Over the past month, The Bookkeeper's Whatsapp feed as also his twitter feed has been inundated with news of an Indo-Chinese military standoff at the Doklam Pass in Bhutan. The Bookkeeper is loathe to describe the issue again as there is no dearth online of material on it. What strikes The Bookkeeper as interesting is the news that local Chinese media is increasingly playing up the issue, threatening India, warning to open new fronts and even reminding India repeatedly of their military victories against the Jawaharlal Nehru government.
The one thing that I would like to stress it that this theater is one where India has an undisputed advantage in military terms. In fact China would require a 10:1 superiority over the Indian army to make even a dent here, and both parties to the conflict know this. The strategic importance of this piece of land is such that some experts opine that India would even risk a full blown conflict to protect its interests there. The visit of the top command of Indian armed forces, the recent financial carte blanche given to the army to handle short skirmishes also send across the message that India is serious about defending this area.
It is in this context that the belligerence displayed by Chinese media regarding this stand off is extremely interesting, more than the stand-off itself. While conventional analysts have focused on the relative military might, the strategic importance of the region etc, the political fallout in China is something that has not been covered at all.
To understand the 'politics' of the issue it is important to take a brief look at Xi Jinping, the current 'paramount' leader of China. Xi was elected to the post of The General Secretary of the Communist Party and the Chairmanship of the Central Military Commission in November 2012. In his inaugural speech he made special mention of corruption and the need to weed it out.Thus in 2012 he started a 'campaign against corruption" with a stated goal of targeting "tigers and flies" (meaning he would target both high officials and low level functionaries). The Bookkeeper has read of over 100,000 officials being indicted for corruption, including 120 high ranking officials across military, political spectrum and leaders of State Owned Enterprises.
The biggest move in this campaign has been Xi's breaking of the unwritten rule of not investigating any present or former members of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC). Stories of Bo Xilai and Ling Jihua are well known, but the campaign has not even spared General Xu Caihou, a former politburo member. Xu was also the vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, the highest position that can be occupied by a military officer in China. However, the biggest 'fish' has been Zhou Yongkang who is a former PSC member and national security chief. Zhou was convicted in June 2015 and has been sentenced to life in prison.
The Bookkeeper cannot speculate as to the intention of such a bold move on part of Xi. Was it out of noble interests or was it a 'great purge' disguised as an anti corruption drive to remove all opposition and meddling from others. Whatever the reason, the fact remains that Xi is now described by some as the most powerful leader in China since Deng Xiaoping. The number of seats in the politburo have been reduced to 7 from 9 and decision making has become increasingly centralized in the hands of Xi. There are internet restrictions and 'defamatory' articles can be taken down and people who share them can even be arrested with a jail term for up to three years.
Without meandering over the morality or otherwise of these actions (it is never wise to use morality to analyse politicians anyway), The Bookkeeper does not find it hard to imagine that these actions can create enemies if Xi within the Chinese polity.
Now coming back to the Chinese media's belligerent coverage of a conflict it is likely to lose. The Bookkeeper sees this as a tactic by Xi Jingping's political contemporaries to weaken his position and perhaps even seize power. Perhaps by exerting influence on newspapers to continually 'threaten' India about things they know Xi simply cannot do, they are hoping Xi will lose face. This can also be inferred by the difference in the intensity of coverage of the border issue in Indian and Chinese media. Indian media is hardly reporting it! If China indeed wanted India to back down, The Bookkeeper can imagine several publications in India that are friendly to China that it could have used to forward scary stories.
China is like a bully child. They first lay claim to something and then if the other side does not object, it will keep pushing for more till a bigger bully stands up to them. Like in this case, they tried to expand militarily in an area they know they have no right to. India stood up and now they have to back down. Anyone who has even a passing friendship with Chinese knows how important the concept of "saving face" is to them. The Bookkeeper believes it is socially acceptable even to lie if the reason was to "save face". People will 'understand'.
The accepted tactic was that the PLA would carry out some exercises at the border and then slowly withdraw after testing its limit with the Indian army. However, the coverage in their local media has made it impossible for the army to back down. They cannot back down, and they cannot fight. This has put the head of the armed forces, President Xi Jinping, in a very difficult position. He is now unable to "save face". And if he loses face, he will be left with no option but to resign. In the interim he has no option but to leave his army at the border and wait for winter which will give him a face saving excuse to bring the PLA back to barracks,
So, while two armies stand-off at the border, the real bullets are flying in Beijing. The Bookkeeper sees political machinations intensifying after the winter sets in. I will not be surprised to see several heads roll as those who fed material to the local papers are identified.