A force multiplier
While uncertain in sustainability, the one-party system nevertheless affords China great power in leveraging its military-industrial complex for desired strategic outcomes
Despite sustainability concerns, the Chinese 'model' of the one-party system is highly efficacious in the short-medium term. Unlike democracies which come with changeable governments grappling with necessities of populism, fixed terms and managing contradictory passions in silos — the authoritarian Chinese 'model' drives a focused agenda, with unmatched speed and force-multiplying imperatives that are not possible in participative democracies. The Chinese system can conjoin disparate levers to deliver unmatched scale, economies and collateral benefits that are bereft of any distractions or individual preferences. The seamless integration of the Chinese economy, society, military and diplomacy into the formulation of the Chinese juggernaut, auto-fuels the hegemonic instinct and aspirations of the 'Chinese Century'. In the Chinese realm, there are no moral inhibitions against the admixture of governance levers, as long as it pushes the overriding sovereign agenda.
Oddly, it was the former combatant and later the democratically elected President of the United States, Dwight Eisenhower, who had warned of a 'military-industrial-congressional complex', as it was believed to militate against the freedoms, liberties and peaceful moorings of democracy. China harbours no such democratic compunctions and has mastered the art of deploying 'multi-use' platforms that have social, economic, military and geopolitical underpinnings. The dragon's sharp claws are inevitable in its 'peaceful rise' as it ensnares its 'String of Pearl Ports', one after the other towards 'maintaining the safety of international maritime routes' and incredulously, for 'world stability'!
Chinese expansionism is patently masked in non-military trappings that ultimately sees the advent of Chinese People's Liberation Army/Navy (PLA/N) footprint at places well beyond the contours of Chinese land or maritime borders. The process follows a sophisticated trap that initially looks harmlessly commercial, and then metamorphoses into a 'debt-trap' or compromises the security wherewithal of the host nation, with the Chinese technological infrastructure — all of which works in a calibrated tandem. The ultra-strategic port at Djibouti is a textbook example of a hybrid Chinese 'military-industrial-congressional complex'. It started with generous dole-outs of finance and project developments, which were knowingly unserviceable, followed by an inevitable debt-trap that led to the ceding of strategic facilities in order to manage solvency concerns. Today, a Chinese PLAN base resides cheek-by-jowl to Camp Lemonnier (US Navy Base), Base Aerienne (French Airforce Base) and the Japan Self-Defense Force Base. Soon, live-fire exercises were conducted in a show of strength and a large-scale pier was constructed, long enough to accommodate PLAN's aircraft carriers or nuclear submarines, if needed? What started as an economic carrot, morphed into a barter settlement deal, till finally the Chinese PLAN walked in and started muscle-flexing. An almost similar narrative ensued in Hambantota in Sri Lanka, with a 'debt-trapped' Sri Lankan Government surrendering the strategic port facilities to the Chinese for a 99-year lease! The Gwadar port in Pakistan is a more straight-forward Chinese stranglehold that is unabashedly a security facility, with an unbelievable 91 per cent of all commercial income accruing to the China Overseas Ports Holding Company (COPHC). The deceit of where the commercial/diplomatic lure starts, and when it regresses into a technological, asset or sovereign surrender is the sort of realpolitik capitulation that China can unleash. Towards this, the Chinese politicians, diplomats, military and even the apparently 'private' companies work in complete unison, with no conflict of interest.
It is this murky environment and historical track record that makes 'private' Chinese enterprises like Huawei, ZTW, China Mobile etc., extremely and increasingly suspicion-worthy. The Chinese military industry has made a killing with 'reverse engineering' (read, stealing) technology, intellectual property and managing predatory pricing for their products and services with the wholesome backing of the Chinese Government to ensure winning bids, globally. Chinese organisations with cutting-edge technologies are particularly under the scanner for their potential to jeopardise national security and put critical supply chains at risk. No amount of trail documentation can validate the independence, operational control and leverage that they can enforce, without CCP (Chinese Communist Party) 'arrangement'. State-support, direction and control is a matter of fact for all 'private' Chinese behemoths. Even the 'private' banking organisations are seen extending loans and grants in complete tandem to the Chinese moves in strategic locations, sectors and with the mandated conditionalities.
Chinese deceit and sabotage are very subtle, but sure — India routinely faces the same on its borders. In diplomacy, Delhi faces the emotionless face of Chinese 'veto' in bailing out international terrorists under the garb of 'technicalities'! Putting malicious updates or wiretapping routines to carry out unauthorised surveillance or snooping in any technological or operational system, is an integral part of the Chinese playbook. Its ability to sugarcoat financial, trade, infrastructural and diplomatic 'deals' is unmatched in its realpolitik transactionality and usurpation.
Democracies would always struggle to coalesce and weaponise 'non-military' imperatives and therefore even the relatively radical Indian move like partaking the Gwadar port development in Iran suffers from an acute lack of urgency, direction and wholistic wherewithal that can make the Indian 'deal', irreplaceable. The first and foremost point of the Xi Jinping's 14-point basic governance policy is to 'ensure Chinese Communist Party leadership over all forms of work in China' — the essential import and implication of this manifests in the intermingling of all enterprises and governance arms in China, be it governmental or 'private' owned. The unambiguous delinking in India between the Government and private enterprises is absolute and complete — this contrasts with even mature democracies like the United States wherein some sectors like defence industries, the Government has a visibly higher leverage and strategic alignment. In the Indian context, the situation is worsened by the irreconcilable turf-wars between the civilian bureaucrats, security agencies and professional diplomats who are overlooked by timeserving and often unqualified politicians. To imagine a workable counterpoising strategy to the Chinese 'military-industrial-congressional complex' is far stretched. Recognising this structural deficiency in our governance models is important and thereafter devising a national strategic perspective, plan and sensibility, should follow — short of that, India will always be in reactionary mode, as opposed to controlling its own destiny.
The writer is the former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands & Puducherry. Views expressed are personal