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Xi Jinping’s dream team has ‘India’ written all over it. Border specialists handpicked

Xi securing a third term was a forgone conclusion, but the 20th Party Congress is far more pivotal as his consolidation of power isn’t some speculative op-ed.

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General Secretary Xi Jinping rolled out a ‘dream team’ over the past week. The spotlight may have been on the Politburo Standing Committee, but the changes to Central Committee and the Politburo have implications for military and diplomatic relations with India.

Beijing’s focus, though not necessarily new, to ensure the arrival of the ‘Asian century’ has a particular focus on South and Central Asia, and some of the figures Xi has just promoted to steer his agenda have a history of dealing with India.

General Secretary Xi Jinping’s signature on the selection and elevation of candidates is very evident.

Xi ‘personally’ vetted his dream team for the next five years, according to state news agency Xinhua.

The candidates for the 376 full and alternate members of the Central Committee, the powerful Central Commission of Discipline and Inspection, the Politburo, and ultimately the Politburo Standing Committee were approved by Xi.

Also read: Never waste a good crisis—How Xi Jinping removed his rivals, took control of CCP

Those handpicked

Xi’s vetting is most evident in selecting one of the candidates for the Politburo Standing Committee, Ding Xuexiang.

Serving as the director of the General Office of the CCP, Ding has managed Xi’s agenda planning, briefings, and foreign travel.

Ding Xuexiang accompanied Xi Jinping during his visit to Mamallapuram in 2019, along with Yang Jiechi and He Lifeng.

Ding has served as Xi’s personal aide (mishu) and is said to be his ‘most trusted aide’, according to Niel Thomas, senior analyst at the Eurasia Group. Ding’s rise to power, despite lacking experience as a governor or party chief of a province, was made possible because of his personal ties with Xi. In 2007, Xi moved from Zhejiang province to become the party chief in Shanghai, and that’s when Ding worked closely with the former.

Ding had a brief stint (1984-88) as the secretary of the Communist Youth League while at the Shanghai Research Institute of Materials but that hasn’t had any impact on his rise to the PBSC.

There is also talk about He Lifeng taking over as the next premier of China, but we don’t know for sure yet.

General He Weidong is someone who has a history of dealing with border matters related to India. He will serve as the vice chairman of the Central Military Commission and a member of the current Politburo.

General He was the Commander of the Western Theatre Command Ground Force from July 2016 to December 2019. He is likely to have sat on a front seat at the height of the Doklam stand-off in 2017 and may have played a prominent role in the lead-up to the Galwan clashes in Ladakh, in June 2020. General He will replace General Xu Qiliang, who is set to retire and step down from CMC.

General Zhang Youxia, the other vice-chairman alongside General General He, has been allowed to continue on the Central Military Commission despite being well above the retirement age at 72. General Zhang (is said to be close to Xi Jinping and has been appointed because of experience in Taiwan affairs). 

Besides General He Weidong, another military figure who could have an outsized impact on military relations with India is Li Fengbiao, currently serving as the Political Commissar of the Western Theatre Command. He was picked to join the Central Committee.

Between 2019 and 2021, Li served as the Commander of the Strategic Support Force, which is in charge of cyber and information warfare. Li is said to have close ties with Xi, which explains his promotion to the Lieutenant General post in 2017 and quick rise to become a General by 2019. Li will likely be in charge of implementing Xi’s political agenda in the Western Theatre Command as a political commissar.

Yet another General of the PLA has a history with India.

Xu Qiling, who served as the Commander of the Western Theatre Command in 2020, is one of the 205 members of the Central Committee. General Xu currently serves on the Joint Staff Department of the Central Military Commission.

The reason why the military Generals with a history of serving at the border with India might be getting promoted may have to do with the limited pool of officers with experience on the battlefield.

Also read: China sets up new a Politburo with two members who have India history

A new role for Wang Yi

If you follow India’s relations with China, State Councillor and foreign minister Wang Yi would be one of the most recognisable names.

Wang Yi is someone who doesn’t shy away from being called a ‘Wolf Warrior’. The nationalist Chinese call Wang a “silver fox” for his polished but cunning approach to diplomacy.

Fluent in Japanese and trained as a ‘Japan and Asia expert’, Wang has lately spent more time dealing with the US and India.

In July, during the G-20 foreign ministers’ summit in Bali, Wang Yi quoted an Indian poet, “Darkness does not go away on its own; a lamp that has gone out must be rekindled”.

The quote sounds like another one of those by Rabindranath Tagore, but it’s hard to say for sure. But the glimmer of the diplomatic relationship between China and India has faded beyond recognition in the past two years.

Wang Yi is set to step into Yang Jiechi’s shoes as the director of the Central Commission on Foreign Affairs.

The Central Commission on Foreign Affairs, or the foreign affairs commission, isn’t just any other Chinese government panel. Under Xi Jinping, the foreign affairs commission has emerged as a central body for Beijing’s foreign policy planning and execution, replacing the earlier model of leading small groups.

The director of the foreign affairs commission, at the moment Yang Jiechi, has immense authority to drive Chinese foreign policy planning, including even personnel assigned as diplomats for key posts.

Tibet always looms large on the horizon when it comes to China’s relations with India. Despite Hu Chunhua, who has a long history of working in Tibet, being sidelined by Xi and not even making it to the Politburo, other individuals with links to Tibet may play a significant role.

Yan Jinhai, currently serving as the Chairman of the People’s Government of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, is one of the lucky 205 full members of the Central Committee. Yan is an ethnic Tibetan from Qinghai.

With a dream team in place, Xi Jinping feels confident about pushing forward with the ‘China dream’ of rejuvenating the Chinese nation and bringing it to the centre of the international stage.

“The new journey is an expedition full of glory and dreams. The blueprint has been drawn, and the horn has been sounded. We must work hard, move forward bravely, and strive to create a more brilliant tomorrow,” said Xi as he held a meeting along with members of the new Standing Committee and foreign journalists on Sunday.

Xi securing a third term was a foregone conclusion, but the 20th Party Congress is far more pivotal as his consolidation of power isn’t some speculative op-ed. The selection and promotion of his preferred candidates demonstrate that there will be nothing stopping Xi from implementing a long-term agenda that increasingly links Beijing’s internal developments with the rest of the world.

The author is a columnist and a freelance journalist, currently pursuing an MSc in international politics with a focus on China from School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He was previously a China media journalist at the BBC World Service. He tweets @aadilbrar. Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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