Xi’s 3rd ‘Mandate of Heaven’ Forces New Delhi to Reassess ‘Dragon Threat’

Critics maintain seeking to strengthen a strategic partnership with the US has been the cornerstone of Indian geopolitical thinking in recent years. Beijing might have been right in assessing that India is fast emerging as a staunch ally of the US in the Indo-Pacific with the aim to integrate itself more fully into Washington’s military strategy against China. However, the lingering war in Ukraine seems to have been causing a crisis in Indian geopolitical thinking regarding both the Indo-US alliance and how to tame the Chinese dragon.

Is China going to interact with the outside world any differently now that the 20th CPC National Congress is over and Xi has grown in stature with a 3rd Mandate of Heaven? Is it true that in Beijing’s list of five immediate foreign policy challenges China is facing, India figures as the third, defined as the “neighbor that refuses to acknowledge China’s rise?” Additionally, it was duly acknowledged and yet quite candidly rebuffed in Xi’s political report to the 20th party congress that the US and EU respectively have publicly let it be known that they are opposed to the CPC and its current leadership.

Recall soon following the announcement of the US chip and semiconductor embargo against China, the secretary of state Blinken “dared” Beijing while the 20th party congress was on, and without mincing words stated: “We have seen a very different China emerge in recent years under Xi Jinping’s leadership. It’s more aggressive abroad, and in many instances, that poses challenges to our own interests, as well as to our own values.” Not to anyone’s surprise, the US administration’s views were simply echoing the anti-China attitudes of both the Democrats and Republicans. Hours before the CPC party congress, a joint statement released by Senators Bob Menendez (D) and Jim Risch (R) said: “The CPC today under Xi is more aggressive and more emboldened than ever before.”

Meanwhile, in Europe, a day after the Chinese congress opened in Beijing, the foreign ministers from twenty-seven EU countries, in what is being described as a striking coincidence, gathered in Luxembourg to reassess Europe’s China policy. Describing foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg as a “remarkable moment,” Phelim Kine of POLITICO observed that the gathering in an unprecedented move shook up (the EU’s) previously stated official line and for the first time declared China “not just a competitor, but a tough competitor.” Unwilling to reveal his identity, an EU diplomat at the annual EU Council Meet confessed “Everyone is pretty much on the same page that the relationship with China is shifting more toward competition and rivalry.”

Likewise, in the Asia-Pacific region and in East Asia, the air is filled with uneasy feelings about the prospect of rising Chinese military hegemony as Beijing plans to accelerate its military modernization under Xi Jinping 3.0, as was declared in the party general secretary’s report on October 16. Reporting exclusively for the Australian ABC News, Peta Fuller wrote on October 20: “China claims its massive military build-up is for defense… The label ‘for defense’ is just a cynical and blatantly transparent excuse for needing a massive military for when it invades and usurps Taiwan.” Closer to China, in Japan, one of the country’s oldest and largest newspapers chose to highlight Xi’s “strong military” pledge in the party congress’s political report on its opening day.

Not surprisingly, the China watchers and New Delhi’s China policymakers have been alerted. With Xi certain to be installed for a third term as Chinese President in the spring of next year, the English-language national press, various TV news channels, and a couple of the largest digital news platforms in India have been quick to focus on the specter of an increased “dragon threat” staring at India. Take a look at some of the news headlines in India’s national press before and after the CPC congress: “Red Alert: What after the Chinese Communists’ 20th Party Congress?” “Xi’s Third Term Promises More Risks than Rewards for India,” and “How India Can Rise to the China Challenge?” 

In a recent review, a serving Indian navy officer described journalist Ananth Krishanan’s just-published influential book India’s China Challenge as “a notable examination of the challenge posed to India by China’s meteoric rise.” A day after Xi presented his political report at the ongoing party congress, Vijay Gokhale, a seasoned China hand and former Indian foreign secretary (2018-2020), who was also New Delhi’s envoy to Beijing during the 73-day-long Doklam border standoff with China, told The Print – India’s largest viewed social media current affairs platform, “India must be prepared as Xi Jinping is likely to become China’s most powerful leader.” Another leading Indian short video news app aired an exclusive panel discussion entitled “As Xi consolidates power in China, how will India handle the rising dragon?”

In September, India’s External Affairs Minister Dr. Subrahmanyam Jaishankar led the Indian delegation at the 77th session of the UNGA and spent 10-day in the US. A key objective of Jaishankar’s visit, as reported in the Indian and international press, including the Chinese media, was to maintain the momentum of the recently strengthening Indo-US military-strategic partnership. It is pertinent to mention, the so-called evolving India-US strategic relationship momentum – what the secretary of state recently termed “one of the world’s most consequential partnerships” – has increasingly come under stress since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine. New Delhi’s refusal to break away with “all-weather friend” Russia since the war in Ukraine in February has angered the White House.      

But why did Jaishankar need to “camp” in the US capital city for so many days?

As mentioned, the progress in Indo-US strategic partnership in recent years has been quite favorable to India – both politically and militarily. The following reasons are cited for a “turnaround” in the early 2000s in the US willingness to consider key areas for deepening bilateral and regional strategic cooperation with India. Namely, following 9.11, the US global war on terror aligned with India’s efforts to combat its own organized terrorism threats, which led to increased bilateral cooperation in intelligence, law enforcement, and military; more recently the cyber security cooperation has been steadily rising between the two countries; and, the increasing US realization that it is essential to enhance regional military-strategic cooperation with India to counter a rising China.

But the February 24 Russian military attack on Ukraine has indeed forced India into a corner. Even some staunch critics of New Delhi strategically having moved closer to the US have observed, “At first, it seemed as if the Russian invasion would force India to do a tightrope walk to maintain its relations with Moscow without causing a reversal of its growing ties with Europe and the United States.” This despite a section among the US strategic affairs analysts warning early on that “Washington would use every opportunity to disrupt and ultimately break India’s partnership with Russia.” According to John P. Ruehl, India continued to believe it has trodden carefully by not endorsing Russian actions until it received the first rude shock on April 11 when Blinken openly criticized India for human rights violations at the fourth 2+2 US-India Ministerial Dialogue in Washington DC.

Finally, with the internal economic slowdown to continue in the short run due to rigid, severe COVID-inflicted lockdowns, and externally, facing a long-term threat to economic growth as a result of the US “obsession” to “outcompete” China, the CPC’s rising nationalism will inexorably lead China into escalating military conflicts with countries in its neighborhood. The ongoing border standoff in the Galwan valley in June 2020 in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, caused by unprovoked Chinese military advances, is a manifestation of the aggressive Chinese behavior under Xi’s “new era.” The moot question India’s policymakers are confronted with is, what will be more effective in eliminating the specter of the dragon threat: to maintain its traditional foreign policy “autonomy” and refrain from fully becoming a part of the US-initiated “anti-China” security architecture or fully embrace the US security protection and dare and challenge Chinese nationalist “defensive-offensive?”

Hemant Adlakha
Hemant Adlakha
Hemant Adlakha is professor of Chinese, Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. He is also vice chairperson and an Honorary Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS), Delhi.