|Speculations are being made about the motives that have driven China’s recent actions on India’s borders. One view is that it is the continuation of that nation’s hegemonic belligerence towards its neighbors and half-brothers like Taiwan and Hong Kong. Assertion of the apocryphal nine-dash line (shortened from the eleven-dash line by Zhou Enlai) against half a dozen countries of Southeast Asia in disregard of the ICJ ruling, the acerbic belligerence towards Taiwan, and tightening of controls in Hong Kong against committed obligations, point to a pattern. The stand off at Doklam was also a link in the series of spats with India, which included objections relating to Arunachal and spray-painting territorial claims on rocks in Ladakh. The other view is that the intensity of this last conflict between the forces of India and China does show that it is not business as usual. It is clear that until the middle of 2019, President Xi Jinping was feeling pretty confident about his hold over the CCP and the PLA. He had made himself secure in office virtually for life. The Belt-and-Road-Initiative (BRI) was his crowning glory and he felt confident enough to assert China’s goal of being the prima donna on the world stage.|
Yet, there were ominous signs. BRI was causing alarm among borrowing nations after the take-over of Sri Lanka’s port by China because that tiny nation defaulted on Chinese loans. Hong Kong has remained a flash point since last year and the New National Security Law is a knee-jerk reaction from Xi. The Chinese economy has been facing a deflationary trend since the end of 2018 and state efforts to boost consumer demand have not produced the desired results. Covid19 and China’s delay in sharing information with the world has led to a clamour from the affected countries for investigation into China’s conduct, moving manufacture out of China, decoupling from that country and to a resurgence of support for Taiwan.
Yet, the proverbial last straw on Xi’s back was the eruption of fresh infections in Beijing and the resultant lockdown of the capital city. This was such a loss of face for the country, the party and for Xi personally that a distraction was badly needed. There were already reports of differences between the Prime Minister and the President. Xi could not allow the murmurs within the party to become louder. Unable to do anything immediately with Taiwan, Hong Kong, Australia or the US, he chose India knowing that India is not yet in a position to have an all-out war with China.
There are calls within India to give it back to China. The trade front has been opened already with measures in place to prevent take-overs, to put quality checks on imports and to encourage domestic production to substitute Chinese products. Chinese firms are being excluded from bids for strategic projects and some existing contracts have been scrapped. These are welcome steps and should have been taken much before the sacrifice of our soldiers. Yet, in the heat of the moment, we should not lose sight of the fact that China is trying to provoke us into a wider conflict so that it can display superiority over Indian defence to the satisfaction of its domestic audience.
A little consideration will show that time is on the side of India. The economic boom in China had been losing its steam since US President Donald Trump called China’s bluff and forced China to sue for peace on tariffs. China’s secrecy and perfidy during the pandemic has led to a loss of goodwill and trust with real consequences for its international trade. The second wave of infections will hit the Chinese economy even harder. Discontent about the loss of lives because of secrecy, the cruel response of the state during the first wave and the reduced employment opportunities even after the lockdown was lifted are further making the party’s hold tenuous. All Xi needs at this time is an armed conflict to rally the Chinese around him again. If we look at the comparative advantages of the two countries for economic development in the coming decades, we find that our biggest asset, in addition to democracy, rule of law, reasonably independent judiciary, and trust of the international community, is demography. China, a nanny state, ruthlessly manipulated the reproductive lives of its citizens causing it to become the fastest ageing country in the world with the exception of Russia, its only friend among large countries.
The one-child policy discouraged the birth of girl children and encouraged parents giving up infant girls for foreign adoption. The change became so deep-rooted that when restrictions were lifted in 2015, except for a spurt in births in 2016, there has been a continuous decline in births from 2017 onwards. Although the state had enthusiastically projected that with the new two-child norm for everyone, there would be 21 million births in 2019, the actual figure was 14.6 million, much lower than even the figure of 17.9 million for 2016. Economic pressures resulting in higher hours of work, expensive baby-sitting and the obligation of looking after two parents and four grandparents (4-2-1) is veering away young persons not only from the idea of a second child but even from one child. Marriage itself is seen as an obstacle to filial duty. Marriage rates have been falling since 2013 and there has been a rise in divorce rates since 2006. Ageing has become China’s Achilles’ heel. The dependency ratio fell till 2010 but has been rising continuously thereafter. It will reach 66 pc by 2050 with one-third of the population supporting the remaining two-third. State revenues will fall hitting expenditure on education, child-and-elderly health care, and infrastructure.
The example of Russia shows that the first casualty of this demographic bomb is defence. In case of China, 4-2-1 is already making it difficult to recruit soldiers. A single child and the six elders dependent on him or her for old-age support do not constitute a recipe for a good soldier. Yet, there is no alternative and 80 pc of combat troops come from one-child families according to Maj. Gen. Liu Mingfu, professor at the National Defence University, Beijing. 4-2-1 has exacerbated wealth inequality. Inheriting from six elders, a rich family’s only child becomes exponentially richer. The rising inequality prompted China’s prime minister’s recent admission that 40 pc of the population has a monthly income of $140, that being the rent for a one-room apartment in cities.
The aging crisis is compounded by the high incidence of smoking. 30 pc of the world’s smokers are in China and they consume 40 pc of the world’s tobacco. The world’s single largest tobacco company, China National Tobacco Corporation, contributes up to 10 pc of the government’s revenue. As a result, the implementation of anti-tobacco measures is half-hearted. Women and children have high exposure to second-hand smoke. While less than 3 pc women smoke, they constitute30% of the lung cancer cases. The incidence of smoking in the 15-24 years age group is rising.
In five years time, we shall start seeing the impact of all these factors on the Chinese economy. Scholars are in agreement that China will get old before it gets rich. China is fudging demographic figures and scholars estimate that against the official figure of 1.6, the actual fertility rate could be just 1.18 and the ageing Chinese population may be declining already. The panic in the Communist Party has led to restrictions on abortions and declarations like “the birth of a baby is not only a matter of family itself, but also a state affair.” The shift from the one-child policy and forced abortions to forced pregnancies will not stop ageing and the steady decline in the working population. India should bide its time.