August 3, 2017 12:00 pm JST

China seen as blinking while impasse with India continues

Xi faces risk as nationalist netizens question lack of military response

HIROSHI MURAYAMA, Nikkei senior staff writer

TOKYO -- Jingoistic frustrations surrounding the extended military standoff between China and India in the Himalayas threaten to undermine the influence of Chinese President Xi Jinping, who himself rose to power amid a nationalistic wave five years ago.

When world powers collide

China held a massive military parade Sunday in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region to mark 90 years since the founding of the People's Liberation Army. The armed forces touted their advanced capabilities by unveiling stealth fighters and other modern military hardware.

But on the actual 90th anniversary Tuesday, the mood on the internet was less than patriotic given the PLA's seemingly defensive stance against India.

"Beijing is going to be occupied anyway," one Chinese poster said. "We have no choice but to become Indian."

"They proudly display their great weapons, yet they cannot drive out the Indian army?" wrote another bemused netizen.

The impasse began in mid-June when, according to New Delhi, the PLA built a road in Dolam, a disputed Himalayan territory claimed by both Bhutan and China, and was discovered trying to extend it in the direction of the Indian border. The road construction and possible installation of Chinese military outposts in an area close to its border presented a threat to India.

That month, the Indian military reportedly crossed the border into Dolam to interrupt the project, and the two sides have since been locked in a standoff near the Doka La mountain pass. Beijing has consistently maintained that India conducted an illegal border crossing and has demanded that New Delhi's forces withdraw.

But India has yet to budge from Dolam. It is almost unheard of for another nation to make an armed entry into an area claimed by China without consent of the one-party state. Yet Beijing has stuck to a war of words, holding off on any military response.

Twenty years of nationalism

Back behind the Great Firewall, online flaming instantly whiplashed from South Korea -- which is tangling with China over the installation of an anti-missile system -- to India. But recently, an increasing number of posts have noted China's unaggressive response. Net jingoists see the impasse, which has lasted more than a month, as reeking of Beijing's timidity.

Chinese policy over the past two decades can be said to center upon nationalism. A 1996 compilation of anti-U.S. essays titled "China Can Say No" became a national best-seller, leading a growing segment of the public to demand a hard-line foreign policy from the government.

With socialist ideology taking a back seat, China's leadership has purposely exploited the raw patriotic fervor for political ends.

President Xi's oft-repeated vow to shepherd in "the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation" follows this thread, as do the various territorial disputes in the East China Sea and South China Sea, as well as the Soviet-built Liaoning aircraft carrier and the launch of the first homegrown version.

Beijing has signaled to domestic and international audiences that it will not compromise on core territorial interests. In that light, the appearance of the PLA shrinking back against the Indian army could turn out to be a serious political misstep.

No good solution

Yet China cannot afford an armed clash with India. Even if China wins a limited campaign, the international community would interpret the result as an armed territorial grab. That would discredit the nation's "peaceful rise" to a global power, jeopardizing Beijing's cross-border economic Belt and Road Initiative.

And if China lost such a confrontation, Xi's administration would be disgraced just before the twice-a-decade Communist Party congress this fall, where new leaders are selected. Even a paralyzed PLA may appear to be recoiling in the face of a brazen Indian invasion.

When anti-Japanese demonstrations erupted throughout mainland China in September 2012, on the eve of the previous party congress, forces aligned with Xi apparently used the protests against partisans of then-President Hu Jintao. It is suspected that Xi disparaged diplomacy with Japan under Hu as too conciliatory in a bid to gain the backing of hard-liners in the military.

Whatever the truth behind the scenes may be, Xi clearly has consolidated his power base around anti-Japanese nationalism.

By extension, one could speculate that party factions hostile to Xi are behind the online comments critical of China's response to India, and these postings have appeared repeatedly on several platforms since July.

Even without a conspiracy, it would benefit Xi to quell such flashpoints before opportunists use them during the congress to influence the makeup of the next Politburo.

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