party’s leadership is enshrined in the Chinese constitution and its top leader, the General Secretary, is the de-facto head of the Chinese state. Over the past 72 years many charismatic leaders have occupied this particular post like Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and the current leader Xi Jinping, who has been in power since 2012. In times of Xi, the party’s goal has gone beyond the traditional goal of national rejuvenation and state consolidation towards the assertion of might and comprehensive national power.

The centennial: From consolidation to assertion

32 years after the bloody Tiananmen incident, in the same Square, General Secretary Xi Jinping delivered a keynote speech highlighting the CCP’s achievements in front of more than 70,000 attendees, marking the party’s centennial celebrations, followed by glaring military parades, cannon firings and mesmerizing aerial shows by the air force. Other prominent figures present alongside him included former General Secretary Hu Jintao, ex-premier Wen Jiabao, and the respective chief executives of the special administrative regions (SARs) of Hong Kong’s and Macau, over which he said Beijing exercises “overall jurisdiction”.

Among other things, General Secretary Xi stated that realizing China’s complete “reunification” by resolving the Taiwan question is an unshakable commitment and mission of the Communist Party and resolute action will be taken to defeat any attempt toward “Taiwan independence”. This was an indirect political message to the United States.

He also said, “The Chinese people will never allow any foreign forces to bully, oppress or enslave us. Whoever nurses delusions of doing that will crack their heads and spill blood on the great wall of steel built from the flesh and blood of 1.4 billion Chinese people”. This was a direct message to all democracies of the world that relate with the concerns of the Taiwanese people on the preservation of the island’s democratic system.

By invoking such historical revanchist sentiments of the Chinese people and repeated reiterations of ‘the century of humiliation’ faced by imperial China under colonial powers, Xi Jinping gave a blunt warning to all present-day foreign powers, which includes China’s systemic, strategic and geopolitical adversaries.

By pledging to expand China’s military capabilities and global influence, he reiterated the end of China’s peaceful rise, something which he already hinted two years back, in 2019, when the People’s Republic observed its 70th anniversary. The rhetoric was overly nationalistic in tone, in many ways resembling that of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich, which also spilled similar toxicity.

The party has indeed led the Chinese state to becoming a formidable economic giant in about three to four decades, starting from 1978, when economic liberalisation ushered in the era of prosperity in the country. The party embraced a self-contradictory capitalist economy since 1978 and has skilfully adjusted itself along opportunistic lines throughout its later history.

Today, the party has about 92 million members out of China’s population of 1.4 billion. The CCP, along with the other four communist countries, has outlived the collapse of the Soviet Union and its affiliated Eastern bloc.

All Chinese leaders have initiated their own signature philosophies as the guiding force of the CCP’s state policy during their respective tenures. It includes, “Hide your strength, bide your time” (Deng Xiaoping), “The Three Represents” (Jiang Zemin), “Scientific Outlook on Development” (Hu Jintao), and the current “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” and the “Community with a Shared Future for Humankind”.

The CCP is currently ruling over the world’s most populous nation and an economic superpower. The global power transition is not going to be smooth, while the Western alliance led by the United States is rising up to the new challenge by renewing their alliance. This seems also true considering the party’s hidden agenda to dominate the world on all perceivable aspects of society, primarily by utilizing its superior economic and technological might, supplemented more recently by boosted military capabilities.

Imperial overstretch

The concept of ‘imperial overstretch’ is put forward by Paul Kennedy, a Yale University historian to explain a situation wherein an empire or a major power extends itself beyond its military and economic capabilities, which would eventually lead to its collapse. This was true in the case of rise and fall of powers and leaders such as Napoleon Bonaparte in 1815 and Adolf Hitler in 1945.

In today’s scenario, the 72-year old regime in mainland China under the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) show signs of such an ‘overstretch’ in its neighbourhood. But, unlike in the distant past, the nations of the world are interconnected and interdependent on each other, making the situation much more complex.

A quote on imperial China, then under the Qing dynasty, often attributed to French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte goes like this, “Let China Sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world”. As said, it turned out that China’s new rulers, the Communist Party, is arguably adept in ‘shaking’ the status quo of peace, using a combination of economic, military and diplomatic tools with both tactical and strategic implications.

For short-term gains, it is antagonizing all the countries that refuse to accept Chinese hegemony in Asia. The CCP often forgets the fact that it has to co-exist peacefully with other nations, or it’s not willing to, and constantly attempts to alter the existing regional and global order and power equations in a unilateral manner.

Both Adolf Hitler and Xi Jinping and his predecessors since Deng Xiaoping were successful enough in building a strong domestic economy and strikingly good enough in bringing in rapid industrialisation of their respective countries, but the real problem lies with its engagement with the rest of the world.

Germany too was incredibly industrialized during Hitler’s regime, but the problem was a lion’s share of it was oriented towards the accomplishment of military objectives. It’s not about how much economic muscle has been built up over the years or what size is the country’s economy but how it is being used in a way jeopardizing the interests of other nations, particularly in the periphery and neighbourhood.

Contentious periphery and neighbourhood

The communist state’s armed forces, which calls itself the People’s Liberation Army has sworn their allegiance to the party and not the Chinese state, unlike democratic countries. It has annexed predominantly Buddhist Tibet in 1951 and much before that predominantly Muslim Xinjiang or East Turkestan was also incorporated into the People’s Republic. Instead of liberating peoples, the communists themselves turned into oppressors.

Today, the CCP is using economics as a tool to correct its political wrongs, particularly in Tibet, where it is intensifying infrastructure development. Once the current Dalai Lama, who is in exile in India, attains nirvana, the CCP will also attempt to install a puppet by diluting the institution of the Dalai Lama itself, thereby jeopardizing the Tibetan culture and religion. This would bring the CCP in collision with India, where tens of thousands of Tibetan refugees live.

Most recently, China has also been trying to exploit unemployment in areas close to Tibet’s border with India, such as the strategic Chumbi Valley wedged between Bhutan and India’s Sikkim state. The CCP has started recruiting militias of Tibetan origin, who are accustomed to high altitude warfare, to fight for the CCP’s armed wing, the People’s Liberation Army. India too has a secretive force comprising of Tibetan refugees, called the Special Frontier Force (SFF). In the event of a flare-up in these areas, it is going to be Tibetans versus Tibetans, fighting on rival sides.

In the Himalayan frontiers, the CCP is engaging in the strategy of ‘salami-slicing’ by laying claims on lands belonging to its Himalayan neighbours – India, Bhutan and Nepal – by making gradual advancements, followed by mobilisation of troops. This was most recently evident in the Galwan incident and standoff, last year, wherein the Chinese laid claims on the entire Galwan Valley, belonging to India, after locking horns with Indian troops.

The CCP makes ten steps forward and later retreats two steps back after negotiations that follow. India and China fought a war in 1962 when the latter unexpectedly attacked and defeated the latter, in a hugely asymmetric war, as an attention diversion tactic to bury Mao’s domestic failures.

Similarly, in the south, Hong Kong’s autonomy has been jeopardized by introducing a draconian national security law last year. This is now being used to crush democratic dissent and freedom of the press, as evident the circumstances leading to the closure of pro-democracy newspaper and CCP-critic Apple Daily, following the arrests of its journalists and seizing of its assets. Democratic gatherings are also banned.

Potential for great power rivalry in the maritime domain

Coming to the Taiwan Strait, there has been an exponential rise in air space incursions by PLA jets in the past few months, indicative of a looming threat of annexation of the self-ruled island state by the CCP.

In the South China Sea, located at the centre of the Indo Pacific region between China and Southeast Asia, the CCP has resurrected an old and legally invalid idea of ‘Nine-Dash Line’ in 2013 to claim over 90% of waters of the sea as its sovereign territory, which overlaps with the legitimate territorial waters and exclusive economic zones of neighbouring countries such as Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Indonesia.

However, the recent origins of the CCP’s assertion goes back to late 2000s, when Chinese PLA navy submarines surfaced in the middle of US naval ships engaged in freedom of navigation operations in the East China Sea. It was a kind of political message to the otherwise great power active in the region, the United States.

The Chinese have been openly disregarding international maritime law and the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Seas of 1982, of which Beijing itself is a party, by making such illegal claims. This is nothing but blatant cartographic aggression by the CCP.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague in Netherlands has ruled these claims as illegal in a landmark 2016 verdict, which was in favour of the Philippines, a key security ally of the United States in the region. For Manila, it was matter of food security as well, considering the large section of its population that engaged in fisheries as a means to livelihood. But, the dispute still continues, as Beijing decided not to respect the 2016 verdict and naval collisions occur periodically even to this day.

The CCP also has a dispute with Japan, another US ally, over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. The US always had a security presence in Southeast Asia, the backyard of China, right from the 1950s when SEATO (Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation) existed and the subsequent isolation from the region following the debacle in the Vietnam War. But, at that time China never projected its power in the region, as it did from 2013 onwards with new ambitions for strategic influence. Today, even a once adversary Vietnam finds strategic convergence with the United States, considering the South China Sea dispute.

The United States greatly values its right of freedom of navigation and conducts passage exercises in maritime regions across the world. In the recent past, this has increasingly come in direct collision with China-claimed territorial waters when US ships frequently encounter Chinese ships in the region. Former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made it clear in July 2020 that “the South China Sea is not China’s maritime empire”.

Last year, an annual report released by the Pentagon showed that the People’s Republic of China has built the largest navy in the world, surpassing even the US Navy, in terms of overall battle force. In 2020, China had approximately 350 ships and submarines in comparison to 293 of the US.

As part of the PLA Navy’s modernisation efforts in the recent past, it has embarked on a rigorous ship-building programme that includes “submarines, surface combatants, amphibious warfare ships, aircraft carriers, and auxiliary ships as well as indigenous weapons, sensors and command and control systems”, the report stated.

But, the dragon is still far behind the eagle in terms of overseas bases and comparative operational reach. This means, China is using this enormous amount of naval might in the contentious seas in its backyard, the South and East China Seas, aimed at its maritime neighbours.

The Indian Ocean too is vulnerable to potential Chinese militarization in the near future, particularly in places such as Sri Lanka, which is trapped in Chinese debt-trap. The first Chinese overseas military base in Djibouti and the strategic Gwadar port in Pakistan, where the BRI’s maritime route meets land, are already operational.

The other side of the China story

One of the many things that China admirers and the left-leaning fraternity of intelligentsia, academia and the media in democratic countries keep on articulating is the way China rapidly modernized and industrialised in the past three to four decades and how it lifted about 800 million of its citizens out of poverty, and crediting that success as the basis for legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party among the Chinese people. They say China achieved the feat by not subjugating other countries, unlike the West.

But, in fact what they comfortably neglect or rather doesn’t wish to mention is how that is achieved and how the original communist ideology is tweaked to the highest extent possible for that purpose or how sustainable that development model is. They don’t wish to say how the northern and eastern frontier provinces of Tibet and Xinjiang, which was culturally never part of historical China Proper or the Chinese civilization, was forcefully annexed, ‘colonized’, its natural resources drained and subjected to ‘Han’ization of those regions’ demography.

They seldom talk about the murder of democracy in Hong Kong or the threat of Beijing’s potential invasion of Taiwan. In Xinjiang, reportedly over a million Uyghur Muslims are arbitrarily put in re-education camps where alleged forced labour is taking place, which supposedly includes production for world markets.

One of the other tactics followed by the CCP in the 1990s was pretending to abide by and be part of the liberal international world in order to convince the United States other Western countries to support China to join the World Trade Organisation (WTO), which it ultimately accomplished in 2001, thereby beginning a new era of international competition wherein cheap Chinese products began flooding world markets in a matter of few years.

From ‘peaceful’ to ‘disruptive’ rise

The CCP has reshaped the rules of geo-economics since early 2010s by initiating a spree of investments and infrastructure projects in trillions of dollars in vulnerable countries and regions of the world such as in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Africa, with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) being its core. Many a times it leads the country into a spiral of inescapable debt-trap. By doing so, the CCP envisions positioning China as the centre of global economy and trade, which it already more or less is.

It has been trying to split the West and the United States by fishing in troubled waters using the same geoeconomic tools by leading groupings such as Cooperation between China and 17 Central and Eastern European Countries (17+1) and also by engaging Latin American countries such as Nicaragua, where it is building an alternative waterway to the Panama Canal that connects the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

Moreover, Beijing sides with Moscow to take on the Western alliance. If the world’s democracies fail to tame the dragon, it might plunge into another war, more possibly in the Taiwan Strait or in the South China Sea or may be even in the Indian Ocean.

There was a time when ‘peaceful rise’ was the party’s policy orientation as advocated by Deng Xiaoping and his immediate successors. Today, under Xi, it has grown into a global ambition supported by a daunting grand strategy, often with disruptive characteristics.

The need for balancing singular concentration of power

For the first time, in June 2021, the 30-member NATO alliance and the G7 acknowledged China as a systemic challenge to be handled with, other than Russia. New infrastructural projects are also in the offing to counter its Chinese equivalents. New balance of power coalitions are taking shape such as the Quad grouping of democracies, consisting of the US, Japan, India and Australia.

Democratic nations are coming together in bilateral, trilateral and multilateral mechanisms to prevent one disruptive power from dominating others. The Biden administration is heavily investing on Washington’s diplomatic capital in renewing America’s alliances across the world that was put in a sorry state to the advantage of China by his predecessor. He is building on coalitions and partnerships intensified by the previous administration, as well.

The world today is dealing with a delusional power that exhibits an increasingly confrontational style of diplomacy, often called ‘wolf-warrior diplomacy’ that seldom cares about co-existing with other countries in peace or respecting each other.

So, there is strong need today for preventing singular concentration of power and for balancing power with the involvement of more responsible actors that is willing to coexist peacefully, so do the need for a new set of confidence-building measures among rivals, drawing lessons from the past.

A larger task of this power balancing is at hand for the world’s democracies, which includes the preservation of rules-based international order, prevention of expansionist policies from gaining ground, and the promotion of alternative development models with sustainability at its core and without ulterior motives.

Bejoy Sebastian
Bejoy Sebastian
Bejoy Sebastian writes on the contemporary geopolitics and regionalism in eastern Asia and the Indo-Pacific. His articles and commentaries have appeared in Delhi Post (India), The Kochi Post (India), The Diplomat (United States), and The Financial Express (India). Some of his articles were re-published by The Asian Age (Bangladesh), The Cambodia Daily, the BRICS Information Portal, and the Peace Economy Project (United States). He is an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC), New Delhi, where he acquired a post-graduate diploma in English journalism. He has qualified the Indian University Grants Commission's National Eligibility Test (UGC-NET) for teaching International Relations in Indian higher educational institutions in 2022. He holds a Master's degree in Politics and International Relations with first rank from Mahatma Gandhi University in Kottayam, Kerala, India. He was attached to the headquarters of the Ministry of External Affairs (Government of India) in New Delhi as a research intern in 2021 and has also worked as a Teaching Assistant at FLAME University in Pune, India, for a brief while.


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